So, after picking up a decent point at Stamford Bridge last weekend we are now 29% of the way through Brendan Rodgers’ first season as Liverpool boss. Having played 11 Premier League games, we currently sit 13th with 12 points from a possible 33. Is this good enough for Liverpool Football Club? Of course it isn’t.
When we dropped points in our first couple of games, some people immediately began turning on Rodgers. Others defended him. But now, those first ‘couple’ of games have turned into 11 and the high standards demanded by our fans have still not been matched, certainly not on paper, at least. We’ve only taken all 3 points on two occasions and we’re already 15 points adrift of Man United and, perhaps even more worrying, we’re 8 points behind Everton, who are currently 4th in the table.
So, is this the right time to start making negative judgements on Rodgers’ performance, hit the panic button and perhaps even call for him to be removed from his position? I think not, personally.
Yes, we’re over a quarter of the way through the season and our very poor start is both disappointing and worrying to everybody associated with the club. We all want the same thing after all; Liverpool to be successful again and challenge for titles. For this reason I feel it is important that everybody pulls in the same direction and continues to offer their full support to Rodgers because unrest amongst fans and the constant changing of managers will only hinder our club’s progress.
We all agree that out current league position is not good enough for Liverpool but for some people to suggest that Rodgers is “no better than Roy Hodgson” and call for him to be sacked is a little unfair, in my opinion at least.
Rodgers: Worse than Hodgson?
The statistics in the table 1 (above) compare our performance at this stage in other significant seasons. Rafael Benitez was in charge of the last Liverpool team that competed at the top level so I’ve included his opening 11 games as our manager in the 2004/05 season. Then there was Roy Hodgson’s short tenure in 2010/11. I know Kenny Dalglish took the reins for a second time in January 2011 but this discussion is focusing on performances after the opening 11 games of the season so I’ve included his stats from this time last season.
When we compare our opening 11 results under Rodgers to those under the previous three managers, it is true that Rodgers’ reds have performed significantly worse than the reds of Benitez and Dalglish and slightly worse than those of Hodgson.
Still, Brendan Rodgers has already shown so much more than Hodgson ever did. For a start, their appointments could not have been more different.
Hodgson, aged 63 at the time, boasted 34 years of managerial experience upon his arrival at Anfield in the summer of 2010. His lengthy CV included rich experience on both, club and international levels. Despite this, Hodgson’s managerial reputation was more of a safe and defensive one. He’d never led his teams on to be world beaters, but he made them difficult to beat. For this reason, Hodgson’s appointment didn’t exactly excite our fans here in Liverpool. It was clear he was appointed in an attempt to steady our ship in times of turbulence.
Rodgers however, was appointed for a completely different reason. Aged just 39, Rodgers had just 4 years managerial experience and only one of those was spent in the Premier League with a newly promoted side. He was not the conventional choice of Liverpool boss and his appointment was definitely a high risk one. However, during his short four years, Rodgers managed to transform his teams into energetic, dynamic, attacking ones. He transformed Swansea City completely, led them to the Premier League and then shocked everyone with their high calibre performances. It is clear that our owners, FSG, admired his unique style, passion and philosophy and brought Rodgers to Anfield in the hope and belief that he could transform our fortunes for many years to come.
As I pointed out earlier, the opening results achieved by Rodgers might be slightly worse than Hodgson’s. However, Rodgers has brought bags of passion to our club; something Hodgson, quite simply, did not. Shortly after his arrival, Rodgers said “ Whatever it takes to make Liverpool successful then my life is devoted.” These words alone make the man special and deserving of our patience, in my opinion. Whenever we have dropped points, it is clear to see that it has hurt Rodgers. Likewise, when we score, he celebrates passionately. I don’t mean to disrespect Hodgson because he is a great professional. But during his time at Liverpool, he rarely showed anything. Win or lose, he would just sit there with his arms folded, blank expression on his face. To us fans, he appeared to be cold, distant and unattached to our club. The lack of passion suggested he did not care about our club and that was a big part of why most fans never really warmed to him.
When Hodgson was interviewed by the press, his responses often baffled fans. He refused to defend Fernando Torres after Alex Ferguson branded Torres a “cheat” following our 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in September 2010. When his players were criticised, he would respond by stating that “he did not sign” them and effectively deflect any responsibility off himself. He even went as far as to criticise Liverpool fans. With all of this in mind, it is an insult to even compare Brendan Rodgers to Hodgson, in my opinion. Rodgers’ attitude has been spot on since day one. He knows how to handle the press and he has done nothing but praise our fans. He also appreciates what this club means to our fans and has pledged to devote his life in making us successful again. In terms of his attitude, we couldn’t really ask for more.
Falling short: The table doesn’t lie
It is the results on the pitch that matter ultimately and so far, we have failed to deliver. Referring to table 1 again, I included our performance after our first 11 games both, in our last title winning campaign of 1989/1990 (where we attained 21 points from 33) and the last time we mounted a serious title challenge in 2008/2009 (where we attained 26 points from 33). Of course, our points tally and league positioning were much better in these two seasons and I have included this information because this is roughly the level that we aspire to be at, eventually.
However, with just 12 points, we are currently some way off the mark, sadly. That is not to say that a season can be judged from the first eleven games though. Our 2008/2009 campaign was Rafa Benitez’s 5th full season in charge. He led the team to 5th position in his first full season, followed by 3rd, 3rd again and then 4th before narrowly missing out on the title in 2009. After attaining 26 points in the opening eleven games of the 2008/09 season, people must surely have thought we would bring home that 19th title. As it happened, Man United clawed their way back and snatched it at the end.
Compare this to the 21 points attained by Dalglish’s title winning side in 1989/90. Ok, football has changed quite a lot since then and 21 points is much better than the mere 12 we currently have, but based on those first eleven games, perhaps it could be assumed that we were more likely to win the title the year we attained 26 points from 33, as opposed to 21. Put simply, things can change drastically in such a short space of time. It only takes a run of a few decent results and the table changes so much. So I wouldn’t be too alarmed by the fact we’re sitting in 13th position. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s enough to evidence to judge and convict Rodgers of failing us.
I’m not saying we are miraculously going to turn our fortunes around overnight and win the league, far from it. Everybody knows that our club is in the middle of a rebuilding process; one that will take time and require patience. It is very difficult for us fans to look at the league table nowadays without feeling a real sense of sadness. It is even more difficult trying to accept that we are no longer the force we once were, so I understand our fans’ frustrations completely.
The football we have witnessed under Rodgers has been very encouraging. We have dominated most games, controlled the possession, had more shots on goal and have been very unlucky not to come away with all 3 points on several occasions. Most of the time, it has been our own wastefulness which has cost us. I will discuss this shortly.
Rodgers has also shown courage by trusting in our younger players, when perhaps the easier option would have been to stick with senior, underperforming players such as Stewart Downing & Joe Cole. True, injuries may have forced Rodgers into playing some of the youngsters, such as Andre Wisdom but he could have easily just opted for the ‘safer’ option and instead, played Jamie Carragher at right back. But he put his faith in Wisdom and the other youngsters and has given them a decent run of games and therefore, a chance to impress. I personally, admire the fact that Rodgers is not afraid to do this. I also admire the fact that he is not afraid to make changes when he can see that something isn’t working.
Take our game at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, for example. Rodgers normally opts for a 4-3-3 formation, he decided to change to three centre backs, bearing in mind we have been sloppy at the back recently and the absence of Martin Skrtel meant that Jamie Carragher started. When we consider that Carragher hasn’t played much football recently and he has lost a bit of pace, perhaps we can understand Rodgers opting for the extra centre back, against a team that is rich in top quality attacking options. Furthermore, Rodgers noticed this formation wasn’t working and changed it, bringing on 18 year old Suso to replace Nuri Sahin. The pressure on that game was enormous, so I thought Rodgers made a brave decision in bringing on young Suso. Same goes with the Merseyside derby recently, where Rodgers fielded five players who had no derby day experience whatsoever.
I don’t want to bleat on and blame referees and officials for our poor start but some of their decisions have cost us points this season; the Merseyside derby, for example. And our game at home to Man United too. Had we won all 3 points in these games, which we probably would have done, had refereeing decisions not interfered, we would currently be sitting in 7th position with 17 points; 3 points off 4th position and few would be complaining. Having said that, these things happen in football and we still failed to take chances in both of these games and this ultimately, is our biggest downfall and has been for a few years.
I do believe Rodgers could possess the raw ability required to bring back the glory days but I do not think he currently has the necessary tools.
So, what exactly has gone wrong this season?
Table 2 (above) shows the source of our goals in our opening 11 games of the various seasons discussed earlier.
So far this season, we’ve managed to score 14 goals and we all agree this isn’t enough. Alarmingly, 5 of these 14 goals came in our 5-2 victory away to Norwich, so taking away that game, we have managed to score just 9 goals in 10 games.
I’m not sure that a lack of goals represents the entirety of our problem though. We had scored the same amount of goals at this stage last season under Dalglish as we have this season under Rodgers, yet we were in 6th place with 19 points last season. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, is the fact that we had only scored two more goals at this stage in 2008, when we were second in the table with 26 points.
There are two main methods of winning a football match. The first one is defensive, i.e. focus primarily on defensive duties so the team becomes extremely difficult to penetrate. Then, should an attacking opportunity arise, commit a few players forward (but not too many), in an attempt to nick a goal. This is the strategy employed by managers such as Roy Hodgson, Tony Pulis and other managers’ whose team may not contain the greatest amount of quality upfront.
The second method is an attacking one, i.e. focus primarily on applying pressure on the opposition defence, commit most players forward and score as many goals as possible. This method doesn’t require too much worrying about defensive duties because the aim is, quite simply, to score more goals than the opposition, regardless of how many are conceded. This approach is generally the one employed by top quality teams, rich in attacking options.
First major problem: Over reliance of Luis Suarez with very little contribution coming from elsewhere
Our main problem this season is the fact we have failed to find any real balance in our chosen method. Basically, we use the second, open, attacking strategy but we are not currently clinical enough to pull it off. We are extremely short in attacking options. This is shown clearly in the goal sources table above.
We rely very heavily on the input of Luis Suarez. He has been in superb form of late and has scored 8 league goals so far, which is brilliant of course. However, there has been very little contribution from other players. All in all, (own goals aside), we have only had four other scorers this season; Gerrard, Sahin, Skrtel and Sterling, all of whom, have only scored one goal each. This is quite simply, not good enough.
That being said, Rodgers is not to blame for the lack of attacking quality. He inherited a squad full of fringe players who were high earners but low contributors on the pitch. Financial fair play rules and the current state of the economy has meant we have had to slash our wage bill in order to make the club financially sustainable and although there are still a few high earning, low contributors remaining on our books, it is fair to say that Rodgers shipped out a large amount of dead wood out in the summer. That is the first stage of any rebuilding process. We do not want to end up like Rangers after all.
However, the lack of replacements has caused us many problems on the pitch this season. While many complained that players like Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez lacked the quality required at this club, their small contributions have really been missed this season because nobody else has stepped up yet. Suarez aside, we’re relying on 17 year old Sterling, who is not old enough to carry alcohol yet, never mind carry the team and the expectations of fans worldwide. We should not have to be relying so heavily on Sterling to support Suarez because senior players such as Steven Gerrard, Stewart Downing & Joe Cole should be chipping in too. Even Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique should be getting forward and contributing with a couple of assists and goals. This just hasn’t happened at all this season. While Suarez has been amazing, the opposition know he is our main source of goals and Suarez then becomes an easy and obvious target for defenders. If they mark him out of the game, they know that we have no plan B.
If we compare contributions from the rest of the team this season to those in past seasons, particularly our 1989/90 title winning campaign, it is easy to see why we’re struggling. The prospect of Suarez picking up an injury is, quite frankly, unbearable. At the moment he has four bookings to his name and one more will see him banned for one game. If this happens, our lack of attacking quality is likely to be exposed, hence our lacklustre attacking displays in the Europa League. Suarez is only human though and I believe Rodgers decision to rest him last week against Anzhi was 100% the correct one, despite the criticism. Had he travelled and then picked up an injury, it would have been devastating. At the moment, we cannot afford to take unnecessary risks with Luis and although we lost to Anzhi, we are still in a good position to progress from the group stage of the Europa League. Similarly, our exit in the League Cup was disappointing after winning the competition last season but perhaps this could be seen positively, as the extra rest could do our thin squad the world of good.
With all this in mind, we can only hope that FSG release some funds for Rodgers to improve our squad in January. Our top priority should definitely be support for Luis up top, including a striker; one that is a proven goal scorer, not another youngster with potential. Let’s not forget that Rodgers also has the option to recall Carroll from his loan spell at West Ham United in January. If FSG do indeed provide Rodgers with funds, only then can we really begin to judge his work because this transfer window is going to be hugely important for us. If they do not provide funds then Rodgers can only continue to work with the resources he currently has available to him. Either way, I’m sure Rodgers will continue to do everything in his power to improve our squad and we should back him, regardless.
Bad luck: Injuries
We have been unlucky with injuries this season. Our only other striker, Fabio Borini, sustained a serious injury whilst on international duty with Italy, leaving Suarez as the only recognisable striker left in the squad. Lucas sustained another serious injury back in August too, which has meant we have had to rely on new boys Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin more than we would have liked. While Allen has been brilliant for us, I feel he showed signs of inexperience against Chelsea last weekend, when he was repeatedly caught in possession. Same went for Sahin, I felt he avoided challenges that could have been won with a little more determination. These mistakes meant that Gerrard had to track back to defend more and therefore, limited his attacking contribution. However, both players are new and fairly inexperienced in the Premier League and on the whole; I think both have done a decent job for us.
Martin Kelly’s season ending injury has also been felt on an attacking front, as well as a defensive one. Hopefully, the return of Lucas next month and Borini in the New Year can give us a much needed boost. Lucas’ return will hopefully stabilise our midfield area and allow Gerrard to roam forward more and help Suarez out upfront. His return could also give us a massive boost defensively too.
Second major problem: Defensive errors
Speaking of our defence, I feel this has been the other major issue for us this season. As I mentioned earlier, many people are pinpointing our poor form on the lack of goals but we had scored the same amount of goals at this stage last season as we have this year, yet we were in 6th position with 19 points. This speaks volumes about our defence. We have conceded 16 goals this season, compared to just 10 at this stage last season. Plus, last time we mounted a serious title challenge in 2008/09 we weren’t exactly big scorers, hitting the net just 16 times but the key that year was the fact we had only conceded half of what we had scored. This year, our defence has not met our usual standards and this for me, is a big worry because our defence has been up there with the best in recent years.
Exactly what has changed is difficult to pinpoint. The obvious explanations are injuries. The absences of Kelly and more recently Johnson, has led to young Andre Wisdom playing at right back and although he has shown a huge amount of promise, he has been caught out a few times too. And mistakes made by defenders are far more noticeable because they’re likely to cost us goals. Johnson returned against Chelsea and put in a good shift, which is a good sign. Lucas’ injury in midfield has rocked us defensively too because we have missed his dominance and have had to rely on new boys Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin.
Still, we cannot blame our poor defensive displays purely on injuries. Enrique, who was fantastic for the first half of last season, had an atrocious start to this season. His performances, particularly in our 2-0 home defeat to Arsenal, shocked me because it was such a stark contrast to the Enrique we saw for most of last season. He was giving the ball away so cheaply it was unreal and Rodgers was right to drop him because he became a real liability. However, Enrique turned in a great performance at Stamford Bridge last Sunday, the best I’ve seen him play in a long time, so hopefully he has turned a corner and will soon return to his best.
Same goes for Pepe Reina, before he picked up his injury. Reina has been one of our most outstanding and consistent performers for years. He has always been a rock in our squad and highly regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the country. But for some reason, the Pepe Reina we have seen this year has been totally different. He has made mistake after mistake, fumbled shots and failed to clear his lines properly all too often this year and this began to make him a liability, too. People have questioned whether we have enough competition for Reina to continue to motivate him but now Brad Jones has come in and done quite well, it will be interesting to see whether Rodgers sticks with Jones, or opts to give Reina another chance. If Rodgers chooses the latter, I think Reina really has to up his game.
There have also been a few individual errors at the back too. I’ve already covered Reina, Enrique and Wisdom but Martin Skrtel made a shocking pass back in our opening home game against Man City; one which cost us a goal and two points. Daniel Agger, who has been one of the better performers this year, failed to pick up John Terry from a corner last Sunday and this ultimately gave Terry a free header which he took full advantage of. Further defensive errors could have seen the game lost by half time, but poor finishing by Juan Mata and Oscar letting us off the hook. Some of these errors are schoolboy ones and nobody is purely to blame because most players have been guilty to some degree. We have the same defence as last season though, so we know our players are capable of performing much better and they’re also going to have to tighten up if we are going to progress. More often than not, we have totally dominated games, failed to take our own chances, then one rare attack from the opposition has led to our defence making one crucial mistake and out of nowhere, we find ourselves dropping points. Hopefully this is something Rodgers will assess in coming weeks.
All in all, I think Rodgers has done fairly well with the resources available to him. His attitude is great, he has a real vision for the future and he has us playing decent football. I think Rodgers’ was perhaps a little misinformed in the last transfer window and had every intention on adding firepower but a lack of funding from FSG at 11th hour scuppered his plans and his decision to let Andy Carroll leave before bringing in a replacement exposed his naivety and inexperience. Having said that, we learn from experience and hopefully, Rodgers has and will be better equipped to deal with the next window. The addition of some firepower to assist Luis Suarez could really kick start our campaign and see things begin to fall into place for us. All it takes is a decent run of results to change our season and we know this all too well after the Dalglish resurrection of 2010/11. We have some of the best youngsters in the country who are developing into fantastic players already under Rodgers’ guidance. All this can only be a positive sign for the future.
Finally, we are Liverpool, not Chelsea or Man City. We know the true value of success which began at the training ground, as opposed to the wallet of a foreign billionaire. Our fans are known worldwide for our passion and loyalty, not plastic flags and money. This is what makes us different to other clubs and we need to keep it this way and remain above the rest. We need to make Anfield a fortress again, resurrect our famous atmosphere and be that crucial 12th man for our boys.
Stay positive and believe in Rodgers.