False Nine editor James Dutton assesses Brendan Rodgers’ start to life at Anfield…
“You train dogs, i like to educate players.”
Brendan Rodgers will likely look back at 2012 as the year that changed his life. Having built on the phenomenal success of his project at Swansea, he has become a household name across the country upon taking the reins of the hottest job on Merseyside. He also became the unwitting star attraction of a US television programme.
Described as a ‘fly-on-the-wall documentary/ reality show’, Being Liverpool came across as more of a shamelessly dreary and crass US sports promotional video for the increasingly Americanized brand of Liverpool FC. Aside from the franchise, the show provided the platform for new manager Brendan Rodgers to espouse both footballing and life virtues.
Brendan probably sat there feeling like a 21st century Socrates, but resembled a tragi-comic real-life incarnation of David Brent. It’s just a shame he didn’t do ‘the dance’, maybe he’s saving that for the day his team record 90% possession in a single game.
2012’s most high profile football documentary underwhelmed, much like its subject-matter on the pitch. Despite yielding a first trophy in six years 2012 has proved to be nothing short of an annus horribilis for Liverpool fans. Liverpool’s record in their previous 38 Premier League matches makes for miserable reading: 11 wins, 10 draws and 17 defeats, 51 goals scored, 51 conceded and a total of 43 points accrued.
If 2012 was a season in its own right Liverpool would be hovering just above the drop zone, a harrowing consideration. It is a run of form that is symptomatic of the club’s lack of consistency – they have failed to record three consecutive victories in the Premier League since May 2011.
A year that began with disarray off the field as the club dealt with the ramifications of its mishandling of the Luis Suarez affair, now finishes with the club awaiting with baited breath the opening of the January transfer window – the biggest transfer window since the last, the one before that, and the one before that one as well.
Liverpool are expected to announce the double capture of England international Daniel Sturridge and former academy player, Tom Ince. Decent signings, but unimaginative when you consider the millions that have been spent on a comprehensive new scouting network to scour the world for talent. Liverpool’s lack of goals is well documented, but other areas of the team need addressing.
On paper Liverpool’s midfield looks to be amongst the best in the country – Lucas, Allen, Gerrard, Sahin, Henderson, Shelvey – but it resembles a Rubik’s Cube that is nowhere near completion.
Brazilian Lucas needs a run of games to rebuild his match fitness – suggestions that his timely return would bring about a change in fortunes have been tempered after conceding six to goal-shy Aston Villa and Stoke City in a matter of weeks.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I was born with a silver shovel.”
Joe Allen has finally been afforded a rest after carrying the midfield in Lucas’ absence, whilst his captain, Gerrard, has become a liability in the centre. For a manager who prides himself on his tactical tinkering, Rodgers’ refusal to even contemplate moving the England captain out of the engine room in midfield is baffling.
Alongside Allen, Nuri Sahin was the marquee signing of Liverpool’s summer. Rodgers enthused about the Turk’s ‘arrogance’ on the ball but perhaps Sahin took Rodgers’ glowing praise too literally. Since picking up a nose-bleed during the Reds’ victory against Udinese earlier in the month, he has been conspicuous by his absence. Though he has complained about being played out of position by his manager, the former Bundesliga Player of the Year has looked lightweight and lost in English football.
Fellow summer acquisition Oussama Assaidi has likewise disappeared without a trace; the only natural winger in the squad, yet used sparingly and afforded a mere 57 minutes of league action. The winger does not fit into Rodgers’ vision or system and so he has found himself ostracized.
Their struggle to adapt is a damning indictment of Rodgers’ dogmatic system, which looks to mould players into a certain style, rather than bring the best out of what is already present. The 18-year old Suso has predominantly played on the right hand side of the front three, when he is more suited to being at the apex of the midfield three, while Jonjo Shelvey’s progression is being hampered by constantly being shifted around attack and midfield.
Liverpool’s dismal surrender at Stoke on Boxing Day was perhaps the nadir of Rodgers’ reign so far. There is no great shame in being outfought by Stoke, but to be out-thought and out-performed is another matter entirely; equally so is to concede three times against a side that had previously scored just 15 league goals all season. It was almost prophetic that Rodgers’ side were so effortlessly disposed of by a club who have backed the convictions of their manager with both time and money. Only when Rodgers is afforded such luxury by his American employers can his reign on Merseyside be fully evaluated.
But the defeat at Stoke was a worrying illustration of Liverpool’s failure to learn from previous mistakes, and Rodgers’ own managerial failings. Despite the brash confidence that the Ulster man exudes, it can not hide his naivety at times, which has come across plainly during his time at Liverpool. Questionable team selections, confusing man-management skills and baffling media-handling.
“Every player I see as a son.”
Being Liverpool shed light on Rodgers’ rather curious man-management expertise; telling young Jon Flanagan ‘you’re not Cafu’, introducing Joe Allen as ‘The Welsh Xavi‘ and then revealing three envelopes that contained the names of players who would let the side down over the course of the season. No prizes for guessing the identity of one of those players.
His treatment of Stewart Downing over the season is hardly a glowing endorsement of Rodgers’ team ethic; one week the England international is surplus to requirements, the next he is a key first-team player. Yes Downing has underwhelmed during his spell at Anfield, and yes, he does often lack courage on the ball, but there is no need to hang him out to dry so publicly.
In the build up to Liverpool’s encounter with Aston Villa just a few weeks ago, the club sat on the precipice of an unprecedented third consecutive league victory, four points off the top four with just one defeat in their previous 11. Rodgers spoke candidly about chasing beyond a top four finish, a statement that, though taken out of context by the press, was foolish in the extreme.
“When you’ve got the ball 65-70% of the time it’s a football death for the other team. We’re not at that stage yet but that’s what we will get to. It’s death by football. You just suck the life out of them.”
Rodgers has repeatedly referred to this notion of ‘death by football’; valuing the ball, keeping possession and nullifying the opposition. It is an admirable philosophy but it is not the be all and end all. Shoehorning Liverpool into a 4-3-3 has not worked, particularly for Steven Gerrard, and Rodgers needs to learn to adopt pragmatism when his doctrine is not working. He is too scared to betray a dogma that he is almost slavishly devoted to, when a pragmatist would observe that 4-2-3-1 is more suitable to the players available.
The Being Liverpool narrator, Clive Owen, spoke of a ‘three-year lull of mediocrity for a club synonymous with glory.’ It is Brendan’s job to prevent it slipping further, but six wins from 19 and 10th position can’t be dressed up as anything but. The club has regressed in the past 12 months, let alone three years, and no amount of cosy propaganda can disguise that. The current squad is comprised of one world-class player; the rest are either promising, fading, inconsistent or ordinary. Time for Brendan to put that silver shovel to good use.
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