Simon O’Keeffe takes an in depth look at Liverpool’s recent problems.
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The above quote, regularly attributed to Albert Einstein, sums up Liverpool’s start to the season perfectly.
For the fifth game in a row, £32million striker Christian Benteke cut an isolated figure as the shapeless mess of a midfield behind him staggered pitifully through 90 minutes, before the team either relies on a moment of individual magic to produce a goal, or falls to an ignominious defeat. Saturday’s match at Old Trafford had both.
Liverpool were poor on Saturday – that much is obvious – but it’s actually hard to ascertain just how poor they were because it’s impossible to know what Brendan Rodgers is trying to do with this group of players.
“Character” is a word used by Rodgers with shocking regularity – ironically his team showed precisely none at Old Trafford, and truth be told they haven’t shown any for some time now.
This incarnation of Manchester United is not a particularly good one – Swansea recently showed what can be achieved when a team has the bravery to actually go at them – but the problem is that Liverpool showed absolutely no attacking impetus until they were already 2-0 down, and even then it was half-hearted and listless.
There are a number of questions that need to be asked, not just about the defeat at the weekend but ultimately about Rodgers’ tactical decisions in general this season.
Where, for example, was there to be any sort of benefit in utilising Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino, two forward players, as makeshift wing backs? All of the necessary personnel for a 4-4-2 diamond were on the pitch so why stick with the inflexible 4-3-3 which thus far has only provided 45 minutes of an effective (yet goalless) performance from the players?
It’s a view that Jamie Carragher shared on Sky Sports following the game:
“I don’t understand his [Rodgers’] obsession with playing 4-3-3…The great season they had was with two strikers and how they got into the team is down to the manager. They’ve got lots of strikers, no wide players, and he continues to play 4-3-3.”
He’s right of course, and it makes the decision to send Lazar Marković, one of the few actual wingers at the club, on loan to Fenerbahçe look even worse in hindsight.
The persistence in playing 18-year-old Joe Gomez at left back began brightly enough, but it is similar to the manager’s insistence on playing Emre Can as a central defender last season. It started well but the good form waned for the simple reason that Can is not a central defender, just as Gomez is not a left back. It comes across as a manager trying to be far too clever when sometimes the most logical course of action (i.e. Alberto Moreno) would be the best one.
It’s nearly approaching the stage where serious questions have to be raised over the ability of Rodgers to turn this around. It’s perhaps unfair to mention these concerns so early into a new season, but the fact is that the issues that Rodgers and Liverpool are facing – the mistakes they are making and the inadequacies they are displaying – are nothing new.
Rodgers did well to hang on to his job given the way the team fell apart at the tail-end of last season. Coaches Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh were sacrificed but the manager remained, and the appointments of Sean O’Driscoll and Gary McAllister to the backroom staff were supposed to bring about a reversal of fortune in the team’s performances.
And that’s before the topic of transfer dealings comes up. There was a statistic floating around recently that said of the 24 players recruited while Rodgers has been at the club prior to this summer, only 9 remain. That’s incredibly wasteful on any level. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been pumped into this squad and yet they are still sorely lacking in key areas of the pitch.
Although FSG have appeared to give Rodgers their medium-term backing at the very least, the calls of frustration and anger from the fans are getting louder. The supporters are witnessing a team that is at best stagnating, at worst regressing, and they feel a change is necessary.
Having made such a big deal of supporting the manager in the summer though, it’s difficult to see them going back on that so quickly – but something does need to change in this team and soon.
It would also be a mistake to rush to a decision on Rodgers’ future unless they had an alternative plan already lined up.
The elephant in the room in all of this of course is former Dortmund boss Jürgen Klopp. Klopp would be an ideal replacement from Liverpool’s point of view but not necessarily Klopp’s – although Liverpool would represent a relatively attractive proposition for him (especially as he has gone on record as saying he wants his next job to be a challenge). It remains to be seen how eager he would be to wade into the mess at Anfield right now rather than bide his time until next summer, when he will undoubtedly be getting offers from better clubs.
If, and when it comes to replacing Rodgers, Fenway Sports Group are going to have to change tack. Their policy regarding playing staff is to recruit young and inexperienced players who are seen as having lots of potential. It’s a policy they tried with their choice of manager too, but ultimately the problem with that idea is there is no leadership being shown from anyone there (including Rodgers) because everyone is too young and inexperienced. It’s not a mistake that the owners can afford to make again.
But for now that is all just speculation. Rodgers is still in charge and retains the backing of FSG (for the time being at least), and as such will be given time and patience to rectify this problem.
The return of Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and long-term absentee Daniel Sturridge should provide a boost for the team, but there is a very real fear that the return of these players might not be enough, that the rot that has set in might be terminal for the manager.
The return of Sturridge in particular provides an interesting dilemma. As married as Rodgers is to the 4-3-3 formation, Sturridge will not accept being shunted out on to the wing, like Danny Ings and Divock Origi were forced to on Saturday. Lack of a prominent striking role is one of the main reasons he left Chelsea and he will demand, and deserve, a spot up front next to Benteke.
This is starting to feel like the beginning of the end for Rodgers, and when that feeling begins to set in then no amount of “character” can solve it.
Brendan Rodgers called Liverpool’s last visit to Old Trafford – a 3-0 loss last December – his “best defeat”. This was arguably his worst, and could prove to be the most costly for him.