Pro Evolution II - Pro Brendan Rodgers
There wasn’t meant to be a part two, but in this earlier, speculative look at where Liverpool might go in the coming months and years, the Liverpool manager barely got a mention.
Since then, Brendan Rodgers has been the name on everyone’s lips, on everyone’s blog, in every newspaper, and on all the podcasts, thanks to Liverpool’s impressive form in the league.
Aside from all this talk about the manager, the reason for Liverpool’s change in fortunes has been attributed to many factors, including: luck, the fans, Simon Mignolet’s fiancee, you, Paulo Sousa, Twitter, and Jordan Henderson.
Each of these points could be analysed in great depth, and could easily see the birth of parts three, four, and five of this unintentional series of articles, but this particular collection of words will focus on Brendan Rodgers.
Before getting into the pro-Rodgers section, the early part of this season needs to be taken into account in order to see how we got here, and to provide a balance which is often lacking. Despite some nice 2015 statistics, the football year begins in August, not January, and ends in May. It’s this time period on which the manager’s performance will be judged.
For whatever reason, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool suffer a tactical mental block when it comes to continental competition, as they abandon the general attacking philosophy in favour of some vain attempt at solidity. Even the second leg of the recent Europa League knockout tie versus Beşiktaş, played at a time when the recently successful 3-4-3 should have been in full flow, saw a slight change in formation as the wing-backs dropped deeper to form a five in defence.
It was another unnecessary “defensive” shift, when the apparently more attacking shape had been doing a reasonable defensive job. Whenever Liverpool try to deliberately shut-up-shop, it leads to noticeably more nervous players, a tense crowd (especially at home), and the inevitable mistakes which come as a result of these things.
No Case For The Defence
Despite the manager’s sarcastic remarks after the 2-0 win at Southampton, that their impressive clean sheet record was down to “the new defensive coach that we got in that everybody thought we needed”, this particular game was far from a show of defensive solidity. The back line was shaky, and at least one penalty should have been awarded to the opposition in the first half, thanks to some defending which was more rusty than it was well oiled.
The best defensive performances have come with pressing from the front, on either side, and in the middle. They’ve happened when the wing-backs operate more as box-to-box wide midfielders-cum-wingers than traditional defensive wing-backs. They never happen when the team try to execute an old-fashioned José Mourinho-style defensive performance.
The club wound up playing in the Europa League thanks to their miserable showing in the continent’s, and arguably the world’s, biggest and most lucrative competition. Their Champions League performances bordered on embarrassing, but now most of the dust has settled, the overriding feeling about the campaign is one of disappointment.
Rodgers’ Liverpool were one of the most flamboyant, entertaining, and watchable sides in the 2013/14 season, and football aficionados across the globe were looking forward to seeing this show on the biggest stage. The manager was even talked about in the same breath as some of Europe’s biggest teams, and fans were relieved when he signed a new contract in May 2014. However, what fans eventually saw in the European Cup was almost the antithesis of the displays they were treated to last season.
Barcelona bought Luiz Suarez, injury cruelly stole Daniel Sturridge, and Liverpool’s summer transfer dealings made sure neither was replaced with a similar type of player. Brendan Rodgers tried various formations during this time, and that itself was part of the problem. The side were learning, experimenting, and mostly failing for all of Europe to see, rather than turning up with a plan which they knew worked, and players which they knew could execute it.
This failure was partly due to failings in the summer transfer window, as certain key positions went unfilled, and previous flaws were made weaker rather than strengthened. Inexplicably, left sided centre-back Dejan Lovren was the manager’s key defensive signing, when Liverpool already had Mamadou Sakho to do that job. The eventual introduction of Emre Can at right centre-back has hinted at the part of the defence which should have been bolstered in the summer.
Lucas Leiva’s re-introduction at defensive midfield could also be seen as an admission that the team needs a defensive midfielder, and this is another area of the side which has been strangely neglected in the transfer market.
Daniel Sturridge’s absence exposed another glaring mistake in the transfer window, as the club failed to sign another quick, agile forward who will press from the front. Sturridge should have been the club’s replacement for Suarez (if not in style, then in stature), and another forward should have come in to be his able backup/partner, as Sturridge had previously been for Suarez. The deployment of Raheem Sterling in this role could be seen as an admission of this error.
The early season woe, and Champions League failure was down to a combination of the tactics (the manager), poor summer recruitment (the manager?), and the defence (the manager).
If There Is Hope, It Lies In The Pros
System Change Returns Success?
So if the early failings were down to the manager, what of the recent upturn in the club’s league form? The 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1 – definitely not a WM… yet) breathed new life into the team, and the introduction of key personnel almost has the Red Machine purring again.
Jordan Henderson is the engine, Joe Allen the oil, Martin Skrtel the bumper, and Philippe Coutinho the driver, whilst Emre Can is the luxury model sat alongside them in the showroom. There’s no analogy for Mamadou Sakho; he’s just an excellent defender.
The system implemented by Rodgers has covered up weaknesses which he himself introduced earlier in the season. The persistence with Dejan Lovren, in the desperate hope that he’d come good, went on for too long, and the same could be said about the utilisation of certain midfield systems which have never worked for Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, or Joe Allen.
Rodgers admitted in a recent interview that the new set-up should have been introduced earlier:
“What I learned was it does not matter how much support you have in the boardroom, from the directors, the executives, you have to get results and you have to win.
“I needed to make decisions that would allow us to get back to somewhere near what we had been and the transformation of the team, with everyone talking about the system and how dynamic it is, has been good to see. I should have done it earlier!”
Despite the underlying negatives it could be said that all of this deserves praise: the admittance of errors, new signings being dropped, the implementation of an entirely new system when under pressure, and the introduction of players who once seemed out of favour.
Square Pegs. Square Holes
Pragmatic decisions were made, and made within a system which appeared to disregard players’ so-called natural positions. Can has thrived at the back, using his skill on the ball to ease the burden on Skrtel and Mignolet. Calls for him to come in and shore up Liverpool’s midfield were ignored for much of the start of the season, and then ignored again as instead he came in to settle an unstable defence. There are still calls for Can to come into midfield but, given the alternatives, the manager would be better off following his initial instincts for now.
Another young player; one who arrived at the club as a timid, lightweight attacking midfielder, has found some steel and success after being deployed by Rodgers in the box-to-box wing-back position. Lazar Markovic has played on both sides of the pitch, showing some surprisingly good defensive industry which will serve him well in the future, as well as some refreshing directness with his link-up play and runs from deep.
Liverpool academy player (with a nod to Wycombe Wanderers) Jordon Ibe was impressing on loan at Derby County in the Championship, but Rodgers saw a place for him in his new look side, and made the bold decision to recall the 19-year-old, throwing him straight into a Merseyside derby. For a period of a few games he was the team’s standout player and, like Markovic, he operated from the new wing-back position.
Back to a more familiar position, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was banished “indefinitely”, in what came across as a decision made at the wrong time and in the wrong manner. However, events conspired to fling the Belgian back into the fray, and since then he hasn’t looked back.
The initial treatment of him seemed harsh, and whilst no-one could argue that he didn’t deserve to be dropped, the timing of it was strange. However, it appears to have worked and since his (forced, maybe expected) reintroduction, there haven’t been many better in the league.
The new Simon Mignolet doesn’t seem to care about anything other than clean sheets. Even if the team were 5-0 up you get the impression he’d be gutted to concede a goal. As would Martin Skrtel, who’s experienced something of a renaissance in the middle of the back three.
All of this suggests that as well as covering up weaknesses, the 3-4-2-1 system has emphasised the strengths of certain players; none more so than Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian is now the standout player in the league, and, having found the perfect role for the player, the manager must take some credit for this.
Whilst the poor aspects of the club’s summer recruitment led to many of Liverpool’s early season problems, there have been successes amongst the new signings which have contributed to the turnaround in fortunes.
Emre Can looks like the future of the club post-Gerrard; Alberto Moreno looks like the left-back we needed – as crazy as José Enrique but a much better footballer; and Markovic has shown glimpses of the player he could be.
The club made some excellent signings in the summer, and have been pipped at the post to many more players who would have improved the squad. Without getting into the blurry committee versus Rodgers debate, there are obviously people around the place who can spot a player, and they need to have more of a say.
Last Game: End Game
Did the club, Rodgers, and his Liverpool side become complacent after the league success from last season, or did falling at the final hurdle dent morale so much that it spilled over into the new campaign?
Whatever the reasons for the poor start, the manager has turned things around by implementing a progressive system which not many other managers would have turned to. The system has plenty of scope for evolution, as mentioned in part I of this duology, and in a recent Anfield Index article by Sam McGuire on how Liverpool can beat Manchester United. Looking at these, you could easily see the team pushing on with a few key additions this summer.
By this time, 38 games will have been played and Brendan Rodgers’ performance can judged on the full season. Where Liverpool will be once this time comes remains to be seen, but if this isn’t in the top four, then the early part of this season just might weigh more heavily than the current purple patch.