“It’s just as well that I’ve seen the team give an off-form display in my first match. I’ve learned quite a few things this way.”
Bill Shankly, reflecting on his new club’s 4-0 home defeat to Cardiff City, certainly sounds like a man from a different media age.
Today the headlines, tweets and phone-ins would scream that Shankly welcomed defeat, that Liverpool were giving up, that mediocrity’s embrace was to be welcomed at Anfield.
In reality, it’s clear Shankly’s assessment was as sensible as it was frank. Seeing the club’s failings laid bare rather than papered over was useful to the incoming manager. Conclusions could be drawn.
Following West Brom the same can be said. Not conclusions about the manager or the club’s long-term health. 90 far from ordinary minutes are no guide to that.
But in terms of how this might all work, who fits and who doesn’t, there were some clear pointers to emerge from a match whose initial promise was snuffed out as the side’s performance fell off a cliff.
There are parallels between Cardiff 1959 and West Brom 2012. In both games, Liverpool operated smoothly at times but were undone by a troubling fragility.
At the Hawthorns Liverpool simply had no answer to the setbacks the game threw at them. Phil Dowd may have erred in awarding the penalties but the manner of their concession reflected a general air of panic which spread through the team.
Perhaps only time and confidence can resolve something so ephemeral as a side’s psychological glass jaw. Now revealed, it will take some protecting.
Back in 1959, match reports pointed to the wing-halves as a source of concern. Further back, regular full-back John Molyneux was withdrawn late due to an unpleasant-sounding outbreak of boils on the shin (one of football’s great lost injuries). Molyneux’s replacement was Alan Jones, untested and raw. It didn’t end well.
If there is one lesson to come from West Brom (other than not to give away penalties and red cards) it’s the importance of the full-backs to everything this team is trying to achieve.
The Rodgers system is so reliant on the team attacking as a unit, on cohesion, on, in short, everyone ‘getting it’, that a weak link can be cruelly exposed.
On Saturday Martin Kelly was too often that weak link. It would be presumptuous to say that Kelly can never be a part of this system, but at the moment it seems self-evident that he is ill-suited to the demands it places on him.
The injury to Jose Enrique left the manager with a decision he may not have anticipated. Rodgers took the most obvious and conservative option – switching Glen Johnson to the left to accommodate Kelly, his most experienced backup full-back.
The logic is plain, but ultimately the call may be one Rodgers rues. Johnson was generally effective in his secondary position, although his delivery was hampered by his uncertainty when striking through the ball on his weaker left foot. On the other flank, Kelly looked lost.
His overall performance level was low, but the problem was as much about the type of footballer Kelly is as how he played on the day. It’s extremely hard to see how, without adapting his game hugely, he can ever be a Rodgers right-back.
Stewart Downing has come in for some justified criticism but in the first half his options were so often limited by the absence of Kelly outside him. The opportunity to turn the ball outside to an onrushing full-back needs to be a fundamental part of the wide forwards’ armoury. Without it they, and the team, are more predictable.
Similarly, while Joe Allen introduced himself with an accomplished display of consistent and intelligent passing, the lack of a reliable outlet on the right left Liverpool’s shape lopsided.
This is no time to panic or write players off entirely. Kelly may well have a future at the club (not least as a centre-back), but for the time being we need to see more from a role which is anything but peripheral.
Enrique’s return will offer better balance, and there have been encouraging pre-season signs that the Spaniard is comfortable operating high up the pitch.
The paucity of options should either be missing (and we should accept the likelihood that Johnson at least will be absent at times) is a genuine concern.
Jack Robinson is an exciting prospect at left-back but it would be a huge ask for him to cover for an extended period. Jon Flanagan has faded from the picture and would be unlikely to offer significant attacking contributions. The deployment of either Jordan Henderson or Downing as wide defenders holds an allure for would-be tinkermen but would represent a significant gamble.
At the time of writing it appears Liverpool have missed out on the capture of Nuri Sahin. While his range of passing and continental pedigree would have been very welcome at Anfield, a central midfielder should now be less of a priority than quality competition and cover for both full-back slots.
Follow Steve on Twitter @steve_graves