Monday, August 12, 2013

Will consistency elude Liverpool again this season?

 "We have to get out of this mini slump we're in quickly. It's not been Brendan Rodgers' problem, consistency has been a problem here for a few years now.”
These were the words of Liverpool's recently retired defensive talisman Jamie Carragher after his side's 2-0 capitulation to Zenit St Petersburg, a result that contributed to their exit from the Europa League before Newcastle, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, the other English sides competing in Europe's second tier. The faltering progress of Liverpool – two steps forward, one step back – has been a familiar story since the 2008-09 season, when Rafa Benitez took Liverpool closest to winning the league since the club's last triumph in 1989-90. One season, it was too many draws. The next, an inability to put “smaller” teams to the sword despite impressive performances against the top teams. Liverpool seemed incapable of having attacking options, midfield creativity and resilience, and defensive solidity all in the same team.

Carragher was right that inconsistency isn't a new problem under Rodgers – the “mini-slump” has been going on since Liverpool fell out of the Champions League places at the end of the 2009-10 season, when the Reds finished seventh (seven points off fourth). They have subsequently finished sixth (10 points off fourth), eighth (17 points off fourth, and even that wasn't good enough to elevate Spurs into the Champions League after Chelsea's triumph) and seventh (12 points off fourth).

But Rodgers' brief when he took over as Liverpool manager in June 2012 was not to return the club to Europe's top table – at least not immediately. Owners and fans alike recognise that – in light of Chelsea and Manchester City's lavish spending, Arsenal and Manchester United's everpresence in the top four, and the improvement of Spurs and Everton – Liverpool face a long battle to be playing European football on Tuesday and Wednesday nights again. Rodgers even admitted that the frustration of fans at Liverpool's decline as an elite club was one of the reasons he took the job, saying: “Also the frustration. It has been over 20 years since they won the title. We might not be ready for the title but the process begins today, it's a new cycle, and that is something that we will work towards in the years to come.”

Has the process really begun? Are Liverpool closer to qualifying for the Champions League, let alone winning the Premier League title, than they were when Rodgers took the reins? Was 2012-13 a humbling season for Liverpool, or an encouraging one?

Let's look at the humbling moments first. Many managers enjoy a honeymoon period at new clubs as players try to impress their latest boss. Not so Liverpool. A chastening 3-0 defeat away at West Brom swiftly dampened the rising hopes of fans; Liverpool didn't win in the league until the end of September, when they picked up three points in style with an emphatic 5-2 win over Norwich at Carrow Road. Rodgers, a young manager with a clear idea of how he wants his team to play, was always going to start slowly as players got used to his style. His difficulty was exacerbated by the summer departures of Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez, who had scored 20 goals between them the previous season (five, nine and six respectively).

Rodgers would no doubt say he needed to reduce the wage bill to create space for new signings – a mantra that is being repeated this summer, with the departure of high-earning squad players such as Andy Carroll and, imminently, Stewart Downing. Rodgers came in, looked at the squad and decided it wasn't good enough. We all knew that. But the players he brought in to fill the gap last summer failed to impress. Nuri Sahin arrived with much fanfare having been snatched from under the noses of Arsenal, but returned to Borussia Dortmund in January after failing to hold down a spot in the team. Oussama Assaidi has been utterly anonymous since his arrival from Heerenveen, with only 12 appearances and no goals. Fabio Borini has been desperately unlucky with injuries, but even with the little they have seen of him, Liverpool fans are justifiably concerned that the Italian's two goals in 20 appearances do not justify the £10.5m transfer fee. 

Joe Allen has been the most visible of Rodgers' early signings, but the manager's apparent favouritism has concerned fans, as the diminutive Welshman played last season despite dips in form and a shoulder injury, sometimes ahead of Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson. Indeed, many questioned whether Liverpool needed to buy Allen at all. He's a good player, but Liverpool already had Steven Gerrard, Jonjo Shelvey (now at Swansea), Lucas and Henderson on the books in central midfield, plus the promising Conor Coady waiting in the wings. Allen's arrival smacked of Rodgers being too reliant on players he had worked with before, and judging the talent already on Liverpool's books too fleetingly.

Rodgers' man management has been curious, too. Downing was much maligned in the season following his £20m arrival from Aston Villa in July 2011, and rightly so. Under Rodgers he went from outcast, with the then 17-year-old Raheem Sterling taking his place and Downing told he could look for a new club when the winter transfer window opened, to hero as he was paraded in front of the Kop following his winner in the Europa League against Anzhi. He then enjoyed a solid  albeit unspectacular  run in the team in the second half of the season, but now looks set to join West Ham, with his role at Liverpool unclear with the manager reluctant to play 4-4-2, and Downing contributing too little in a 4-3-3.

Martin Skrtel was Liverpool's player of the season in 2011-12, and the Slovakian's partnership with Daniel Agger was talked about as one of the best in the league: Skrtel's no-nonsense power plus the occasional goal accompanied beautifully by Agger's poise and attacking enthusiasm. Under Rodgers, Skrtel is heading for the exit, having lost his place to the 35-year-old Carragher and then the 32-year-old Kolo Toure. Skrtel perhaps epitomises the dichotomies that Rodgers seems to create in his squads; you're either in or you're out. The manager has little patience with dips of form or confidence. Yet, after failing to bring in defensive cover in January, perhaps a gentler approach towards Skrtel could have enabled healthy competition between Liverpool's defensive trio, instead of angst and ostracism.

And Liverpool certainly needed Rodgers to squeeze all the experience and talent he could out of his squad last season, as the club's dismal performance in the cups made apparent. After two finals, one resulting in the League Cup, in Kenny Dalglish's final season, last season was one of disappointment verging on embarrassment. The record reads: Europa League round of 32, FA Cup fourth round, League Cup fourth round. That's pretty appalling. When Rodgers tried to rotate his squad for the cups, it was found deeply lacking. These were the few opportunities for players such as Brad Jones, Sebastian Coates, Borini and Suso, and perhaps even youth-team players such as Coady, Samed Yesil, and Jordan Ibe, to make a name for themselves. But Rodgers' team selections didn't work, and Liverpool were left desperately hoping for magic from the stalwarts on the bench. It didn't happen.

Yet amid the many humbling moments, there were encouraging ones, which may be enough to suggest that Liverpool can finally call time on the seasons of transition and make some real progress, starting on Saturday. Rodgers' management of Suarez has been good, getting the best out of him as a lone striker, seamlessly adjusting his side to accommodate the January arrival of Daniel Sturridge without cramping the Uruguyuan, praising highly but not being afraid to criticise, and winning six of seven pre-season friendlies without last season's top scorer. Rodgers has also managed Sturridge, who came from Chelsea with a reputation for selfishness and underperforming, well, and was rewarded with some excellent performances, especially during Suarez's suspension for biting.

When Rodgers' team click, they do so in style – Liverpool scored at least two goals in 26 of their 54 matches last season, and showed signs of making Anfield a fortress again with big home wins against Swansea, Norwich, Sunderland and Fulham. They were wobblier on their travels, but still scored more goals away than in any previous Premier League season, and racked up the goals against Fulham, Newcastle, Wigan, QPR and Norwich. Whether you beat relegation fodder or Manchester United, you still only get three points and Liverpool showed an increasing ability to put games beyond doubt.

Much was made of Liverpool's inability to beat teams above them in the table, with the sole victory against Spurs at home. But that criticism disguises two key points. First, Liverpool were unlucky not to beat Manchester City home and away, and Arsenal and Everton away. Second, Liverpool held their own against teams competing for the top four, with seven draws in their 12 meetings with Manchester City, United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton. They're not there yet but these results, although disappointing, show that Liverpool are close. They were certainly not played off the park by any of their rivals, apart from in the home game against Arsenal.

Liverpool's squad as we head into the 2013-14 season is much better than a year ago. Rodgers has begun the process of blooding some exciting youngsters into the realities of Premier League football. Sterling and Andre Wisdom made positive contributions in the league during the early months of last season. Liverpool can hope for full seasons from Martin Kelly, Lucas and Borini. Rodgers showed real nous in the January transfer window, reinvigorating the attack with the exciting Philippe Coutinho and the increasingly impressive Sturridge. £20m for the pair is beginning to look like a bit of a steal.

This summer's arrivals have been useful if underwhelming. Aspas looks creative, Alberto a willing deputy for Coutinho, and Toure a steal. But Rodgers described his early business in this transfer window as building the squad. We are still waiting for signings that enhance the team: a central defender to replace Skrtel, a left-back, a winger and, depending on Suarez, a proven goalscorer. If Rodgers can add them before September, the eternal optimism of Liverpool fans may not be misplaced this season.  


Post a Comment

<< Home