By Samuel Williams
Brendan Rodgers is clinging to his job by a thread. Of that, there is little doubt. At the start of the season, Liverpool’s fan base appeared divided over his future; for some, Rodgers remained the chosen one, the man capable of leading Liverpool back to the glory days through his philosophy of sharp intricate passing mixed with a heavy forward press. These people pointed to the success of the 2013/14 season and believe that our performances that year indicate the fact that the Rodgers template is the correct method.
Equally, there is a sizeable section of the fanbase who saw Rodgers as a charlatan. For these fans, Rodgers is an impostor, a man capable of easy media platitudes, occasionally baffling technical jargon and seemingly innovative tactical tinkering, but one who struggles with the business of actually managing the team and coaxing out its full potential. His detractors often point to Rodgers’ signings, and his record in this department cannot be ignored. A spend of nearly £300m, for a return of no trophies and just one top 4 finish in 3 seasons does not cast the manager in a particularly positive light. Included in that spend are undoubted long term failures, such as Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Joe Allen; the manager is further weakened by the disastrous first season endured by expensive additions such as Dejan Lovren, Mario Balotelli,Lazar Markovic and, to a lesser extent, Adam Lallana. From this point of view, the failures of last season are emphasised, reiterated and then reinforced some more, all with the aim of providing a noose for the managers neck.
Of the two interpretations, it is now clear that the latter is more accurate. While we are only 7 league games into the season, it is clear that the manager’s days are numbered, largely due to the fact that the aforementioned ‘philosophy’ seems to have been completely superseded by a distinct and alarming malaise around the team, to the extent where they now have little to no identity, and no clear plan as to how to produce results.
Rodgers does have some positive qualities, particularly his success on the training ground. It is clear that he has in the past, improved players, although this strength doesn’t appear to stretch to the defenders in the squad. Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez are the most obvious beneficiaries of Rodgers’ tutelage, with the development of the latter two resulting in an enormous profit for the club upon their eventual sale. Coutinho and Sturridge have also become better players under Rodgers, while Henderson has been transformed from the depths of the transfer list into the club captain.
However, the truth of the above cannot hide the glaring weaknesses in Rodgers’ management. This weakness largely manifests itself in two forms; an inability to set up a coherent defensive unit, and a worrying tendency to crumble under pressure and make scrambled decisions that adversely affect the team.
The first issue is highlighted by bare statistics. Liverpool have shipped 43, 50 and 48 goals in Rodgers’ 3 seasons at the helm. So far this season we have conceded 9 in 7 games, and are once again on course to give away more than 40 goals. This figure is simply unacceptable. It makes a serious, sustained top 4 challenge almost impossible unless the attacking players fire spectacularly, as happened in 2013/14. However, a repeat of that so far has not occurred, and also cannot be expected, this term (as indeed it wasn’t last season). Firstly, the multitude of goals produced in that campaign relied enormously on Suarez; Liverpool currently have no-one even close to Suarez’s level, despite the sumptuous talent often displayed by Coutinho. Sturridge’s fitness cannot be relied on, and he is in any case a diminished player without Suarez, who’s brilliant movement and insatiable energy afforded the England forward the space he requires in order to flourish. Christian Benteke has already shown that he will, at best, take time to settle and adapt to Liverpool’s style of play, if this is indeed possible at all. Roberto Firmino, another new signing, has shown flashes of ability but also reinforced the notion that other clubs were wise to avoid spending £29 million on him. The result of these factors is that the defence must become much more watertight. At present, it is difficult to see exactly how this will be achieved. Rodgers’ summer additions were largely been made up of midfielders and attacking players; this is not a criticism, since a lack of goals was a serious problem last season, but the likes of Firmino, Benteke, Milner, Origi and Ings will do very little to sure up a leaky backline. Nathaniel Clyne certainly provides an upgrade on the hapless Glen Johnson, but this still does not detract from the fundamental weakness of Liverpool’s centre backs, and the absence of a top class defensive midfielder at the club.
Martin Skrtel is a player that is somehow only just receiving the ire of most fans, despite being the one constant in our seemingly interminably poor defence under Rodgers’ management. Skrtel simply does not inspire confidence, portraying a nervous air, with a mistake always looming underneath the surface of his apparently rugged style of play. It is one of the great mysteries of modern football that he has never been dropped. To exacerbate the issue, he struggles further when paired with Lovren, who is a similar player; both possess the required raw defensive attributes of height, strength and aggression, but both are also undermined by a fatal lack of nous and defensive knowhow. The result of this is that mistakes are inevitable, and that when they occur, errors are correspondingly costly due to a lack of defensive cover. An upgrade on Skrtel was required this summer, but this has been overlooked by the recruitment team, the damaging consequences of which has already been evidenced this season (a player of Rudy Gestede’s limited quality should never be scoring a brace at Anfield).
Another of Rodgers’ faults that mystifies much of the fanbase is his lack of faith in Mamadou Sakho. Sakho is the best defender in the squad. While this is somewhat of a backhanded compliment and though he may appear ungainly on the ball, the statistics prove that he rarely gives it away and it is also undeniable that in pure defensive terms, he is the best we have. He is not world class, but is only rarely directly beaten either on the ground or in the air, which is a clear contrast to the litany of errors made by his central defensive colleagues. Despite this, Rodgers’ shows continued and baffling preference for Lovren and Skrtel when playing with a back 4; a personal opinion is that the best long term partnership would be Sakho alongside Lovren, as shown by their commanding performances in our 3-0 win at Tottenham last season, a match which was probably the best result of the campaign. After this, the two never played together as a pair again, a fact which must be seen as a damning indictment of the manager, particularly when considered that the victory over Spurs saw the deployment of the 4-4-2 diamond, a system which has also been consigned to history by Rodgers.
The above point leads neatly into the second major flaw undermining Rodgers’ tenure, namely his tendency to make scrambled decisions when under pressure. The effect of this is highlighted by the fact that, under his management, Liverpool have been an extremely streaky team, one which can be irresistible once confidence and momentum is gained, but can also slip into prolonged periods of poor form after some bad results. Last season saw numerous examples of questionable management decisions.
To start with, Liverpool failed to plan for the departure of Suarez, and as such were left scrambling around for a striker towards the end of the transfer window. This lack of foresight ultimately led to the desperate and disastrous signing of Balotelli, who simply could not adapt to the manager’s desired style of play. As results began to slip throughout the autumn, Rodgers was unable to arrest the slide and made a number of bizarre decisions along the way, such as a refusal to break up the calamitous Skrtel-Lovren partnership and on some occasions (such as in a 1-0 away defeat to Newcastle) deploying Glen Johnson as a centre back in a back three. There was also the infamous ‘weakened team’ against Real Madrid, which also resulted in defeat (although against a team of Real’s calibre, this is somewhat easier to stomach). The deployment of Ings and Firmino as auxiliary wing-backs in the recent defeat to Man United, is another example of this skewed thinking while under pressure. To his credit, the manager did eventually reverse the poor form last season by switching to a 3-4-2-1 formation, utilising Emre Can at centre back and coaxing the best out of Coutinho by shifting him to a more central position behind Raheem Sterling, a makeshift centre forward, but a player with much better movement than any of Liverpool’s other striking options. This certainly worked for a time, as the Reds embarked on a 13 game unbeaten run, although the fact that it took 3 months to find a solution further highlights Liverpool’s status as an extremely streaky team under Rodgers and suggests that he is not the marvellous tactician that he often claims to be. It appeared at this point that Rodgers had cracked the code, and that the poor form of the autumn had been a mere blip as the players adapted to life after Suarez. However, a 2-1 defeat to Man Utd at Anfield in March proved the catalyst for yet another slump in form, as the team fell apart under the pressure of chasing a top 4 finish. Liverpool meekly surrendered in a vital game away at Arsenal, with an even worse performance following in the FA Cup Semi-Final defeat to Aston Villa. Both these results betrayed another worrying theme of Rodgers’ reign as Liverpool manager, which is a tendency to crumble when the pressure becomes greatest.
It is unfair to make a blanket generalisation about Rodgers’ Liverpool not performing against the big sides, because this is patently untrue; magnificent victories against Man Utd, Arsenal and Everton in 2013/14 are supplemented by a fabulous performance against Man City last season, as well as an impressive record against Tottenham. Nevertheless, it is also inarguable that Liverpool have disintegrated at the crucial moment in recent seasons. The vital aspect of the aforementioned victories is that they set up a platform from which to achieve the club’s goals; the failure to achieve these goals came as the team wilted under pressure during games in which said aims could actually be realised. This is particularly evident in the case of the defeat to Chelsea in 2013/14, a match in which the manager displayed gross naivety in attempting to win at all costs, when a draw would have sufficed and likely led to the title. The tendency to collapse under pressure was further displayed during the defeats to Man Utd, Arsenal and Aston Villa last season, with these arguably of greater concern since they suggested that the manager had failed to learn from previous mistakes; a lack of leaders in the team is still clearly a gargantuan problem.
This lack of leadership under pressure is worsened by Rodgers’ responses to setbacks, which tend to culminate in frantic formation changes in what can only be described as a desperate roll of the dice. In the cup semi-final alone, Liverpool used 4 different formations and shifted Gerrard into 3 contrasting midfield roles, all of which were unsuccessful and contributed to an increasingly disjointed display. Further evidence can be seen in the chastening 6-1 defeat to Stoke on the final day of the season, a performance which was certainly the worst by a Liverpool side in the past decade (at the very least); the Reds began the game with no recognised striker and 7 midfielders in the XI, with Gerrard eventually ending up in the centre forward role. A clear thinking manager, with a cool head under pressure (someone name Ancelotti, perhaps?) would surely never have sent out such an unbalanced side. Clarity of thinking appears to be in short supply on such tense occasions, a factor which is a clear blot on Brendan Rodgers’ managerial copybook.
The flaws of last season were evident. The squad had explicit problems that were widely recognised by many. Unfortunately, these don’t appear to have been rectified, casting further doubt on the sheer competence of both Rodgers and the entire management structure. Starting in defence, there are obvious deficiencies at centre back, as mentioned above. None of Liverpool’s four senior central defenders are top class, while the decision to renew Kolo Toure’s contract was highly questionable, given his age and increasingly abysmal performances last season (against Arsenal he produced one of the worst centre back displays in recent history). It is also true that Simon Mignolet while competent, particularly as a shot-stopper (the less said about his command of the area, the better) is not a goalkeeper to really challenge the very best in the league and remains far too mistake-prone. Adam Bogdan is very much a second choice keeper, although is probably an upgrade on the hopeless Brad Jones. At full back, Clyne is a solid player who has already improved the right flank. Alternatives are thin on the ground, however, with Jon Flanagan still out injured and Andre Wisdom once again sent out on loan, in a move that suggests that the coaching team are still unconvinced of his ability. As such, teenager Joe Gomez is the only real back up in the squad, and he himself is not a specialist full back by trade. With Jose Enrique’s dreadful recent performances rendering him entirely out of favour (unfortunately he couldn’t be sold in the summer), Clyne, Gomez and Alberto Moreno are the only full back options in the squad. An injury to any of them could result in highly damaging burnout for the other two, particularly considering the number of games Liverpool are due to play this season because of involvement in the Europa League. To add to this, Gomez, at 18 and with less than one full season as a professional under his belt, should realistically only be playing a handful of matches this season; for all his talent, he is not ready to hold down a regular place in Liverpool’s first team. This is, in summary, exceptionally poor management.
Moving into midfield, James Milner is a solid signing capable of performing well in a number of different roles. However, questions remain as to his suitability to play alongside Henderson, with both offering industry, energy and tidy passing, but neither displaying defence splitting creativity or the ability to shield the defence by consistently breaking up opposition attacks. This may necessitate the deployment of a more natural holding midfielder, such as Lucas or Can (although it can be questioned whether Can is a naturally defensive midfielder in any case), which in turn limits the Reds attacking options, thereby restricting the potential game time for a number of Liverpool’s array of attacking midfielders.
Furthermore, there must be serious questions over the pedigree of the defensive midfield options. Lucas developed into a fine player before being struck with two serious injuries; his mobility has never fully returned and as such he is often half a yard off the pace, a deficiency which must ultimately consign him to a place as a backup option. Emre Can, meanwhile, is without doubt a player of huge ability and potential. Despite this, questions must be raised regarding his readiness for a role in defensive midfield, as at 21, he probably lacks the experience demanded by such a crucial position. Furthermore, one of Can’s best qualities is his ability to drive at opposition defences after ‘breaking the lines’ in midfield. A holding role robs him of the freedom to do just that, thereby diminishing his all-round game. The other option is Joe Allen, who has shown flashes of ability (his performance against Man City last season being a real standout) but regularly fails to impose himself on games and often lacks the physicality required to adequately shield the defence; the suspicion remains that Allen is most suited to a ‘shuttling’ role as a cog in a midfield three, rather than as a specialist defensive midfielder. Due to these issues, a holding midfielder would have greatly strengthened the Liverpool squad, but unfortunately, signing one has never appeared to be on the manager’s radar. The result is that in games against lower half sides, Liverpool have and will line up with a midfield of Milner and Henderson (when fit) and while both are good players, there is a danger that they are too similar. As such, the decision to assure Milner a starting central midfield role appears to be another poor move by Rodgers and adds to the notion that he has simply failed to build a balanced squad.
Of the attacking midfielders, there are plenty of players with lots to prove. Philippe Coutinho is an incredibly talented footballer who is now the best player at the club. He was brilliant at times last season, but must deliver more consistently if he is to help propel us to a top four finish. A tally of 5 league goals last season does not do justice to his ability, and the managers’ lauding of his quality does him no favours. Adam Lallana is a highly frustrating player. He is clearly a talented footballer, and to use Rodgers-speak, is an accomplished ‘technician’. However, Lallana is constantly undermined by niggling injuries and inconsistent performances, and he has a tendency to simply drift out of games, one which must be addressed if he is to be successful. This is probably a make or break season for the 27 year old, who was an expensive purchase and therefore must deliver consistently strong performances; so far, he has failed to deliver, with his goal against Bordeaux (the highlight of his campaign so far) frustratingly displaying his obvious ability; unfortunately it is shown all too fleetingly. The fact remains that Rodgers is failing to coax the best out of his plethora of talented attacking midfielders, with Roberto Firmino appearing so far to be yet another case in point, particularly considering that he has been played out of position. Furthermore, the decision to send Lazar Markovic on loan was truly baffling to many. Although he struggled last season and was in and out of the team and was deployed in a variety of roles, Markovic cost £20 million and showed flashes of class; he should surely have been persisted with in his attempts to gain the subtlety required to regularly unlock defences. Jordon Ibe, who enjoyed an impressive pre-season and offers pace and directness on the right wing, is another with ability who has gone backwards so far this campaign. He is still raw – that is inevitable for a 19 year old – but has shown enough in his limited appearances so far to suggest at immense potential. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he is yet to register a goal or an assist for the club, something which highlights the need for an improvement to his end product. Unfortunately this will not be found on the bench, to where Rodgers has banished him for the last few games, or at left wing back, where he started against FC Sion. Joao Teixeira is another alternative in the squad, with the 22 year old enjoying a good season on loan at Brighton last year. The midfielder is another player of undoubted technical talent, but at present will never reach the required standard due to a lack of game time. His absence from the team against Carlisle was another bizarre decision from the manager, as was that of the highly promising Jordan Rossiter (admittedly a defensive rather than offensive midfielder), who has performed admirably in both Europa League games this season.
In attack, the prospects appear, on paper at least, to be more promising than last season. It is no secret that Rodgers desires pacey forwards with good movement and the ability to stretch defences. In Danny Ings, Divock Origi and, when fit, Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool have forwards who provide exactly that. There may be questions regarding the ability of the former two players, with Origi in particular a far from polished striker. Ings too, while probably a superior player to Fabio Borini, is not a top level forward and return of around 10 goals from the former Burnley man must be considered a success. However, both are certainly better stylistic fits than either Balotelli or the recently departed Rickie Lambert, neither of whom are capable of running in behind defences, and as such congest the space afforded to the likes of Coutinho and Lallana, thereby diminishing their effectiveness. This should not be a problem faced by Ings or Origi, and therefore, at the very least, their presence should give more opportunity for Liverpool’s multitude of attacking midfielders to flourish. Indeed, there were clear signs of this from Ings both against Norwich and Aston Villa, but the unresolved issue of our calamity defence prevented us achieving the required 6 points from these two outings
Regarding Christian Benteke, the inverse analysis arises. His ability is not in doubt, with an impressive record in a poor Aston Villa side testament to his knack for finding the net. For further evidence, we need look no further than the wonderful goal he scored at Old Trafford, in the midst of yet another dreadful team performance. The issue with Benteke is over his suitability for Liverpool’s style of play, or at least the ‘style’ supposedly favoured by Rodgers over the last 3 seasons. While comparisons with the Reds last £30 million plus striker, Andy Carroll, are unfair – Benteke is far more mobile and a more rounded player, with much greater Premier League pedigree – he is still a forward who thrives to a greater extent on crosses rather than the type of through balls provided by Coutinho et al. Quite where this service will derive from is unclear. With Gerrard leaving, the most proficient crosser of the ball at the club is probably Milner, and he has been – ludicrously – promised a key role in central midfield. It is true that both Moreno and Clyne are attacking full backs, but this alone is unlikely to fully utilise Benteke’s strengths. The best bet would likely be to pair Benteke with Sturridge, with their combined pace and power certain to be a handful for most defences. The problem here, of course, is Sturridge’s fitness, which simply cannot be relied upon. Therefore, there are clear issues in attack that Rodgers has to address, although serious questions must be raised as to why the decision was made to sign a player that requires a complete change of style and system in order to produce his best.
Again, this provides evidence of scrambled thinking on behalf of the Ulsterman. It is this flaw which must surely cost the manager his job; Liverpool fans seem to have had a monopoly on the phrase “he’s lost the plot” over the last few weeks and months. Unfortunately, the mistakes are just too numerous. Our squad is not significantly worse or better than it was 3 years ago – it is still very average – a fact which implies stagnation. We have gained depth but lost both star quality and leadership, particularly the ‘character’ that Rodgers is so fond of referencing. The whole club now stinks of mediocrity. Rodgers’ jubilation at a narrow win over Aston Villa starkly illuminates this fact. When a parody twitter account becomes an almost perfect replica of its subject, the end is nigh. Now is that time.