LUIS Suarez stands five paces from the ball; 25 yards from goal. The Kop stands, expectant. Something brilliant is about to happen. Jaws prepare to drop and spines ready themselves to tingle.
Approaching the ball side on, the Uruguayan whips it goalwards with his magical right boot. It sails over the wall, it curls beyond the left-hand post, but not before swerving back within the frame of the goal posts. It’s nestled into the back of the net before a despairing, diving Vyacheslav Malafeev can get his gloves anywhere near it.
Suarez and Anfield roar as one. His divine free-kick has just put Liverpool 3-1 up against Zenit St Petersburg. From being 3-0 down on aggregate, they now have half an hour to score one more goal to progress to the Last 16 of the Europa League. The momentum is theirs. The Reds are rampant. Rodgers knows it. Anfield knows it. Zenit know it. They’re on the ropes.
A double substitution had been lined up, and Rodgers follows through with it despite the change in scoreline; the change in emphasis. Thirty seconds after the goal he changes it up, with Liverpool in the ascendancy he looks to his bench to provide the fresh legs to kill off the Russians. Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson, the foundation of Liverpool’s comeback are withdrawn. Oussama Assaidi and Jonjo Shelvey are introduced.
The Reds’ previously fluid buildup play becomes stodgy, attacks break down. Assaidi is isolated and toothless on the wing, Shelvey is unapologetically and relentlessly Shelvey. Within five minutes he picks up a customary booking and then flashes a shot wide. This evening would be a mirocosm of his entire Liverpool first team career. Zenit regain a foothold in the game. Shelvey is unable to compensate for the loss of Henderson and Allen in the middle.
Liverpool limp through the final half-hour. The wave upon waves of attacks that had characterised the first quarter of an hour of the second half have disappeared. After promising a grandstand finish from the 59th minute, Rodgers had gambled against logic and reason. He went with an instinctive double substitution; he blinked, when he should have stayed firm as the situation changed.
Suarez’s agony at the final whistle was almost unmatched in all his time on Merseyside, until the aftermath of Crystal Palace away last season. Similarly to that night, it was a case of so near, yet so far.
In the biggest game of his debut season, it is this double substitution that costs Rodgers the big result that he had been craving. The monkey on his back continued to paw.
It would seem flippant to draw so much from two substitutions, but as Rodgers has continually shown in his two-and-a-bit years at Anfield, this is not an isolated incident and the art of the substitution is a forte that he is still yet to master. Critiques of this aspect of his managerial capabilities appeared to reach a mainstream crescendo after the 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in November, when the withdrawal of Emre Can and Coutinho for Joe Allen and Fabio Borini raised eyebrows amongst both supporters and the wider media.
Now of course, there must be a caveat. And it must be that the art of the substitution is precisely what it is, an art-form. There is no correct answer, no calculation or pre-ordained theorem to solve the problem. There is a choice of seven to introduce and 11 to withdraw, so many possibilities and so many situations that can be created. The impact of the substitute is interpreted in many different ways, and short of making the kind of tangible impact that directly wins a game, their influence can be gauged subjectively from person to person, and is as much about who they replace than who they are themselves.
The art of the substitution has changed even in the last decade. The move from four outfield substitutes to six in 2008 has clogged up the bench and clogged up the manager’s options. So instead of two or three possible attacking changes to contemplate, the manager now has up to four or five. Like a kid in a sweetshop, there is such a thing as too much choice.
Jonathan Liew wrote in The Telegraph in September that “managers who don’t use all their substitutions, or who use them too late, appear to be giving up a significant advantage as a result. Not only do substitutions minimise the risk of injury to tired players, it also provides managers with the best chance of influencing the game in their favour.”
In his study of the importance of substitutions it threw up some interesting observations on Rodgers. Last season he used only 80% of his available substitutions, making him the second most conservative manager in the Premier League – little surprise though when you consider the options available to him on the bench last year.
Rodgers would tend to make his first substitution, on average, around the 63 minute mark; before the hour if Liverpool were losing, after 65 if they were winning. In Liew’s study, it’s the arch-pragmatists Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce that prove the most effective, making their substitutions earlier so as to maximise their impact, and varying their use depending on the state of the game.
If these two are viewed as the benchmark then Liew’s study does not paint Rodgers in a positive light. But up until this season he has had neither the numbers or the quality to maximise his use of substitutions. In 2012-13 23 outfield players featured in the league for Liverpool, but the trusted members of the squad in August barely resembled those in May, while seven of the 24 used in 2013-14 figured in fewer than 10 games.
Even in his sole Premier League season with Swansea, Rodgers operated on thin playing resources and used only 82% of his available substitutions. But relying on a core of 17 players as he did last season is unsustainable in the long-term.
After a summer of investing in additions to add depth to the squad and help it compete on up to four fronts, Rodgers’ reliance on substitutions has naturally increased. Already in the league this season he has used 88% of the substitutions allowed to him; it is a significant jump, but is it having the desired effect?
On the opening day of the season it was a substitution that unlocked the key to victory. Liverpool were playing 4-2-3-1 and struggling to break down a better than expected Southampton, Daniel Sturridge was isolated up front and Rodgers couldn’t bring the best out of his attacking players. Lucas Leiva is withdrawn on 63 minutes and Joe Allen enters the fray, doing what he does best; finding pockets of space, recycling possession, running with the ball and taking the play up the pitch.
With their foothold in the game regained thanks to Allen, Rickie Lambert replaces Philippe Coutinho, who’s had one of his more mercurial days. Lambert provided more than an aerial presence, he occupied space and defenders, and three minutes later Sturridge scored Liverpool’s winner. This was Rodgers marshalling his resources effectively, and identifying the talent on the bench that could force a victory that the performance may not have merited.
Just over a fortnight later at White Hart Lane, Liverpool are 3-0 up after an hour. Rodgers takes off Allen and debutant Mario Balotelli, and brings on Emre Can and Lazar Markovic. This, you can imagine, was the ideal scenario that the manager had envisaged for the slow integration of his younger signings. The pair shored the game up, offered fresh legs and running, and helped play the game out as Liverpool let Spurs keep the ball and hit them on the break.
But since August the early promise that Rodgers showed at balancing a larger squad has disappeared. While the injuries to Daniel Sturridge caused him to abandon the style that ran Liverpool so close to the Premier League title last season for three months, it had a knock-on effect on substitutions.
Between September and December Liverpool started games slower, and until the switch to a loose 3-4-3 away at Old Trafford the shape had never been the right fit for the players. Because the Reds have not been charging ahead in games as they did last season, substitutes are now having to do much more to win the game.
West Ham away prompted two tactical switches before the start of the second-half, and with 15 minutes left to chase the points Rodgers called upon Lambert again. This time the switch made the team predictable, Allardyce immediately brought on James Collins, tightened up defensively and hit Liverpool on the counter. Rodgers’ sparing use of Lambert as the proverbial last-roll-of-the-dice goes to show the difficulty in premeditating the influence of substitutes; sometimes it works without bringing the desired effect, sometimes it just doesn’t work.
At the Etihad in August the England forward forced a Pablo Zabaleta own goal and squandered a golden opportunity to bring Liverpool to 2-3 with minutes to go. At home to Hull in October Lambert joined Balotelli up front for the final half-an-hour and the Reds eventually fashioned enough chances at the end to have expected to come away with the points. Against Chelsea he replaced Balotelli with 11 minutes to go and Liverpool’s attacking play, as it had at West Ham, died.
Yet at Villa Park on the weekend Lambert’s introduction was widely greeted with scorn, but clinched victory. The 32 year-old is emblematic of Rodgers’ inconsistency with substitutions. He’s the throwback to a bygone era, chucked on in the dying embers as a last resort, the big, physical target-man to lump the ball to. He’s more than that though, as he showed against Aston Villa at the weekend and as he did often enough for Southampton, but his presence on the bench, with ‘Plan B’ draped across his forehead, is a distraction to Rodgers. It’s too reactive, and not proactive enough.
A long-term criticism of Rodgers as Liverpool manager is that, sometimes, he’s too clever for his own good, certainly when he he has, in the past, attempted to get as many of his attacking players on the pitch as possible. But when Rodgers is proactive, it works more often that not. And when it doesn’t come off, at least he’s going about things in the right way. Though the less said about Brad Smith’s half-an-hour cameo at Stamford Bridge, the better.
Early into his reign he hauled Suso off after an ineffectual half-hour against Wigan Athletic at home. Jordan Henderson came on, and Liverpool won the game 3-0. This season, struggling at Loftus Road but with QPR tiring, Joe Allen and Coutinho are brought on; the Brazilian’s creativity and direct running central to a madcap 3-2 win.
Unlike the high-pressure debacle in his first season, Rodgers’ most inspired substitution last season came during one of its most high-pressure scenarios, the 3-2 home win against Manchester City. Liverpool’s two-goal half-time advantage had been eradicated by a rampant City within 17 minutes of the restart, and in no small part was this down to James Milner’s arrival on 50 minutes, freeing up the imperious David Silva.
The Liverpool manager failed to act early enough to stem the sky-blue tide which the extra body in the City midfield had facilitated, but with Liverpool overrun Rodgers made the big call, even if his hand was forced by an injury to Daniel Sturridge. As ever, it was Joe Allen who made the difference; taking the ball under pressure, keeping possession and rebuilding the breached dam. Without Joe Allen, Liverpool do not win that game.
The point of looking so extensively at Rodgers’ substitutions is simply because the expectancy is that he should be better at them. For a manager so famed for tactical tinkering and innovations, why can he not be better adept at judging substitutions? Is it too much to demand that? To the punters substitutions are easy, they’re easy ways to change a game when it’s sometimes too difficult to appreciate the nuances in the tactical flow of the game. Football Manager, FIFA, we’ve all been there, we’ve made those substitutions to win games, why can’t the man whose paid to do it, do it better?
This season is a new ballpark for Rodgers; more games, more players, more decisions, more substitutions. Naturally, he is getting more wrong. Up until the Crystal Palace disaster in November the substitutions had appeared reactive in a way that didn’t suit him. Conservative and ill-fitting a team whose natural desire, like its manager, is to dictate matters on the front foot. Since Manchester United away, and the switch to the more progressive 3-4-3 formation, Rodgers has shown his qualities that went missing for three months and the improvement has been marked.
The switch to a formation that better suits his players has brought a lower reliance on substitutions; naturally if you’re having to make fewer game-changing substitutions then you are getting more right with your team selection and tactics. Liverpool have had more control in games, and only against Arsenal and Leicester have they needed to make those changes from the bench to alter the scoreline. That on both occasions the bench didn’t influence the game doesn’t necessarily prove anything.
When Daniel Sturridge is dropped into this system, and when the team encounter tight in-game situations over the coming weeks – as they surely will in the Capital One Cup and Europa League – Rodgers’ ability to use his bench will be tested again.
Due to Rodgers and the team’s unexpected success last year, and the new expectations and desires it inspired, it seems that the time for lessons and stumbling self-development are over in the eyes of many of his critics. Mistakes have been made this season because he is a young manager—still learning—managing a young team, who are still learning. The progress of the past month suggests that the learning process is taking shape, that the bleak autumn will bear long-term fruit.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda