AS the dust settles on a dismal campaign, fans are left wondering what’s next, writes PAUL McCABE. The wounds of a terrible conclusion to the season remain raw but, instead of finger-pointing, name-calling and blame-shifting, it might be the ideal time to rationally look at where the club sits and whether the owner’s expectations are aligned with those of the fans.
Bare facts say Liverpool were the sixth-best team in the league last season. That flattered Liverpool — I would argue Southampton and Swansea were better (more organised and attractive) outfits throughout the course of the season. Either way, that finish represented a drop of four places, a drop out of Champions League qualification and a significant drop in revenue.
With an embarrassing goal difference of just four, that particular statistic dipped by 47 from the previous season; a staggering decline represented by 49 less goals, 22 less points, abject failure in Europe… Take your pick, really.
More subjectively, the playing style was considerably less expansive. It remains a season of deep disappointment and regret.
While the statistics make for depressing reading, you can always spin these things. No doubt Brendan Rodgers’ version is shortly to be told as the much heralded review with FSG big wigs nears.
The fall from ace — from second to sixth
Success leaves clues, and so does failure. Up until a few weeks before the end of the season, the club was still in contention for fourth. It was unlikely, but still attainable. The team fell away dramatically, yet somehow were still only eight points off fourth place in the final analysis.
The gap to the Champions League spots was 17 points in Kenny Dalglish’s only full season of his second spell in charge when Liverpool finished eighth. It was 12 points off the coveted fourth spot in Rodgers’ first season.
The manager made some bewildering decisions, for sure, but something was amiss. Something seemed amiss all season and the unbeaten run that was sandwiched by mediocrity either side only papered the cracks. Whether it was stories about Mario Balotelli, whispers about Rodgers’ private life, agitating from Raheem Sterling, the injury to Sturridge or it being Gerrard’s last season, circumstances combined to make this a campaign of bad luck, bad timing and bad feeling.
It’s hard to pinpoint that “something” but there seemed to be a malaise from the outset. The disappointment of the previous season? The loss of Luis Suarez? Something else? Whatever, Liverpool didn’t start the season like a team that finished second last May. The vigour and confidence was gone, the spark had gone. It can’t have all been down to Suarez — the club had previously finished seventh and eighth with him in tow.
I’m not trying to justify the decline, merely putting it in some context. The context is Liverpool lost out on the league title — a once-in-a-lifetime chance — in dramatic circumstances and then they lost one of the best attacking players in the world. To compound that, they lost another big contributor to that season’s goals and overall success through injuries to Daniel Sturridge.
They are bad hands to be dealt and, when Barcelona came calling, no “big-name manager” would have been able to convince Suarez to stay. It was to Rodgers’ and FSG’s credit that they got THAT season out of him.
The season that culminated with Stoke City destroying Liverpool was unacceptable — but not unexpected. Most teams that finish second push on, but not, it seems, Liverpool. Instead, the Reds have developed a habit of declining dramatically in the season following a runners-up position. It’s like a bizarre curse; hard to fathom and even harder to stomach.
Much was made of Gerrard’s “slip” (even though there was still work for Ba to do, and 45 minutes to put things right) but Manchester United lost out on the title a few years back by virtue of a last-minute Aguero strike on the last day of the season. It couldn’t have been any more devastating. Yet they still went on to win the league the next season. It’s that mental resilience, or lack of it, that has cost Liverpool dearly.
£117m – the summer spend that means the end?
Many of the club’s signings from last summer have not worked out as well as expected. Emre Can has shown tremendous potential and there have been glimpses from Adam Lallana, but the likes of Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno haven’t quite taken off while Dejan Lovren has been an unmitigated disaster.
Rickie Lambert just does not fit into any system Rodgers has employed or with the midfielders assigned to link with him and Balotelli isn’t destined to work out and doesn’t seem to have been wanted in the first place by Rodgers. The “calculated gamble” has failed.
Footballers — and managers — might start in underwhelming fashion but eventually prove to be a success (think Henderson). They might start brilliantly and fade away (think Camara from years back), or they might have genuine quality but it just does not work out (think Morientes).
Some of Liverpool’s new recruits had poor or underwhelming seasons, but it does not mean they might never work out. Lovren looked a quality defender at Southampton, but a liability at Liverpool. Lambert looked strong at Southampton, too. The issue then becomes whether these are players will work out after some settling/tweaking of systems, or whether Rodgers has simply failed to get the best out of what he has available.
Liverpool looked less than the sum of their parts in the season just gone. The quality or mindset of these players, the systems employed and Rodgers himself all play a part in that. The manager also had a hand in signing some of these players and not utilising them in their most effective positions. But I still think he deserves the chance to put it right.
Fails of the unexpected
This is where expectations come in. Liverpool fans do expect a certain level of success, and sixth is nowhere near good enough. For all the talk of “provincial club” or being out of touch — which seemed to be a case of a long-time opponent kicking something when it’s down — it was only 10 years ago that Liverpool won the Champions League. The club has also been in another final subsequently.
There have been a couple of great league seasons in that time, too. The detractors may say that young players do not grow up with much memory of Liverpool Football Club being a force, but they only need to cast eyes over the last 10 years.
The club has done something Manchester City, Spurs, and Arsenal have all failed to do. The club is a worldwide force and, as much as the naysayers may want to convince themselves and others that history means nothing it very clearly does. If it doesn’t, isn’t it strange that all these rival supporters and journalists devote so much time writing songs and column inches about an “irrelevant” club?
Nevertheless, getting outfought by Hull, Palace and demolished by Stoke is worrying. The manner of these defeats has become an all-too-familiar story in many of Liverpool’s Premier League campaigns — irrespective of who was in charge. These are teams that Liverpool are expected to beat and should beat, even with current personnel. That’s a real and fair expectation, and it was one that Rodgers was mostly delivering on in the previous season. For that change, he’s culpable; he’s made mistakes. But when are younger managers allowed to learn from those mistakes?
The expectations for many now are that Rodgers will not be given time and will be fired. Kenny was dismissed in unceremonious fashion, and he’d won a trophy in his one full season, many more in his career and is a bona fide club legend. Rodgers doesn’t have Kenny or Rafa’s name value or track record.
He has a great season sandwiched between two average ones with Liverpool. He got Swansea promoted. He doesn’t, however, have recognised silverware to his name or a strong record in Europe.
The Brend is nigh?
Rodgers seems a thoroughly decent man but he doesn’t guarantee success. Consequently, many Liverpool fans expect an upgrade. Jurgen Klopp is seen as an upgrade and so is Carlo Ancelotti — both unattached and both with pedigree.
They are ‘newer’ — like a shiny toy unwrapped at Christmas — so they have to be better for Liverpool, right? In reality, we don’t know whether Klopp or Ancelotti would be interested (Klopp has indicated he’s taking a break, Ancelotti has been linked with an AC Milan return) or whether they would work out if they were. It’s unrealistic to expect any manager — especially one operating under financial constraints and a fairly strict transfer policy — to be a knight in shining armour.
Andre Villas Boas was a highly-regarded coach with European success on his CV. Then he floundered at Chelsea, finished fifth with Spurs and suffered a 5-0 drubbing by Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool. Apt. He was sacked but the crouching one has just guided Zenit St Petersburg to the title in Russia.
Even Louis van Gaal, with his wealth of experience, hasn’t been a resounding success at Old Trafford and he has had an insane amount of money at his disposal (around £150m)…to essentially get 70 points.
But, if either Klopp or Ancelotti indicate their interest in the role, publicly or privately, that’s two conversations worth having. If Rodgers is to go, it’s worth remembering that, for a manager with ambition, the challenge of trying to win the title for Liverpool is potentially a bit special — THAT guarantees a place in folklore. Even Jose Mourinho has alluded to it.
The fear is, though, that FSG aren’t focused on all that at all, and are more concerned with the “brand” – finishing top four rather than going all out and reselling the club further down the line.
These are sound business principles, but not enough to set pulses racing. Finishing in the top four and “selling to buy” is neither a particularly compelling project for most successful managers, nor a fun prospect for fans. Even if FSG invested like they wanted to win the league, it might not work out. It’s a difficult league and the Liverpool job can ruin reputations and add years to a manager. It’s a huge job with huge weight added to it.
Whether Rodgers stays or goes, we can do without the ad hominem attacks. He’s not a fraud, and what he does in his spare time is his own business. If he gets his teeth straightened and whitened, more power to him! They are non-issues. Same goes for any new manager too. It’s all gone a bit soap opera and too political for my liking.
You had supporters who were pro-Rafa and those who bemoaned his tactics or reported that he wasn’t an “arm round the shoulder” guy. Much of the media seemed to almost universally hate Kenny and Rafa. That’s fair enough, but both got great results for a time. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher were never better than when playing under Rafa Benitez. Instead of focusing on everything a manager’s not and focusing on the new man before he’s even arrived it might be wiser to support and encourage the one in charge.
I see enough quality and humility in Rodgers to argue he deserves another tilt. I thought the same about Kenny Dalglish. This is not to be a contrarian, but more to do with believing in the manager. It is not blind loyalty on my part, but faith. Loyalty only extends to how successful a club is, and Liverpool need to be doing everything it can to push for the title. Every player is expendable and so is every manager — even ones that win trophies. And given the increasing costs of going to a match, so too is every fan.
Modern life is rubbish
In the modern game, it all boils down to “what have you done for me lately?” Ask Carlo Ancelotti. It’s the kneejerk, quick-fix culture of modern football, where you’re a hero one week and on the outside the next. The emotional pendulum shifts quickly and mercilessly. Brendan Rodgers, you’re great. Brendan, you’re a fraud. Brendan, you’re a legend. Brendan, leave the keys under the mat.
I think what Liverpool fans expect of their players and managers is simple: passion, loyalty and an appreciation for the club. Rodgers has that, but he hasn’t got loyalty from some of his players in return: Sterling and Suarez, most crucially.
We’d love every player to have the attitude of Jay Spearing and the ability of Luis Suarez. Spearing’s not playing for Liverpool anymore because he was, like others, not deemed good enough to meet the club’s ambitions. Sterling, meanwhile, deems the club not good enough to meet his ambitions. That said, in my lifetime, I’ve never seen a Liverpool manager get universal acceptance from the fanbase. Too old, too young, too combative with the media, too friendly with the media, changes things too much, doesn’t change things enough. It reeks of “hindsight-ism” — we’re all wise after a defeat or when things aren’t going well.
Everyone has a right to go where they’d feel better appreciated, more culturally attuned and better paid. Suarez and Sterling want the big money and to play at the highest levels. We’d play for Liverpool for minimum wage, perhaps even for free, but football is far removed from the realities of the everyday life that most fans experience. Even within that context, we’d love a Steven Gerrard or Kenny Dalglish in terms of attitude. Sterling isn’t that guy. He never will be. What he could be, however, is FSG’s greatest Moneyball success at the club.
The problem now is that, if you shift Sterling out and more finances in, the rumoured reinforcements fall into the underwhelming category. With Milner and Ings believed to be done deals and Benteke a main target, you have to question the club’s ambition.
It doesn’t take a football visionary to see that these additions won’t take you from sixth to top four, let alone challenging for the title. As ever, it seems to be penny-wise and pound foolish. In fairness, though, is it unrealistic to expect a better calibre of player? I think we should be expecting more.
It’s not an excuse that Liverpool aren’t in the Champions League. These were the sort of players Liverpool pursued after finishing second — solid, but unproven/inconsistent at the top level. A lot of players now will go where the money is, or where they can be convinced by ‘a project’. Perhaps Rodgers is not a big enough name to draw in the big players, but that’s a moot point if Liverpool’s owners have a transfer policy where they’ll never pursue elite players.
Of course, we already know that spending big money and getting “the big names” guarantees nothing apart from big contracts, and Liverpool’s owners have been systematically cutting back on those.
Di Maria, Falcao and Mata did not significantly improve Man United. Ozil has not been a resounding success at Arsenal, while quite a few of Man City’s high-priced signings from last summer failed to make the required impact. It happens.
Some of those may still work out well, but signing elite players can also have a negative impact on the squad. Ideally, you’d be producing players like the aforementioned Messi and Gerrard. In the absence of catching lightning in a bottle, you have to buy shrewdly in the hope that some “value” signings step up, or “bet the farm” on proven commodities.
The transfer market is more like a shot in the dark than an exact science. However, when you finish sixth and got turned over 6-1 by Stoke City, there has to be tweaks in the strategy. In all honesty, it IS a time to sign some players who have a track record; to get the fans believing again. If that fails to happen, mediocrity and disappointment will continue.
I think a lot of fans want FSG to be something that they’re not, and something they’re unlikely to be. They want them to spend like oil tycoons, turning Liverpool’s quest for a title into a vanity project. That’s unrealistic. That’s not their blueprint. They’re in it for the money, and they’ve been decisive and clear in that.
Doing the business
FSG also have a desire for success, but done on a budget. They didn’t take long to get rid of Hodgson, Kenny didn’t get a second chance and, after many false starts and false promises, a spade IS in the ground for expanding Anfield. They’ve backed their managers, but always with the caveat of getting a lot of money back.
It’s sound business, but makes it difficult to compete with City, Chelsea and United. The club’s net spend was only £36million last summer. The club didn’t help Rodgers replace a world-class striker with a world-class striker. The owners gambled and it failed to pay off.
With FFP being “eased”, FSG can now change direction, but I don’t think that’s their plan or their desire. If they don’t change course and aren’t willing to compete for the title, it mightn’t be too long until the club is sold (no doubt, at a considerable profit) and with the hope that the buyers appreciate how much that title means to the club’s supporters. This could go on a while.
Ultimately, Liverpool supporters just want to see winning football and success. All the finger-pointing seems to go away when the team is doing well. Put more simply, we want to see Liverpool competing for, no, winning titles. One would be nice.
I feel we’ve been manipulated into a “corporate consciousness” — an obsession with player fees, wages and how much money the stadium expansions will cost and subsequently generate in income. It’s not about Dunkin Donuts, strange sponsorships or odd endorsements. These are necessary evils, dilutions of core values, “selling out” perhaps, but still necessary by-products of the need to be financially competitive.
Winning football matches and trophies is all that matters and that’s all that’s ever mattered.
Seeing a team that wins trophies on a regular basis playing good football is, essentially, what it’s all about. FSG will know that now, so they either back the manager, or get a new one. Yet they need to back the manager properly and realistically.
Potential is important and it’s good to plan for the future, but Liverpool aren’t winning the league while spending on potential. And Liverpool need to be competing for the league. Until the owners show they’re in it to win it, the best we can realistically hope for is top five.
It’s par, after all.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda