Where to start for poor Brendan. Picked to succeed the slightly ill-fated 2nd term of the Scottish demi-God on Merseyside that is Kenny Dalglish, Rodgers’s remit was to rebuild Liverpool into THAT team. The team that dominated the pre-Premier League era with such consummate ease, and it all seemed to be going so well when he led the truly brilliant Liverpool class of 2013/14 season to that run of 11 straight victories. That season under Rodgers saw Gerrard have something of a renaissance in the QB role, Captain Fantastic with a Liverpool team that at last was going to carry him to the title instead of the other way round. Liverpool had their own elite SAS, as deadly if not as subtle as the one David Cameron has at his disposal with Sturridge and the sensational Suarez scoring over 50 Premier League goals between them. Suarez, with all the biting behind him, could have happily won goal of the month 4 times over in that game against Norwich on that cold December evening (or my particular favourite that season against Newcastle, bring the ball down on his shoulder from a 60 yard Enrique diagonal ball to round Krul with his second touch and slot the ball into the empty with his third touch in as many seconds). Rodgers had done it. With no European football to get in the way of a squad of exceptionally small proportions, playing once a week meant they were settled and brilliant – until that slip.
I chose Brendan and Liverpool as my first topic of conversation because last weekend I watched one of the direst 45 minutes that I had seen in a long time. Billed as the great rivalry – Manchester United versus Liverpool was about to commence. Sky was having a field day all week with montages of this, one of the more anticipated fixtures of the calendar, arriving so early on our laps. Oh how they lied! Obviously they had no bearing on what was happening on the field but the formations alone said exactly how this game was going to go. Liverpool, minus the majestic Coutinho lined up with a midfield three of Can, Leiva, Milner. Surely that isn’t all Liverpool had to pick from? The same player three times. If you sat down to play FIFA with your mates and they saw a 4-3-3 with those three players across the park, they would settle down to play a game of football where by god you can run and run and run but there isn’t the risk so much of that defence splitting pass down the inside of either full back you get from the tiny Brazilian. The next telling fact from the game about just where these two great footballing powers are today was with the Manchester United team (a different story for a different day) as they lined up with Herrera in the Hole and Fellaini running around up top. Oh how this game longed for Scholes and Van Nistelrooy at the pointy end for United, or a Gerrard and Torres on song.
I decided to write this little piece under the title of ‘Who Would Want to be Brendan Rodgers?’ because actually Rodgers has had something of a thankless task in my humble opinion due to the pressures of the job now being greatly exacerbated due to his own success in that incredible season. So what has actually happened since the 2013/14 season ended on the 11th May 2014?
The First Summer of Transition
Whilst since that season we’ve had the pleasure of another season with Aguero and Hazard terrorising defences, the addition of Alexis Sanchez last summer and seemingly this season the further addition of Ryiad Mahrez into the Premier League, Luis Suarez became one of those players synonymous with a particular team. Whilst I was too young to truly appreciate Henry’s genius, it doesn’t take much to see just how revered he was by anyone and everyone at the start of this century to understand and comprehend his stature within the game. For all his ridiculous and inexcusable moments on the field with Evra, Ivanovic and the World Cup, Suarez that year was close to perfection and always destined for pastures new with one of the great super powers of European football. Barcelona approached Liverpool with £75 million reasons to let him go to Catalonia. Rodgers had to set about replacing the irreplaceable. Before we come onto the mercurial Super Mario, a bigger issue at this point is how the money was spent. Whilst seemingly no one can say with any grand conviction just how the Liverpool transfer board operates and to whom the buck must fall in the case of failure, in retrospect we can only really offer that summer of spending a black mark akin to the Spurs post-Bale trolley dash of the previous summer. Many people would argue that Liverpool were being given vast riches and had the money to sign another superstar but two things become problematic at this point; firstly, who could be as good as Suarez? And secondly, Liverpool had just got Champions League football and lacked any form of squad depth to cope with such demands.
In arrived that summer the Southampton tripartite of Lambert, Lovren and Lallana, Moreno and Manquillo from Sevilla and Atletico respectively, Emre Can, Divick Origi, Lazar Markovic and Super Mario. Not wanting to give an assessment of all the players individually, certainly the three signings from Southampton made good sense. Lovren had just had an exceptional season alongside Jose Fonte, whilst Lallana and Lambert brought with them goals, assists, a plan B and technical ability (you can attribute yourselves who brought what…) which should have offered Rodgers more depth than the previous year’s campaign. Moreno, even to this day, seems to be a player you can’t coax the jury back into the room to offer their verdict however he undoubtedly provided some kind of support for the injury plagued Jose Enrique. Of course the jury could have remained busy all season toing and froing as to whether they should help Manquillo pack his bags and book his flights back to Spain as soon as the window was open. Emre Can was bought as one of the cheaper signings, a true embodiment of Liverpool’s ‘moneyball’ ethos, and on the whole impressed. For someone still so young, Can is a big boy and his versatility might be something of a hindrance with regards to the development of his positional play however that run as a right centre back in a 3-5-2 emphasised both his flexibility and burgeoning importance for years to come. The same cannot be said for Markovic, a fairly unknown quantity when he came in with a hefty price tag, his loan to Fenerbahce must mark him as something of a failure despite the now famed cliché of foreign players shouldn’t be judged until the second season being cast aside to make way for the ‘Summer of Transition mk2’ crop that have now arrived.
A reason to talk about Balotelli on his own is because he represents Liverpool’s greatest issue – the lack of goals. Last season, despite the apparent shakiness at the back, Mignolet and Liverpool scrapped a fair few clean sheets together in 14/15 – improving their defensive record enough that if all this happened a year earlier it could be a whole different story. However with Suarez now gone, Sturridge injured for the majority of the season, the spotlight of everyone from the Etihad to the San Siro was focused on Brendan Rodgers and the £16 million gamble that was Mario Balotelli. If this was a season of transition, Balotelli as your focal point and the ‘big’ new signing either takes a lot of balls or plan A to D disappearing amongst the throes of the transfer window. Replacing 50 goals was always going to be a nay on impossible task and perhaps given the circumstances the Balotelli gamble made sense, certainly on his day he is far greater than the £16 million paid for, however needing Balotelli to hit the ground running, to hold the line, to offer the same infectious work rate, skill and charisma as the now lacking Suarez and the injured Sturridge was far too greater ask. Lambert at 32 was only ever going to be the Plan B, to suggest he is nothing more than a lump it and head it player is cruel, however he wasn’t going to spin Vincent Kompany on a six pence to offer up a fast one-two with Sterling. Liverpool had lost everything that had made them dangerous – pace, goals and the genius of a slightly crazy Uruguayan.
That summer of transition brought in the players to develop a squad, to re-build and go again, maybe not to win the league but certainly get Top 4. Yet like any grand shopping trip, it always takes a little longer than you think for the dust to settle after a big clear out and in the fickle world of football last season can be a lot further in the memory than the 6 or 7 months it may be come January. The 2014/15 season brought along its own problems with squad personal. Sterling and Gerrard, the last two truly respectable piece of Rodgers potentially career defining season, where about to say their own farewells.
’49 million in Sterling please’ and Goodbye Steven Gerrard
The italics above might well be there because I wanted to shoe horn in my little Sterling line (seriously should have had scope for a newspaper headline) but both present Rodgers with a uniquely crap situation, another potential season of transition and one that he can ill-afford to have after the Stoke City defeat. This brand new season was one which was supposed to go off with a bang but that was already being undone in the depths of winter last year when Gerrard announced his departure. Whilst Sterling offered pace, a rawness in talent and a host of first team experience when I heard his goal scoring record is roughly 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 games I immediately thought that actually Liverpool had engineered a remarkable piece of business. Whilst Sterling’s talents are undoubted, £50 million made sense and if this piece of business resulted in Liverpool being labelled a selling club then so be it – £125 million for two players is a rare occurrence in back to back summers, and has certainly watered down Liverpool’s net spend to roughly £90 million since Rodgers has taken over (facts provided by LFChistory.net, taking into account Rodgers transfers in and out since his arrival in 2012). Furthermore, I don’t think Sterling ever truly claimed the status as irreplaceable unlike Suarez. Certainly as he flourished sometimes Liverpool shone going forward but the 3-0 defeat that season at Old Trafford highlighted both Liverpool’s lack of genuine stardom up top as it did De Gea potential brilliance that season.
Steven Gerrard’s departure however was always going to be on the horizon. Maybe he should have left that summer before when Liverpool came second but still only 34, rightly he felt he had yet another season in him. However his presence that year came at the detriment of the team’s performances and Brendan’s philosophy. People knew Gerrard’s tricks now, as he would slot in between the two spreading centre backs in the back line and ping something great cross field or simply keep the ball moving. If you smothered him, marked him out the game, you took out the puppeteer – no stings were being pulled. The team was starting to be formed around him rather than with him, emphasised by the moments when he was unavailable and the fluidity which was found. As Rodgers tried to find room for Gerrard in midfield, the decision to drop him against both Real Madrid at the Bernabéu and against Manchester Utd at Anfield sent as much as a message to Gerrard as it did to the fans, and whilst Gerrard took it well-mannered silence, Liverpool fans saw this as an element of disrespect and tactical naivety. Gerrard’s name is synonymous with Olympiacos and Istanbul, Liverpool fans forget the fact he almost left for Chelsea but as mentioned previously memory is a short thing in football and Gerrard was Liverpool’s last world-class player left and perhaps more pertinently, the last lad from Liverpool to really make that progression from academy to scoring in front of the Kop.
‘The Season of transition’ – Mk2
And so Rodgers has to do it again. Since coming 2nd in the Premier League he has resided over the sales of Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling, the departure of Steven Gerrard and the loss of Daniel Sturridge for over a year. Coupled with how bitterly last season ended with the 6-1 defeat to Stoke at the Britannia, and Rodger’s has had to spend money to replace and rebuild upon last year’s slightly uneven foundations. The new arrivals bring Premier League experience. Milner on a free certainly does with more league titles in the midfield now than with Gerrard, Clyne for £12.5 million certainly was a shrewd move and a fantastic buy, Joe Gomez has looked an absolute star in the making for £3.5 million and Benteke with a price tag bigger than his neck muscles will score goals, some more spectacular than others, but the big question raised now however is; will Rodgers be able to build a team which goes beyond transition before he is shown the door? The owners rightly could have pushed him last year but they chose not to and now, with Liverpool’s away fixtures at the start of this season looking as enticing as The Bride of Frankenstein, questions are being asked with greater frequency and of a particular awkward subject matter.
Rodgers use of the word transition is becoming as synonymous with his managerial reign as the pursuit of that illusive Premier League title. Every pundit, journalist and Liverpool fan who calls into 606 at the weekend on 5live allude to the ever-growing sense of pressure and dissatisfaction that is being felt towards Rodgers with regards to recruitment and the tactical shape of the team, which brings myself back to this particular Manchester United game. After the second goal went in and the camera settled on Brendan’s face, I couldn’t help but think who would REALLY want to be Brendan Rodgers?.