Can Brendan Rodgers Arrest Liverpool’s Slide?
As the great Bill Shankly once observed: “If you are first, you are first. If you are second, you are nothing”. It is anyone’s guess as to what the late Scot would make of Liverpool’s current predicament. The eighteen-time league champions, who won their fifth European Cup just seven years ago, have finished the previous three seasons in 7th, 6th and 8th position, and have so far secured a single point from a possible nine this campaign. Brendan Rodgers, it appears, has his work cut out.
Appointed after a marvellously fruitful two years at Swansea, Rodgers has slowly attempted to implement his tiki-taka, possession-based game at Anfield. The style is too often mistakenly labelled ‘attacking’: although it can produce moments of scintillating beauty going forward, tiki-taka is based on the control of games through domination of the ball, with the simple and underlying logic being that it is impossible to concede a goal when in possession. Thus, the system is as much about defending and organisation as it is scoring; Rodgers himself has spoken of a “default mechanism which makes us hard to beat”. Always highly-rated as a coach and with José Mourinho listed amongst his advocates, the Ulsterman broke into management in 2008 with Watford, steering them away from the relegation zone and into the comfort of mid-table. After a brief and unsuccessful spell at Reading, Rodgers was installed as manager of Swansea in July 2010, leading the Swans to promotion in his first season before debuting in the Premier League with an 11th place finish.
The last few years have been somewhat less successful for Liverpool. Under Rafael Benitez, the Reds finished just four points behind champions Manchester United in 2008/09, an achievement that appeared to be an encouraging first step, a platform on which they could build until the league title returned to Merseyside once more. Twelve months later however, Benitez had departed, leaving behind a Liverpool side who had this time finished twenty-three points behind Carlo Ancelotti’s table-topping Chelsea. The slump that season, widely attributed to the sale of Xabi Alonso and the over-reliance on Fernando Torres, has yet to be reversed. Roy Hodgson was employed after his Europa League miracle with Fulham but sacked six months later with Liverpool languishing in mid-table, whilst Kenny Dalglish, despite lifting the Reds to 6th as Hodgson’s mid-season replacement, oversaw their worst league finish in eighteen years after being handed the job permanently.
Quite why Liverpool have fallen so far from that lone title challenge is intriguing. Perhaps instead of the foundational stepping stone assumed at the time, that campaign was actually the aberration: a sole season of overachievement, the absolute pinnacle of Benitez’s tenure. Liverpool were consistent qualifiers for the Champions League in all but the Spaniard’s final season though, and although Manchester City’s riches have transformed them into near-certain participators in the continent’s principal competition and Tottenham Hotspur have provided a stronger, more durable challenge than Aston Villa and Everton could ever muster, a glance at Liverpool’s recent final points tallies affirms an alarming slide from the comparatively heady days under Benitez.
The aforementioned sale of Alonso remains inexplicable and arguably Benitez’ biggest error at Anfield, yet much has happened since then and, as exceptional a midfielder as Alonso is, his absence is not responsible for Liverpool’s current struggles. Ownership affairs cast a dark cloud over the club, particularly at the start of Hodgson’s incumbency, and Benitez and Dalglish were particularly guilty of wasting money on overpriced players: Robbie Keane and Alberto Aquilani were two of Benitez’s most disappointing and expensive acquisitions, whilst Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing cost Dalglish around £75 million. Fenway Sports Group (FSG), Liverpool’s parent company, are seeking to eliminate the payment of such inordinate fees, and it is likely that the current staff will be required to slowly correct the mistakes of the past, whilst maintaining an acceptable level of performance on the field. It may yet get worse before it gets better.
Elsewhere, a conclusion to the stadium conundrum that has crippled the club in recent years seems as far away as ever. Plans to build a new 60,000-capacity ground in nearby Stanley Park have been shelved after former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett missed a funding deadline in 2006, with FSG openly admitting that they favour the redevelopment of Anfield. Spiritually and sentimentally, this appears the better option, but logistics disagree: although there would be scope for a slight increase in capacity through the extension of the Anfield Road end, this would be the limit, with no expansions whatsoever possible in the future. With Financial Fair Play on the horizon, it is essential that Liverpool maximise their income through ticket sales and corporate facilities, but opportunities for the installation of the latter would be limited at the Reds’ current home; moreover, it would also be significantly easier to sell the naming rights for a new stadium. Liverpool generated £41 million from match-days in 2010/11, a staggering £52 million less than Arsenal, whilst Manchester United attained £109 million from the same source, a figure equal to a third of their overall revenue for the season. This is the simple reason why Liverpool overtly covet a larger ground, the figures indicating that even a multiple European Cup-winning side with supporter groups worldwide requires a steady stream of income on a Saturday afternoon. The worrying truth, though, is that ten years on from the initiation of plans to build a new arena in Stanley Park, the matter is no closer to resolution.
On the field, meanwhile, it is essential that Rodgers pursues evolution over revolution. The excellent Joe Allen has lubricated the transition, the Welshman having already proven himself adept at the qualities – namely close control, speed of thought and space creation – associated with the tiki-taka approach. Fabio Borini, signed from Roma, has also previously worked under Rodgers at Swansea, whilst Jonjo Shelvey and Raheem Sterling have, somewhat unexpectedly, impressed early on. There have already been signs of Rodgers’ tactical tweaks, furthermore: Liverpool’s passing at the back gave them large periods of control in the draw with Manchester City, inviting the visitors to close them down high up the pitch and then exploiting the space in behind, whilst the selection of Sebástien Coates ahead of fellow deputy Jamie Carragher in said match indicates a preference for centre-halves comfortable in possession and quick enough to play in the high defensive line that the young manager desires.
Issues of compatibility with some members of the first-team squad remain, however, and how Rodgers imposes his beliefs whilst simultaneously handling such quandaries will prove vital. Although it is both lazy and immensely simplistic to use Steven Gerrard’s concession of possession before Lukas Podolski’s opener for Arsenal or Martin Skrtel’s under-hit backpass in the game with City as evidence of an inability to adapt – such basic errors should not be made under any managerial philosophy – mistakes with the ball cannot be entirely disregarded when the manager has explicitly demanded short, patient passing.
It would be ludicrously premature to write off Gerrard so early into Rodgers’ tenure, yet his personal playing style does appear antithetical to the equanimity that the Northern Irelander encourages: picture Liverpool’s captain and you think of long, sweeping passes and sudden bursts of energy, not measured intricacy and tactical discipline. Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll were both dispensed of, presumably for not corresponding with the style, and it is entirely plausible that Rodgers’ first choice midfield three could consist of Allen, Lucas Leiva and Nuri Sahin, leaving Gerrard in unfamiliar territory. The prevalent criticism of André Villas-Boas was that he attempted to change things too quickly at Chelsea, alienating some of the squad’s more senior players by occasionally demoting them to the bench: it is paramount that Rodgers successfully retains the backing of key players whilst concurrently picking up results on the football pitch.
The decision to allow Carroll to join West Ham United on loan is baffling. Liverpool now possess just two recognised strikers in Borini and Luis Suárez and, even if injuries are averted, it leaves Rodgers with an alarming lack of game-changing substitutes. For all of the unavoidable issues of manager-squad assimilation and tactical realignment, this was preventable, and the Merseysider’s decision to sanction the forward’s departure in the faith that Clint Dempsey would be arriving from Fulham, then refuse to offer more than £4 million for the United States international was unintelligible bad management. At the same time, declining to pay what was clearly deemed an excessive transfer fee is evidence of the financial prudence that FSG insist they are committed to, with John W. Henry admitting recently that whilst the current regime have made mistakes, they will not allow their successors to inherit a situation as bad as they did, when mountains of debt and the threat of administration hung over Liverpool in 2010.
Despite the high-profile sackings of Hodgson, Dalglish and Damien Comolli, the Director of Football, there is a sense that both FSG and the fans are prepared to give Rodgers time: it is evident that Liverpool are no longer a top-four side, and the thirty-nine year-old must be given ample opportunity to attempt a turnaround without fearing for his job, even if this season sees no improvement on the last year’s league standing. There have been spells, specifically in the opening forty minutes at the Hawthorns and throughout the entertaining draw with champions City, that Liverpool have looked extremely impressive and, although it is interesting to note that both of their league goals have come from set plays, the Reds’ possession statistics suggest a team buying into their manager’s ideals. When Shankly was appointed in December 1959, the stadium was in disarray, the training ground at Melwood was a ‘shambles’, the first-team squad was riddled with mediocre players and the club, then in the second tier, had just been dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Worcester City. Four and a half years later, and the First Division championship had returned to Anfield once more. There’s hope for Liverpool yet.