THAT time of year is here again. Earlier than ever, it seems. The football gossip train used to be limited to two or three months a year, but not any more.
Liverpool are, according to who you listen to, chasing after no fewer than 542,548 new players this summer, with Brendan Rodgers keen to ensure he has at least seven quality players in each position going into the 2013-14 season.
The truth, of course, is somewhat different.
Rodgers’s recruitment team, led by Dave Fallows, is in full swing. The globe is being scoured for new talent, with names being fed back to the manager on a daily basis.
These are arguably the key months when it comes to signing new players. With the transfer window closed until June, now is the time for groundwork, for research, for conversation. Rodgers, no doubt, is being fed bucketloads of information from his analysts, as they look to unearth the players to help Liverpool kick on.
So where are they looking? Or, rather, where should they be looking?
It has been one of the biggest criticisms of Liverpool over the past 20 years; their performance, or lack of, in the transfer market. How many times have Reds fans seen their optimism pricked by an underwhelming capture, an ill-judged loan deal or, increasingly in recent years, the departure of a star name?
It was the club’s inability to adequately stock their squad last summer which ultimately cost them, as they started the new season slowly. The debacle of transfer deadline day in August left a mark at Anfield. Criticism of the club was strong enough to prompt an open, if defensive, letter from owner John W Henry.
Liverpool added Daniel Sturridge to their squad within hours of the transfer window re-opening, but took weeks to confirm the capture of Philippe Coutinho. Fans will hope they will be quicker to pounce come the close-season.
Rodgers may well be bullish about the performance of his current players. “Great”, “wonderful”, “phenomenal” have become almost catchphrases during the Ulsterman’s time on Merseyside, but he will know the key areas which need surgery this summer.
Chief among them, you would have to suspect, would be the centre of his defence.
The imminent retirement of Jamie Carragher, and the inability of either Martin Skrtel or Sebastian Coates to impress Rodgers, makes a new centre-half a priority. Even Daniel Agger, a constant in the Reds’ backline this season, has looked unconvincing at times – especially in recent weeks.
Rodgers’s pursuit of Ashley Williams, his former lieutenant at Swansea, was perhaps one of the more predictable links, but Liverpool’s interest in the Welshman is serious. It has also raised one or two eyebrows.
Certainly, it would be a gamble to spend around £10m on a player who will be 29 in August, and whose pedigree is very much as an underdog. Williams’s form for Swansea has been good, very good in fact, but his elite level experience is decidedly limited. Skrtel and Coates, for example, have plenty more.
The problem could be, though, that there just aren’t that many top quality centre-halves out there. Especially not in the market which Liverpool will be shopping in, a couple of stalls below the top level.
Everton manager David Moyes said recently that central defence is now the toughest position on the field to master, and there would appear to be few obvious standouts around. Certainly not within Liverpool’s scope and price range.
There remains potential within the current squad. Coates, don’t forget, helped Uruguay to a Copa America win back in 2011, while the suspicion is that one or both of Martin Kelly and Andre Wisdom will be moulded into a centre-back, long-term. Lloyd Jones, commanding and vocal with the U18s side, also looks a genuine prospect.
Rodgers, though, cannot afford to wait on potential. Not now. Not at centre-back. His desire to incorporate talented youngsters into his squad is admirable, and has proven a success during his time on Merseyside, but he needs to add a ready-made first-teamer to his defence this summer. Maybe more.
What he would give for his scouts to unearth another Sami Hyypia, who cost a scarcely-believable £2.5m when joining from Willem II in 1999. Hyypia gave a decade of great service to the Reds, representing one of the club’s all-time bargains.
Such bargains are, admittedly, few and far between in the modern age, where knowledge is so easily obtainable, competition is so fierce and hype is all-consuming.
But Rodgers placed great store in the value of restructuring the club’s scouting network last year. It is time for them to deliver.