By Matthew Cotton
The phrase “doing a Spurs” was christened last season.
It means selling a team’s best player, and replacing that player with big-money signings that when integrated together look like a bunch of strangers. Tottenham did precisely that, getting a world-record £85 million from Gareth Bale and replacing them with players that, when integrated, look like they’ve only just met on a pitch at a holiday campsite.
Parallels can be drawn between that Tottenham side, which ended up finishing 6th, and this season’s Liverpool, which last season won plaudits for their attacking play, which nearly led to them winning the title. Liverpool sold their best player in Luis Suarez, who scored 31 of the 101 goals Liverpool scored last season. That earned the club £75 million from Barcelona, as well as the television money obtained from qualifying for this season’s Champions League.
Brendan Rodgers said of Tottenham, “if you spend £100m, you should be competing for the title.” Liverpool’s expenditure on players this summer was £117 million, and Liverpool’s title bid is over already, and look a million miles off qualifying for next season’s Champions League. Offensively, Liverpool look a shadow of the side that nearly won the title. Liverpool reached another pathetic point in this season in a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle, where they generated just three shots in open play and deserved the defeat they got.
So far, it appears Liverpool are doing what Tottenham did last season. Liverpool’s £117 million was spent on:
• Rickie Lambert – £4m
• Emre Can – £10m
• Adam Lallana – £25m
• Dejan Lovren – £20m
• Lazar Markovic – £20m
• Divock Origi – £10m
• Alberto Moreno – £12m
• Mario Balotelli – £16m
• Javier Manquillo – loan
Only one, maybe two at most have been considered to be good purchases, or make a case to be. The rest were either pointless signings, haven’t settled in yet, or are just not up to it. Rodgers’ musings that the team is in transition is not an excuse; Liverpool are fast running out of excuses.
Already we can judge the signings Rodgers made this summer, and it’s not a pretty judgement. In fact since day one his record in the transfer market has been very mixed: signings like Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge were great, but Liverpool have had some average players signed on Rodgers’ watch. It says everything when Fabio Borini is frozen out despite performing well in midweek; Borini was the first player Rodgers signed when he became manager in 2012.
One of the worst judgements will be on Dejan Lovren, the centre back who became Liverpool’s most expensive ever defender. He was brought in to be that commanding leader in the middle of the defence that Liverpool have missed since Jamie Carragher’s retirement in 2013. Lovren looks a million miles off it, and was part of the £50m that Southampton got to replace Lambert, Lallana and Lovren with Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Toby Alderweireld. Ronald Koeman so far, owes Brendan Rodgers a thank-you card. Liverpool would definitely have been better off keeping Daniel Agger, their vice-captain that Liverpool let go to Brondby, albeit that was what Agger wanted. The truth of Agger and Rodgers’ relationship will not be known for a long time.
None of that £117 million went on a goalkeeper either, even though Liverpool let Pepe Reina go to Bayern Munich for £2m. Reina is another one Rodgers fell out with (again, the truth of that will be a secret for a long time) – Liverpool brought in Simon Mignolet last year, and he is struggling and has been for a long time; Mignolet is not the answer to Liverpool’s long-term goalkeeping situation. Some quality keepers were at this year’s World Cup, Keylor Navas of Costa Rica to name one. These good goalkeeping performances were ignored by Liverpool in their foolish waste of the money.
Another long-standing problem Liverpool have ignored is the centre of midfield. Liverpool did sign creative player Adam Lallana, as well as young midfielder Emre Can. Lallana is one of many creative-minded midfielders in the Reds’ squad who can create. However, since Javier Mascherano left in 2010, Liverpool haven’t really had anyone in the team prepared to do the tackling and the protection of the defence and let the creative players do the job they’re in the team to do. Can could be the answer, but it is a lot to expect of him, particularly as he’s been injured.
Another position on the pitch that needed addressing was up front, with Suarez leaving for Barcelona. Liverpool needed a very good replacement, and Mario Balotelli is not up to it. I wouldn’t mind if he put in a shift, and although Rodgers’ tactics are a mess, he could help himself a lot more. One has to hope that once Daniel Sturridge returns, Balotelli will redeem himself – I have been critical, going so far as to say that I never wanted to see him don Liverpool’s shirt again after his half-time shirt swap versus Real Madrid. (At least I am honest about this).
The tactics do not help. Liverpool lost their 4th game this season against Newcastle, and the pressure intensified on Rodgers after it. That’s natural; it’s a results business, and the manager is under pressure when results are not great – and now, unlike 2012, when he came to Liverpool, these are almost exclusively players Rodgers has signed, barring a couple of handfuls at most. The formation with one up front for Liverpool is absolutely pointless, as was much of Liverpool’s play against Newcastle. Suppose it seems appropriate that they left Tyneside pointless too.
Rodgers was praised for his tactical flexibility last season, getting a formation that suited all the Liverpool players. Now he has gone with a formation that is not working and is sticking to it. It smacks of arrogance and an air of “I’m untouchable” after the gongs, and the contract, Rodgers was rewarded with last season. Without intending to make a pun, the buck stops at Rodgers; as it does with all managers.
Liverpool’s owners, FSG, will be very concerned with the current state of affairs at Anfield considering the money they’ve given him. FSG proved with the way they sacked Kenny Dalglish, a Liverpool legend, that they are ruthless when it comes to this, although they probably wouldn’t do it in the middle of a season; although when January comes around and Liverpool need players, what will John W Henry say to Rodgers?
If FSG do sack Rodgers (and I hope things get better so that eventuality does not accrue), I can’t really see any big club wanting to take Rodgers on with his record with an owner’s money. However, I’ve not forgotten Liverpool’s title tilt last season, which is why I have not said “Rodgers Out!” yet, although he needs to improve and rediscover his “Mojo”, because it is a results business by which a manager lives or dies (not literally).
One of the main problems at the monnt is the transfer committee: they’ve identified the players, Ian Ayre has negotiated and it’s run into the hundreds of millions. Meanwhile, clubs like West Ham and Southampton have done what Swansea did under Michael Laudrup, signing not necessarily well-known players for low fees and they’ve been successful as of far. Liverpool don’t need to splash millions on players; they just need to buy the right players that will improve their team.
I’m sorry, but this is turning into a rant and I am not sparing FSG from it either. FSG must be criticised here for their obsession with baseball’s Moneyball method of recruitment. The story of Moneyball covers small-budget Oakland Athletics competing with big-budget teams such as the Boston Red Sox, another arm of FSG’s sports investment. The owners assumed that what worked in baseball would work in Premier League football – Manchester United debunked that by investing millions in Angel Di Maria and Falcao this summer, to name but a few.
Do FSG genuinely own Liverpool because they want to own it, or do they own it as a revenue-making vehicle? At the moment, all things being equal, it looks like the latter, as epitomised by their disgusting ticket prices and their recent move to charge £7 a month for the club’s TV channel.
That all leads me onto my next question: are the players genuinely playing for the shirt, or are they playing because it’s their job, and it’ll lead to more money in their back pockets? One of the biggest mistakes Rodgers made was getting rid of Reina and Agger; they were a rare example of foreign players that bought into the traditions that only local born players such as Carragher and Steven Gerrard might do.
Happily, football seasons are marathons, not a sprint. Hopefully things can improve at Liverpool and most of this article can be disregarded as nonsense. Hopefully everyone – players, managers, the owners – at Liverpool take responsibility, heed a few lessons to try and salvage something from this season.