In his latest column for our new Talking Reds feature, Tomkins Times writer Simon Steers argues that Kolo Toure could prove to be the missing piece in Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool jigsaw.
Missing pieces of the jigsaw?
How do you build a successful football team? The fundamental ingredients are to identify a playing philosophy, recruit the right players that fit into your ideology, and through good coaching and management grow and mould your team until you find a winning formula. Don't be afraid of trial and error, embrace it, it will help you learn about your players and where you need to improve.
In the aftermath of the 3-1 defeat to Southampton last season Brendan Rodgers said "There's no question that [defence] is an area of the field we need to be better at." And this summer Rodgers has said: "In order to breed the consistency needed to give us success, we need to bring in winners - those with the winning mentality."
Ahead of the opening game of the season against Stoke, how do those two areas that Rodgers identified as being missing pieces of the jigsaw from last season stack up as we look forward to a new campaign?
Signing of the season?
When Kolo Toure signed for Liverpool earlier this summer it raised the eyebrows of a few journalists and supporters; but that is perhaps because he hasn't been a regular for City over the past two years, although he did feature in 39 per cent of City's games last season and 37 per cent of the previous title-winning season.
Kolo Toure's pedigree is impressive; more than 336 appearances for Arsenal (including 12 goals and 14 assists - not bad for a central defender) and more than 100 appearances for Manchester City - a title winner at both clubs. Toure is also the captain of his country, where he has clocked up more than 100 appearances and six goals.
Toure has achieved all of this whilst still in his prime. At 32 years old, he is still a great age for a defender. He has shown in pre-season that he still has a good turn of pace - something that has been a feature of his career. In my opinion Toure could potentially be the signing of the season in the Premier League in terms of pure value versus impact.
What can Kolo Toure bring to Liverpool?
One of the things that Brendan Rodgers spoke a lot about last season was a 'winning mentality'. He wanted people in his team that knew how to win; a team of leaders. With Jamie Carragher retiring there was a huge void to fill; Toure is perhaps one of few players that have the right profile and mentality to fill that Carragher-sized hole.
Toure's leadership qualities and experience will be essential to Liverpool this season. We have one of the youngest squads in the Premier League, and it will need our senior players to nurture and guide it as it continues to mature.
One of the great things about Toure is that he isn't just a leader; he is also a winner. He has won the league with two different clubs. He knows what it takes to win; it is that mentality and experience that is going to add huge value to the squad going into the season.
But it isn't just his experience that will be important. Toure is still a top-class international footballer. He is an organiser in defence, he has good positional sense. His pace will allow us to play a higher line in games; giving us more options as we push further up the pitch. He is also comfortable on the ball, and has shown that he can chip in with a goal or two.
Toure is also a versatile player; he started his career as a defensive midfielder so he knows how to play that role as well.
The defensive midfielder
Whilst Toure can drop into the role of defensive midfielder it is another player, Lucas, that has a big season ahead in that position. The defensive midfield role has become an important part of modern day football. It is essentially the 'holding' role, the deepest lying midfielder whose job it is to shield the defence.
A good defensive midfielder will be an effective destroyer first and foremost; breaking up play and having the anticipation and positional awareness to stop opposition attacks in midfield. This is a role that Lucas has grown into; and has performed well in. Lucas has had terrible luck with injuries in the past two years, and after a good pre-season the team will benefit from a fully fit defensive midfielder offering that protection.
The acquisition of Toure and return of a fully fit Lucas will give us some extra solidity and different options in defence this season.
Leadership and a winning mentality
If you look at the Manchester United teams that have dominated the Premier League, they have all been built using the same formula. The style and playing philosophy has not changed. The by-product of winning is developing a winning mentality. United have won the Championship on occasion not because they have had the best players or team, but because they go out expecting to win football matches.
When managers talk about leaders on the field and a winning mentality they recognise it as a quality that is essential if you want to be competitive and successful.
Leadership is about responsibility and accountability; and that is what you want to see in your players. You want players that are going to be hungry for the ball, and not to be afraid to try something difficult. Leadership is also about a strong mentality; a will to win.
Rodgers has the luxury of being able to field three international captains in his team against Stoke. Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger and Kolo Toure have all captained their countries. One of the most promising signs in our current squad is that there also looks to be some real leaders coming through. The three I think that have looked particularly impressive are Jordan Henderson, Andre Wisdom and Philippe Coutinho (for different qualities).
If you want strong leaders on the pitch, you need a strong leader off it as well. It is the manager's role to give his players a clear vision of what he wants. Rodgers comes across as a strong leader. He talks with authority and clarity and is not afraid to take difficult decisions or duck difficult issues. He backs his players; and he has a clear vision of the type of football he wants to see.
One of Rodgers' biggest qualities I think is his intensity; he always seems to be immersed in whatever subject he is talking about. That is something that will transmit itself to the players. If your manager has that intense desire to succeed, then it will filter itself through the squad.
Rodgers' vision of one club is a good insight into his leadership style. He is a believer in unity being a foundation for success, and that the whole should always be greater than the sum of its parts. That vision is very much keeping true to Liverpool's identity and traditions.
Building a winning mentality doesn't come with an instruction book. It has almost become a myth in football; but the importance of having that winning culture in and around your team is the holy grail for any club.
One of my favourite non-Liverpool teams over the past decade has been the Arsenal 'invincible' side of 2003-04. There are a lot of parallels with that Arsenal side and what Rodgers is looking to do at Liverpool in terms of that mix of style and steel. During that 'invincible' season Toure played 36 games for Arsenal as they conceded just 26 goals.
Having players like Toure in and around the club - with that kind of insight and experience - will help to breed a winning mentality that Rodgers is striving for.
The season ahead
I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the season ahead. I think both Toure and a fully fit Lucas will contribute to more defensive solidity; whilst the evolution of our attacking play will continue to flourish.
We have a good mix of youth and experience in the squad, and the young players that came in to the side last season now have another year of experience and are a year closer to football maturity.
We are gradually building a squad that will grow together; how quickly we can develop that winning mentality will be key for what we can achieve this season and beyond.