By Mathew Twells
WHEN Brendan Rodgers first arrived at Anfield to meet his future bosses in Tom Werner and John W. Henry, he famously brought along his dossier, his footballing philosophy that he had been compiling throughout his various coaching and managerial roles. Filled with play-by-plays, tactics, formations and all the acumen to flaunt his prowess as the next big young coach, you’d have been forgiven for thinking he was planning a military manoeuvre not managing a football club.
This isn’t to belittle his forward thinking. He has made his plans, ironed out his strategy and motivational techniques – put them in envelopes – and armed himself with all the tools he felt necessary to get him his dream job, to build a legacy he can take forward into his later life and be put on a pedestal next to the cream of Liverpool FC’s management greats. Kudos to him.
On his way to Melwood for his first day’s training with his squad he must have left the documents titled ‘Defending’ and ‘Classic clichés / Things Jose told me’ on his train seat.
He kept the ‘Death by football’ front page which was all about how Liverpool would press high up the pitch and aim to win the ball back within three seconds of losing it, which his side did with gusto in the early days. However now that has slipped by the wayside it’s as if he lost the rest of the contents on how to implement it.
Rodgers’ form of defence is the old, attack is the best, form and to an extent he is right, it is. If you keep the ball and don’t let the opposition have a sniff, they can’t score and they chase the ball around and tire themselves out. If the side win the ball back quickly enough there is no pressure and emphasis on the defenders to do what it says on the tin, defend.
Of course this is where Liverpool FC circa 2013-14 come into their own of late, reminiscent of the Keegan, Newcastle era.
Rodgers is seemingly cutting his teeth tactically at Liverpool. Seemingly unaware of how to get his back line to do their job properly, tinkering with line-ups when his boss is in the country and trying to impress upon them that he is the man to take Liverpool forward. What they will have seen however is a manager with limits early in his managerial career. Liverpool’s season is slightly fading, losses to Hull, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea before the Aston Villa draw, have been damaging to the Champions League objective. The results against the top sides are hurtful but it’s the dropped five points against Hull and Villa that cut deep. They are games that the Reds will have been expected to win on current form against “lesser” opposition and in doing so keeping pace with the top three and being three points behind the leaders despite the other losses to the big sides.
The manager has issues to address if he has the credentials and guts to do so.
The full backs are disjointed and not in cohesion with each other. Glen Johnson has been taking a lot of heat for his substandard performances lately, so much so that it looked as though he had lost all interest in playing for the club at first glance. It turns out he is awaiting a knee operation and this has been hindering him.
Aly Cissokho looks dire and if he crosses the halfway line he is in nose bleed territory and offers no big threat going forward. A mixture of him taking time to settle in England and a perceived lack of defensive instruction doesn’t help him.
On paper a fully fit Johnson and a settled, confident fullback like Cissokho should work. One marauds forward while the other sits back on the opposite side like Dani Alves and Eric Abidal did at Barcelona (a loose notion), it’s balance. But each of them has issues to address and Jon Flanagan will offer a much more stable option on his return.
Rodgers’ constant tinkering with centre back pairings and inability, or lack of courage, to pick players for his favoured formation 3-5-2/3-4-3 is having detrimental effects on defensive performances and goalkeeping from Simon Mignolet.
The Belgian goalkeeper got off to a flying start – quite literally – to his Anfield career. Save after save was made game after game and his performances helped Liverpool achieve their top of the table status at Christmas.
Liverpool’s defence has been wide open all season and the midfield is as soft as the jam filled middle of a Dunkin Donut, allowing shots to come in at Mignolet on a regular basis. Rodgers and his side got away with it for a while, but like anything, the more you do something dangerous the more likely it is you’ll get hurt. And Liverpool have stuck their hand in the fire too many times and are currently getting burnt with his performances of late.
It’s not all Mignolet’s fault, he has no protection from his defence on open play or set pieces and in defence of the defence, they get no protection from midfield either. All of these issues have a knock on effect through the side. Mignolet has set such high standards for himself in the early part of the season that it is expected of him to maintain that form no matter what is thrown at him and of late it includes the kitchen sink.
Liverpool’s midfield enforcer is Lucas who is liable to commit a foul or two (or three) in a dangerous area, which is ok when breaking up play if your defence is well drilled and organised, but it is a calamitous error if your defenders treat an aerial ball like they are developmental players in the academy. Now the Brazilian is injured the midfield is weaker than before and the need of a true defensive midfielder is paramount, one that will sit and plug the gap between midfield and defence.
The Liverpool manager needs to hold himself accountable for the points dropped. He is the one that picks his team and changes line-ups on a whim. To aim criticism at the fans like he did in his press conference after the Villa game is a crass comment. Suggesting that it’s the fans fault for feeling nervous about the way his team were playing against a struggling side and that nervousness filtered to the players, as a reason for his side’s poor performance is out of order. He and his side have built this expectation with some great results and performances this season and he should be relishing trying to please the Kop, not using them to mask his failure to pick a side or organise a side worthy of three points.
If Rodgers can’t organise and instruct his side defensively then maybe he should get someone in to help him do so, or is that another area of stubbornness he needs to overcome? Maybe the ‘Appoint Steve Clarke as a defensive coach’ page of his dossier was on that train too.
Pics: David Rawcliffe / Propaganda