Brendan Rodgers has been praised for his tactical acumen in the past but got it completely wrong against West Ham on Saturday, explains Andrew Ronan.
After less than half an hour last Saturday at Anfield, Liverpool fans could be forgiven for thinking that the promise shown by Brendan Rodgers and his men during the first three league games this season was some sort of cruel ploy to get the supporters back in the good books following the nightmare that was last season.
So shocking was the manner of the two goals conceded and the lack of a response, Anfield – bar the noisy away corner – sat in the silence it perfected too often last season. The atmosphere inside the ground was as meek as the effort shown by the men in red shirts. And their manager, too. Brendan Rodgers had enough on the bench against West Ham to kick-start a comeback, but his indecision was as influential to the final score as Dejan Lovren’s schoolboy defending.
His decision to give Lovren another chance to prove himself worthy of his price tag has backfired spectacularly. Lovren’s Bambi on Ice impression for the second goal was met with groans from the Kop, but not many can say they didn’t expect a mistake like that from the Croatian defender sooner rather than later. When Mark Noble passed the ball into the bottom corner for two-nil, it confirmed what everyone inside Anfield already knew – Lovren always has a mistake in him.
Rodgers has to know this, too. Mamadou Sakho is no Paolo Maldini but it’s hard to imagine that he would have gotten into the same mess that Lovren found himself in for the second goal. Surely Rodgers knows that Sakho isn’t as error prone as Lovren? Only Rodgers knows, though, why Lovren is being picked ahead of Sakho. All we can do is speculate. With the Croatian at the heart of defence, though, it will surely only give encouragement to the opposition.
As will the way Slaven Bilic set his team up for the visit to Anfield. Yes, they more or less parked the bus, but West Ham proved that the lack of fight that was too often Liverpool’s Achilles heel last season is still there. There has been a lot of talk that this version of Liverpool has the strength and character which was missing last season.
The three clean sheets and performance at Arsenal proved it, apparently. Yet it was nowhere to be seen when West Ham led by two goals. Too many players played safe and were afraid to take risks in West Ham’s half. The most worrying aspect, though, had to be the reaction from Rodgers.
Emre Can was deservedly substituted, but for Alberto Moreno? Surely Jordon Ibe should have come on for Can? And why did Rodgers wait so long to introduce Danny Ings? It was clear that Benteke was struggling on his own against the West Ham back four, and he needed someone alongside him who could stretch their defence. Why didn’t Ings start the game alongside Benteke?
Rodgers’ decision to play Lucas, Milner and Can was fine against Arsenal and it worked. However, starting the three of them at home to an average team meaning that he couldn’t play an extra striker is baffling.
The side Rodgers put out against Arsenal was always going to lean towards stifling Arsenal’s attacking threat, but in starting the same team against West Ham, Rodgers stifled Liverpool’s attacking threat and played into West Ham’s hands. Benteke was isolated, and Liverpool effectively had five midfielders on the pitch. This suited West Ham perfectly as they were always going to fancy themselves in a physical midfield battle.
Rodgers has been praised in the past for his tactical acumen during games and his use of subs, but it wasn’t evident last Saturday. He’s going to need it this season as most teams will look to come to Anfield and set-up the way West Ham did.
The Liverpool boss has a lot of thinking to do between now and the visit to Old Trafford. What does he do with Lovren? And can he pick a team that echo’s the performance against Arsenal, yet is set-up to deal with going a goal down?
It may be early days but Rodgers needs to start getting some basic decisions right. If he can’t, and Liverpool return from Old Trafford empty handed, the pressure on him will begin to build again.