By James Gibbons
On the morning of Sunday 22nd March everything was looking good. Beat Man Utd this afternoon, we’re in the top four and gunning for second.
Two games later and the crisis was setting in. Defeats to United and Arsenal sent our season spinning into freefall. Just two wins in our remaining seven league matches, culminating in that humiliating 6-1 hammering at Stoke, leaving us finishing a disappointing sixth, and an appalling performance at Wembley in the FA cup semi final, and we end the season a club in crisis.
The owners, the manager and 20 year old Raheem Sterling, and his knob of an agent, are all being blamed for our decline. Mid table obscurity awaits unless Rodgers is replaced pronto, well according to the social media brigade who just two months before the season ended, on that Sunday morning in late March, were boasting how great our future was with this young, exciting team.
But is it really that bad? Whilst things were not as good as we thought they were on that Sunday morning, maybe they are not as bad now as some would have us believe. Is the current squad really so bad that we need a complete overhaul?
The main thing that stands out about our current squad is its youth, and with youth often comes inconsistency, especially over a long season. With more experience, and in some cases adapting to the English game in English conditions, many of these players will surely improve. Players like Markovic, Moreno, Manquillo, and Ibe have shown potential, whilst the next crop, Sinclair, Ojo etc. have shown enough at lower levels to suggest they may soon be ready to challenge for first team spots.
We purchased eight players at the start of this past season, and from the team that came so close to winning the league the previous season only one first team regular had departed, albeit by far our stand out player (I haven’t forgot Agger, but he was hardly played in the second half of the season). History shows that it can often take at least a season for new players to fit into a new club, so maybe we should really be looking at players like Lallana, whose first season was blighted by injuries but who still looked the part at times, and Lovren with hope for next season.
This first season settling in period for some players was not helped by the fact that injuries to key players meant we were more reliant on the new players than we would have liked to have been. Sturridge is the most obvious, but also Flanagan, Lucas and Sakho, who looked like being one of those players who came good in his second season, missed big chunks of the season.
We did have a few success stories, but even these are players who will still, hopefully, continue to improve. Coutinho, Can and Sterling all demonstrated what stars they could become. I personally think it will be a sad day for the club if Sterling moves on, but it does appear inevitable.
And of course those last few weeks of the season contained a couple of major distractions. The Sterling saga is sad all round, and has not been good for the team, but I’ll leave that one there.
The other distraction has been the Gerrard farewell. It has often been said that no player is bigger than the club, but at times this past season, especially since his departure was announced, Gerrard has appeared to be an accepted exception to this rule. On the pitch Gerrard has had a bad season, by far the worst of his long and glorious career. At times I think he has been selected because of who he is, or was, and not because of current form. I am not a fan of statistics in football, but I believe they do back me up in terms of results when he played. It was often stated how good our results were when Lucas played or when Henderson was captain, and of course it was when these happened that generally Gerrard didn’t play. Now I’m not blaming Gerrard, he has every right to carry on until the manager doesn’t pick him. In this respect I think Rodgers maybe bottled out of making the decision not to pick him at times. But I do feel it was maybe one season too many for Gerrard, and his departure will give the manager more freedom to pick his best side. To be fair to Rodgers can you imagine the outcry if he had not picked Gerrard towards the end of the season?
I do believe that the squad needs some new additions, but these should be to supplement the core of a squad we have now, not the full overhaul some are suggesting.
Strikers are clearly a priority. If Sturridge can get over his injury problems, and it’s a big if, we might have one world class striker. I say might because Sturridge is still to prove that he wasn’t just another beneficiary of the incredible talent of Suarez. But the signings of Balotelli and Lambert have both been disasters. I never understood the Lambert signing, a strange one to say the least, but I’m sure he brings some positives off the field if not on it. The same cannot be said of Balotelli, I think he has been another distraction this season, both on and off the field, another player who Rodgers kept picking when it clearly wasn’t working. In defence of Balotelli, Rodgers never played to his strengths, but to do that may have meant ditching the strengths of several other members of the squad. Maybe we should sell him to Twitter, as he does seem more productive on social media than on the football field. We know we have Origi coming, but he must be seen as one for the future. So we really need 2 strikers who can score goals.
A goalkeeper to challenge Mignolet is also essential, Mignolet needs to know that another run of bad form like last season and it won’t be so easy to get back in the team.
Full backs are a weakness if we play a back four. Hopefully Moreno will learn on the left, but right back is suspect, especially with Flanagan out long term.
Finally an injection of experience is needed, players to calm the ship in stormy waters. In this respect I believe Milner will be a good signing.
Whilst I have tried to argue that the future may not be that gloomy, I will end with what I believe to be the real question mark hanging over our squad, the manager. When he took us to second in 2013/14 he was being hailed as the Messiah. Clearly he was another beneficiary of the genius of Suarez, although it must be said he played a big part in getting the best out of Suarez, and some of his management last season was very naive. His constant tinkering with starting line ups and in game tactics were almost laughable at times, and his liking for playing players out of position has surely hampered the progress of some players. I believe that it is the way Rodgers has messed Sterling about on the field that is at the root of the youngster wanting out. The biggest worry though is that he shows no sign of learning from his mistakes, and stubbornness would appear to be one of his biggest weaknesses.
I would not have been disappointed to see Rodgers leave earlier this week, if I had to choose between him or Sterling to stay I would certainly go for Sterling, but it appears that he is going nowhere for now. But he must learn the lessons of this past season. If he does he could still end up being the Messiah, if not I fear we are in for yet another season of frustration.