A DEFEAT to lower league opposition does get some people panicking, doesn’t it?
Liverpool fans are, sadly, relatively used to this professional mis-hap since the club have been eliminated from the FA Cup by lower league opposition on 8 occasions since 1992, and disturbingly 6 times since 2000. While Rafa’s Champions League (2005) and FA Cup successes (2006) offered him relative immunity for overseeing 2 of those exits, Brendan Rodgers has no trophies in the cabinet. Roy Hodgson may have presided over – arguably – the worst cup exit of the lot in recent memory (a rain-soaked evening at home to Northampton in the League Cup) but last week’s defeat to Oldham saw some draw comparisons with the two.
Rodgers has no collateral to play with. He has promised death by football, but consistent defensive errors this season have undermined him. He’s somehow coached Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique into proper form. We’ve also seen Steven Gerrard’s best form since Rafa. But that counts for little when new signings, whether negotiated by him or not, have either started well and faded fast (Allen), or have been hardly used (Sahin, Assaidi). All this makes Rodgers’ investments look almost as weak as those of Dalglish and Comolli.
He’s managed to get the team, on occasion, to produce impressive passing masterclasses, and tactically empowered Luis Suarez to hit some great goalscoring numbers, but he’s presided over early exits in both cups to Swansea and Oldham.
So now the challenge. How do we judge Rodgers, FSG and the current state of affairs at Liverpool? Do we highlight a team that is arguably playing better football (save for the defensive errors) which has not beaten a side above it in the table and exited both cup competitions? A club which traditionally does not encourage a manager merry-go-round, and yet has collected 4 managers in 4 years? A manager whose charisma does much to excite many Liverpool fans to the team’s potential, yet his results shade those of Dalglish (only in league terms)? An infamous summer deadline day, followed by superb negotiation of Sturridge’s fee and wages?
For all of Rodgers’ traits, and his charisma – some great performances and results he has presided over, and his promise of potential, he is finally being exposed by the true Liverpool currency – results. It was obviously premature to highlight his anecdotes like “death by football” and use that as some convincing argument that he would likely work out. It’s difficult to argue as well that we may not know what happens behind the scenes, there is equal valid argument to praise Rodgers for having the courage to stick to his principles, be it tactics or moving out players that haven’t impressed him.
The challenge is that his recent actions don’t give many of us much comfort. Criticising his young players after the FA Cup defeat to Oldham split opinion, reminding some of similar reactions to horrid defeats. Hodgson was infamously disconnected to Liverpool’s ethos throughout his tenure, and blaming his young players for the Northampton League Cup defeat did him no favours. Sounness did a similar thing in his regime, which featured two consecutive early exists to lower league opposition in the FA Cup. Benitez and Dalglish have also pulled the same card, yet both managers arguably got away with it due to their reputation by that point. One thing is consistent; arguably all 4 managers didn’t get the reaction they hoped for from their players over the medium term.
Rodgers doing the same therefore presents a risk. There is an irony – Rodgers was fully justified and successful in highlighting the improvement in attitude needed by Downing when he suggested publicly that the winger could commence looking for a new club. Downing is still no superstar, and he hardly justifies his wage, but his performances have improved and that is a healthy example of good man management of an older player in the squad. (It appears he’s tried to do the same now with Martin Skrtel.) One can argue that Rodgers’ challenge of his younger players is something that he is entitled to do after a poor performance. However, when he has little leverage to defend himself with, when has few options in his squad, when incoming transfers are all youngsters, and when his team selections seem to count against him, he is playing a dangerous game of tempting fate that his regime at Liverpool will end with disappointment for both him and the fans.
Rodgers (and FSG, for that matter) don’t have it any easier by the fact that quite simply, expectations of Liverpool are… challenging. There are many fans of both Liverpool and rival clubs who insist on putting the club in that top bracket and any challenge to do otherwise is to debate Liverpool‘s footballing culture and accept second best. It’s not incorrect – but it does come with discomfort. Take off Liverpool’s history, reputation, trophies, etc. You end up with a team that is above average, has potential, is possibly capable of top entering the top 4, is possibly capable of winning trophies, and certainly capable of amazing results. But is it a team that is dead certain to tick all those boxes? Are they definite trophy contenders in all respects? No. In fact, Liverpool now and for the last couple of years are an above average mid-table team with above average spending power, the latter being much more potent than other clubs of similar league placing (Everton, Swansea, Newcastle, etc). Yet, they are judged as a side in the bracket above all of those sides.
Expectations have been difficult to balance for Liverpool for ages. Whether those expectations make sense or not, the pressure to compete combined with comparatively ineffective ownership down the years has just about forced the club to make many poor decisions in its quest to reclaim former glories, and meet those expectations.
In previous years, Liverpool were already struggling to match the financial investments, the quality of transfers and the development of youth players that was exhibited in part or full by Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. The last 3 seasons have been devastating for the club and have done significant damage on and off the pitch. As an example there were many fans who wanted ludicrous transfers like that of the infamous £35 million for Carroll to somehow work out. But such things just don’t happen.
Expectations haven’t softened either despite a far more competitive league. In 4 short years since Rafa’s penultimate season, Liverpool has a weaker, inexperienced squad. They have less / the same money relative to competition, be it “Scrooge” Arsenal , savvy spending Spurs & Newcastle, billionaire backed Chelsea and Man City, and of course, debt ridden yet spending Man Utd.
Liverpool also generate less money than their traditional rivals when compared purely on stadium revenues and lack of success on the pitch. They’re uncompetitive in transfers (no Champions League football makes it difficult to attract or keep top class players). They’ve been unstable with 4 managers in 4 years. They play in a more competitive league where a traditional top 4 has become 6 with Man City & Spurs’ growth, not to mention stronger midtable sides like Newcastle, Everton, Stoke, Swansea, etc.
Yet, despite all of the above – many still judge Liverpool by the same standard right at the top. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be there, but Liverpool aren’t there yet. With all the above in mind, I’d love to ask the anti-Rodgers crowd, who often make some wild suggestions – could Liverpool really attract the likes of Mourinho, Pep, RVP and other top players / managers to the club? Sadly, the answer right now is no. So unless something crazy happens, it’s necessary to support what we have.
Notwithstanding expectations however, there is one huge issue I think needs to be addressed by FSG, and it does relate to Rodgers. His tactical astuteness has been shown up by the “physical” teams (Stoke, Villa, Oldham). He’s started to show the wrong cards in team selection, which only become a problems once the results are poor. I get the sense that he is doing too much, and lacks a senior sounding board. If, before his appointment, Rodgers was indeed opposed to the idea of reporting to a Director of Football, he may need to revise his feelings towards this. In the same way he can highlight the importance of the young players learning from Steven Gerrard, he may well need a senior figure at the club to provide a sounding board for his actions.
FSG are none the wiser to tactical complexities and transfer targets – all they can do is complain about results. Rodgers may not like it, but he may benefit so from someone who complains about the details behind the results. Whether a pioneer of tiki taka (imagine for example, but unlikely – Johan Cruyff!), or someone more focused on the Liverpool ethos (Kenny Dalglish?). Either way, Rodgers likely needs someone above him who isn’t Ian Ayre or FSG, someone that gets what the club is about but also understands the football on the pitch.
Wanted: Improved Performances
Naturally we can’t also let the players escape blameless. I’ll jump to Rodgers’ defence and say that while many of the players have experienced significant improvements under Rodgers, he has been let down by the form of some as well. Defensively, it’s hard to find much good to say about anyone except for Agger and Glen Johnson. Enrique is a better player under Rodgers, but not from a defensive point of view. Gerrard, Suarez, Henderson, Downing have also been much better. The form of most of the players in the squad has left something to be desired.
It’s good to see that some of the players have challenged themselves to improve their form (Allen), while some key players are back in the squad finding their feet again (Lucas), and some new signings could yet make a serious stamp on the squad (Sturridge, and hopefully Borini). In the next transfer window, some serious gaps in the squad also need to be addressed. Liverpool need decent cover for the fullback and defensive midfield positions, specifically because of their importance to an effective execution of Liverpool’s tactics. Even in mixed form, Lucas’ presence has given confidence to the team to push forward and win games. Physicality is also not the issue – I agree with those sharp tweeters who’ve pointed out Javier Mascherano or Xabi Alonso not being physical powerhouses like Yaya Toure, yet their intelligent read of the game would still make them formidable in a midfield. We don’t have them, but it doesn’t mean we need players extremely different to them.
Liverpool also need to improve their mental approach to the game – I recall from the Aston Villa game that Liverpool started brightly – they dominated proceedings and had good chances until the lazy opener was conceded, and from there, the mental game was already lost. Mentally, Liverpool’s response to situations like that is very poor on most occasions and it’s that which they need to improve. Oldham didn’t just outwork Liverpool – they got the Reds anxious and when Liverpool play anxiously against a team that has nothing to lose, it makes it even harder to win the game. The players will be hard pressed to play to the expectations, even though realistically, they are not a Liverpool of old.
All these factors combine with the results to illustrate that Rodgers has hit his tipping point – the results have exposed enough. How he chooses to balance the passing ethos, the young player development, the long term strategy vs. getting results no matter the method is what will define the rest of his season… and possibly his future at the club.