THE smell of fresh paint, the sight of the freshly watered pristine turf, the sound of a stadium slowly filling almost to capacity, the overwhelming sense of anticipation. It wasn’t just the start of a new season at Anfield; it was the start of a new chapter in the club’s history, the section where Brendan Rodgers gets a stab at taking Liverpool back to where the supporters feel the club belongs.
At a club with a history like Liverpool’s there will always be comparisons to the past and those comparisons aren’t always going to be favourable. Liverpool won’t get back to those good old days by simply copying what was done before but Rodgers has his own ideas on what can be brought back, reused or kept and what needs to be sacrificed or should have been dumped already.
Rodgers has already played a part in bringing back an old “This Is Anfield” sign in the tunnel, one that was up above that staircase at a time when Liverpool were constantly winning silverware by banging the ball into the red nets at either end of their stadium. The red nets were back last night too.
Liverpool wore their new red kits, new kits in the old shade of red. Warrior, the club’s new shirt supplier, went to the club museum to colour match the shades of red for the shirt and yellow for the badges against shirts Liverpool wore in the seventies and eighties. Their slogan, #WeComeNotToPlay, plastered as a Twitter hashtag around the stadium, isn’t quite as popular with supporters as the kits.
Before the game kicked off Roy Evans was on the pitch, the former manager there to present an award, a Liverbird, to Jamie Carragher to mark his 700 appearances for the club. As the game went on the Kop chanted the name of another former manager, the man Rodgers replaced, Kenny Dalglish, but that was in recognition of what that man means to Liverpool supporters, not a message to Brendan Rodgers. Dalglish wasn’t at the game but his former assistants were, Steve Clarke and Kevin Keen, now of West Brom, watching the match to see what they’ll be up against in the first match of the league season.
There was only one new player on show for them, Fabio Borini the only addition to a squad they were helping to coach a few months ago. Sitting not too far away from them in the stands was another likely addition, Joe Allen of Swansea. Rodgers expects the deal for the midfielder to be concluded by the end of the day today: “It’s obviously imminent,” he said, “I haven’t heard the total latest purely because I’ve been preparing for the game, but if he’s up here it’s obviously a sign there’s been communication with Swansea and hopefully over the next 24 hours we can conclude that.”
Rodgers wants to make more signings before the window closes at the end of the month but how many more he makes depends on how many more players he sells. The move for Allen will more or less use up the last of the transfer budget for the summer and he might have some difficult decisions to make on the futures of Daniel Agger and Andy Carroll.
In terms of Carroll it looks like the difficulty will be in deciding what to do with a player he’s made it fairly obvious he doesn’t want but who still hasn’t attracted an offer at the level he would have expected. If Carroll’s future depended on his popularity with the fans he’d be staying; he practically got a standing ovation for warming up ten minutes before half time. In the end he didn’t make it onto the pitch, Rodgers perhaps working out what kind of reception there would have been had he made it into the action.
He might have got the kind of reception Daniel Agger got. Agger has been linked all summer with a move to Manchester City, Rodgers finally admitting this week that Liverpool would have to consider an offer for him if it was for an ‘astronomical’ amount. That amount seems to be £27m but even if City come in with that kind of bid there is no saying Agger will go. The Denmark captain, with ‘YNWA’ freshly tattooed on his knuckles, certainly isn’t giving the impression he wants to leave the club and the feeling from the supporters is mutual. Agger’s name was chanted throughout the game, probably more than it ever has been, with a number of choruses of “Danny’s going nowhere” thrown in for good measure. Rodgers was just as enthusiastic in his congratulations for the player as he left the pitch after the match and had more good words for him when talking to the media later, saying the defender was “very important” to him and to his way of playing. Manchester City might not want to dawdle on coming up with an improved offer; the longer they take the more likely that astronomical price is going to rise.
The fixture was a near sell-out, 43,256 turning up to see Rodgers take charge of his first home game. That turnout was helped by the club cutting ticket prices for the match, with some tickets as low as £10 for adults and £5 for children available.
The contrast in the two legs of this tie was surprising. Liverpool looked a lot more than a week fitter, perhaps jetlag playing a part in last week’s first leg in Belarus. FC Gomel, who were unlucky to lose last week, were overrun by Rodgers’ men and saw very little of the ball. Whenever Liverpool lost possession they were quick to fight to win it back, usually in the opposition half, and pretty much always succeeded. Whether they’ll be so successful against better teams remains to be seen but it should be good to see the efforts being made.
Rodgers emphasised the importance of this kind of play from his sides: “I was very pleased with the pressing, first and foremost – in order for my teams to pass well it’s important that they press well and two of the three goals came from that pressure, as soon as we lost the ball, high up the pitch, and in that little bit of quality that we have at the top end of the field.
“The structure of the team I was very happy with, I thought the movement and the interchanging and the intelligence of the front four was terrific and I thought our possession play was getting better every day. So we’ve still got a lot of work to do, a lot of improvements, but I thought it was very encouraging tonight.”
One big difference between the two legs was the return of Luis Suárez, fresh from signing his wage-trebling new contract. He’d been brought down for a free kick within 30 seconds as Liverpool set out from the off to set the pace in the match. Steven Gerrard looked fully fit and played to his strengths in a more advanced central midfield position, part of what Rodgers describes as his “front four”. Borini has had another week to gel with his new team-mates and gelled well. Even Stewart Downing got some praise from the boss.
It was Fabio Borini, on his home debut, who got Liverpool’s opener and Rodgers was asked how he thought he played: “Very well. He’s an intelligent boy, he’s got a real good relationship – off and on the field – with Steven Gerrard so you see their combinations and how it works and I thought he took his goal very well, it was a difficult finish that, the ball’s up in the air and he showed good technique to get over the ball and finished it well.”
Borini’s goal came courtesy of some impressive play from Suárez, Gomel’s defenders struggling to deal with his cross before the Italian turned the ball in and went off to celebrate. Gerrard got the second and again it was Suárez who set it up, beating a couple of defenders before handing the captain a chance pretty much on a plate.
Rodgers tried not to single anyone out but had to praise his front men: “I thought the star of the team tonight was the team, and that’s how it must be for us we have to work. Luis Suárez is an incredible player, since he’s come back and looked great in training and I thought tonight his imagination and creativity around the box – but not only that his pressing on the ball whenever we lost it – was very good so all round an excellent performance.”
He didn’t hold back on sharing what he feels are Suárez’s qualities: “This is the type of player I love. This is a guy who’s in love with football. His passion for the game is immense and he’s a real reference for the team. He’s up there, you see his brightness his cleverness, his combinations with Steven, Fabio coming from the outside inside – and a mention for Stewart Downing as well because he gave us good width on that side and worked very hard as well.”
Of that front four: “They were a real potent attacking force and scored three and could have had more, it was very pleasing all round.”
Right-back Glen Johnson got the third, the fourth on aggregate, a left footed half volley that is going to feature in a few LFC goal of the season compilations this term. After the game his colleague at full-back, Jose Enrique, was enthusing about Rodgers’ ‘tiki-taka’ football but pointed out there is more to it than that: “It’s not just ‘tiki-taka’, when you have to defend you want to defend very high and this is important, we played pretty high today and we did very well.”
Enrique hopes to join Johnson on the score-sheet before too long: “I think everybody is still improving, all of the team still have to improve. I played more of a part in the game, before I played more with the centre-backs but now I’m playing more forward, really high, and I think, I hope, I can score goals! I hope, I hope!”
That’s pretty much what Liverpool fans are hoping for, throughout the team. Goals, entertainment, points, success. A 3-0 win over a side from Belarus isn’t enough to judge what the likelihood of that might be, and the squad lacks a little depth as it stands, but the signs are about as encouraging as they can get.
The signs need to stay that way, the progress has to be visible, because Liverpool fans aren’t quite as patient as they used to be. But Rodgers knows he’ll get their support as long as they know he’s doing all he can to write the next chapter in the club’s history in a way that resembles the way those old chapters were written.