BRENDAN Rodgers remains as Liverpool manager then; granted a fourth season after this week’s Liverpool get-together with Tom Werner and Mike Gordon. Initial assurance for Rodgers came in the shape of a Merseyside venue for talks, instead of the Boston offices where Kenny Dalglish got whacked by his American paymasters. However, the mooted “comprehensive plan” agreed at the summit meeting — to ensure an improvement in Liverpool’s fortunes — has met principally with an outpouring of dismay, doom and sarcasm from the majority of Reds’ followers in pubs and on social media alike.
Seduced by the apparent prospect of Jurgen Klopp — and the more fanciful notion of luring Carlo Ancelotti — many of us were at best underwhelmed at the prospect of a new campaign under a man whose popularity has plummeted since the heady days of last spring.
As we now know, the more exotic German and Italian alternatives have a stated desire to take sabbaticals from their respective managerial careers. The lasting presence of two men (the former a far more obvious prospect) who acknowledge and respect the name Liverpool FC, means Rodgers will be under immediate pressure if results in the early part of August go awry.
My main concern at the manager’s stay of execution is that even with the perennial hope a new season brings, a latent dislike of Brendan Rodgers among the fan-base threatens to derail yet another campaign from the outset.
The well-worn words and clichés are ready to roll off caustic tongues: “What has he won?”, “He can’t organise a defence”, “He’s a fraud”. Some critical claims are more valid than others, and three seasons without a trophy is a bottom line that stands his critics in good stead. But the more personal attacks referencing his marital status and even the colour of his teeth are proof of a growing revulsion from many towards the man who occupies the Anfield hot-seat.
Considering the efforts of 2013-14, which saw Rodgers’ Liverpool, by the width of a cigarette paper, fall short of the league title we crave, it is remarkable how little goodwill remains towards a coach still in his formative years. The style of football, an avalanche of goals, accumulation of 84 points and a season that was consistently compelling from the start (not just in the midst of a remarkable 11 consecutive wins) has been widely dismissed as “all down to Suarez”.
Key components of Liverpool’s embittered, dysfunctional support are short memories, jerks of the knee, a willingness to dismiss achievement and attribute all to those who have departed, and all the while display a lack of generosity to those who remain.
That said, Rodgers undoubtedly made and repeated a series of errors last term; not least the loss of his attacking principals in the midst of a depressing autumn, and his persistence with Balotelli and/or Lambert in a rigid lone front role that rendered Liverpool impotent. Having found a revolutionary solution in the shape of the 3-4-3 system that brought about a run of results (10 wins and three draws in 13 league matches) which was comparable with the best of the previous year, he abandoned it too readily and reverted for the final push to the turgid set-up that put him under pressure in the first place.
A sense that the game was up in the wake of crushing league defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal, and that the dressing room accepted a Europa League fate all too soon, contributed to an appalling season conclusion that merely hardened the growing disapproval of the man responsible for morale.
There are many however numerous mitigating circumstances that explain the drop from a heartbreaking second in 2014 to an eventual sixth place finish in 2015. Not least among a plethora of valid excuses was the “replacement” of Suarez with a player (Mario Balotelli) Rodgers clearly didn’t want — even if he acceded to myth and played him too often — and the unforeseen injuries to Sturridge.
Not only did this halve Liverpool’s goals tally but also shrunk the options ahead for Raheem Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson who manfully carried what remained of an attacking threat.
In the emotional wake of the concluding 6-1 defeat at Stoke, I was as much in favour of a change as anyone. Presiding over a defeat like that off the back of capitulations at the hands of Hull and Crystal Palace turned me into a Rodgers agnostic. However, in the cold dispassionate light of day, there are good reasons for preserving the status quo. A carousel that has seen Benitez, H*****n, and Dalglish clear their desks has achieved nothing constructive, merely serving to empower an impatient fan-base with a thirst for blood at the first sign of weakness.
News that FSG, whatever their reasoning, had sanctioned for Rodgers a last throw of the dice coincided with me watching brief highlights of the epic 3-2 victory over Manchester City in April 2014. Watching this game again reminded me it wasn’t “all down to Suarez”. Of course, he played his part but he did so alongside remarkable, committed contributions from Sterling, Coutinho, Gerrard, Skrtel et al. This was a team effort watched from the technical area by a buoyant innovative young coach, applauded to the rafters by a vibrant exultant crowd. How things can change so quickly; almost in the blink of an eye, as football mirrors life.
We all know what happened next but only the harshest critics can blame the manager for Gerrard’s heart-rending slip. Mockery can easily be made of a subsequent narrative — aimed at the manager — that Liverpool went “gung-ho” in a game when a draw would suffice. Chelsea had just two shots on target and the defence was breached only when the captain fell over and when Liverpool were countered in a last desperate attempt to salvage a crucial point.
More recently, at the height of a run that threatened to return the Reds to the Champions League despite the terrors of autumn, Liverpool again destroyed City at Anfield this February with a display of attacking football that bore all the hallmarks of 2013-14. As we know now, that shaft of mid-season light faded to false dawn.
News that Rodgers is staying has accompanied talk of new arrivals on the pitch. Again supporters appear underwhelmed with apparent targets James Milner, Christian Benteke, Nathaniel Clyne, and Danny Ings. Let’s pessimistically assume that is the extent of business Liverpool plan to conclude this summer — and there is recent recruitment and investment history to suggest that might be our lot.
There is also the Sterling contract impasse to resolve, but we would hope that he either stays or is directly replaced with the full use of the fee received.
For the purposes of this exercise, I’m assuming, somewhat flippantly, that Sterling plays FIFA with Clyne, goes the gym with Danny Ings, is shit-scared of Benteke and finds “boring James Milner” riveting company. Raheem stays, if only to act as a human shield for Rodgers from a crowd that can’t make up its mind who to crucify first.
Then I started picking my team for Rodgers’ last hurrah. Slowly, I began to feel a sense of assurance and then excitement as an XI began to take shape. I thought about the flexibility of systems which can only be described as a Brendan forte. I imagined his favoured 4-4-2 diamond, his 4-3-3 and an adaptation of the 3-4-2-1 (or 3-4-3) that was eventually abandoned last season. Whatever the set-up, I was able to envisage many of the qualities missing last season — pace, mobility, commitment, verve and youth.
I’m presuming we revert, with the novel idea that we have actual strikers, to a front-foot attacking style that treats each game on its merits — to outscore the opposition by one goal at least. I’m accepting the defence has limitations but that it comes under less pressure because we’ve got more energy and better cover, we’re doing most of the attacking and conceding the odd goal doesn’t need to signal doomsday.
So here is my squad — of 11 August starters and candidates for three good changes from the bench.
Subs from: GK, Lovren, Wisdom, Lallana, Origi, Sturridge, Allen, Lucas, Ings, Markovic.
The above selection is based on the diamond — which Rodgers is thought to have bought for last year — but it’s just as easy to envisage a lightning front three of Sturridge, Sterling and Origi. Or, Benteke playing centrally with Sterling to the right, Sturridge hanging to the left. The midfield looks solid, full of running and better equipped to feed the front and protect the defence. If Sterling goes, a like-for-like replacement is essential with Theo Walcott mentioned in some circles.
Most of all, I believe in Rodgers to mould that group of 20 into an effective unit, whatever the formation on a given day, that plays at a tempo to suit — and rediscovers — an offensive mojo.
I can see Henderson emerging from the shadow always cast by Steven Gerrard; I can imagine Moreno, Can and Markovic scaling a second season learning curve, Milner adding thrust and a cool head, Origi adding much needed pace and running — with dynamic full backs filling the midfield space on the flanks a potential diamond leaves.
Whatever the personnel up front, whether it’s a returning Sturridge, the targeted Benteke (or someone else with an eye for goal), and a happier Sterling (or his replacement) then the corpse-like attack of last season must soon resemble just a bad dream.
A new season should always bring expectation, and August ought to be no different. I’m backing the manager because he’s the Liverpool manager and I think he’s a nice enough fella. As a club we’re trying to win an unfair game against the pulling power and spending might of the top four, and in Brendan Rodgers we have a man, who for all last season’s travails, has come closest to topping the lot in 25 years.
With Klopp lurking behind every corner, he might just throw caution to the wind and I think that’s the mindset that has served him best.
He deserves his chance to put things right and he deserves the backing of the fans in the ground. Whether he gets that remains to be seen. To begin with, sadly, he’s likely to be on his own.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda