Pragmatism has doomed Rodgers’ once magical Liverpool side

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Clubs like Livepool, Man Utd or Barcelona have their own ‘way’, by which their club is meant to operate. These clubs have principles that define them; their identity empowers its players and managers to play a certain way, it strikes fear into visiting clubs, and it inspires jealousy in rival fans. Bill Shankly embodied the ‘Liverpool way’, and so when Rodgers was compared to him many laughed. It seems silly now, but the 2013/14 Liverpool did play the way its fans expected, and it possessed a manager whose principles seem to finely match those of the club.

Prgamatism Doomed Rodgers Magic Liverpool

For these managers of principle (which include the likes of Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola), pragmatism and cynicism are their arch-nemeses, undermining their pure footballing ideologies. When the philosophies of manager, fans and club align, it has magical consequences, and Liverpool fans above all know that. Like those managers, being Liverpool supporter has never been about being pragmatic or cynical. It is about believing in miracles, it is about believing that this year could be the year when something extra-ordinary happens. We believe in the sublime, we believe in footballing heaven, we are naïve and it is brilliant. The intensity of performances during Rodgers’ title charge ignited a dormant passion in the Liverpool fan base that eclipsed anything seen in England in the last ten years.

Liverpool fans believed that year that in Brendan Rodgers, they had someone who could bring a footballing ethos that we felt we deserved. His flaws have always been apparent. We know Rodgers has a poor transfer record; we know he ruffles feathers with his favouritism; we know he plays people out of position; we know his substitutions are sometimes dodgy; we know he says silly things in the media. The worry though is that Rodgers’ previously redeeming attributes, his footballing philosophies and mantras, are now absent. In this piece I look at three tenets of the ‘Rodgers way’ that must be rediscovered if he is to ever turn around his Liverpool reign.

The technical profile of players has been compromised

One of Rodgers’ first moves as a Liverpool manager was to jettison Andy Carroll and build his attack around Luis Suarez, a move that attracted criticism at the time but proved correct. It was an immediate sign of the manager’s intent for the type of players he wanted. Technical ability was valued over physical presence.

Three summers later, the technical theme is manifest in the side’s trio of international attacking midfielders, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, and Roberto Firmino. The club has just sold its best winger, Raheem Sterling, and seemingly given up on fellow wide-man Lazar Markovic. All indications would be that the Liverpool team is best suited to play with the ball at their feet through the middle of the park, given the lack of natural width of our current players.

The arrival of Christian Benteke does not make any sense given the profile of the rest of the players. A huge proportion of Benteke’s goals had come from crosses, but with Joe Gomez at left back and Jordon Ibe on the bench, the team only has Nathaniel Clyne who wants to provide any natural width. Liverpool have unsurprisingly played the least crosses in the league, but despite that, Benteke still has won the most aerial duels in the league. Benteke’s aerial ability is clearly his greatest strength, but the current crop of players is not suited to take advantage of this ability, pumping balls straight down the field rather than into dangerous positions from the wings.

By compromising on the technical profile of just one player in the system, Rodgers has undermined the attacking potential of the whole unit. Whereas Liverpool may once have been a team greater than the some of their parts, their parts now more resemble a crude abomination of Lego bricks and Mega Bloks – it’s a hideous mess to see.

Pragmatism has corrupting a daring and bold system

The general style and tactical approach of Rodgers is changing. Sure, this is natural to some extent with the changing technical profiles of players, as illustrated above. However, it is also a conscious decision from Brendan Rodgers. By persisting with Simon Mignolet, Rodgers has given up on the idea of a goalkeeper who can play with the ball at his feet. By ignoring the distribution statistics of Mamadou Sakho, Rodgers has shown that passing ability is not valued in his centre-backs. By acquiring a target man, and by sacrificing a deep lying playmaker, Rodgers no longer demands the skill or bravery from his defenders to receive and pass the ball. Instead, they can take the easy route and pump it long to Benteke.

As well as sacrificing his passing game, Rodgers also seems to have given up on his pressing game. Some of Liverpool’s best away performances in the last three years were undoubtedly those against Tottenham and Manchester United in our 2013/14 season. Then we showed no respect for home advantage, from the first whistle we harassed and disrupted the opposition’s defence and midfield deep in their half. We drew mistakes, won the ball high up the pitch, and quickly broke and scored. This season performances have more resembled Chelsea at Anfield in 2014; Nowadays, we sit deep, absorb pressure, and try and counter-attack or score from a set-piece. Rodgers allows the other team to settle and impose themselves; he does not believe his side will win a football match against the opposition. That is not how Liverpool are supposed to play. That is not how a Rodgers side was supposed to play. This new method goes against all the success that Rodgers ever had as a manager.

An air of pragmatism has infiltrated the Rodgers system. The Liverpool of 2013/14 was utterly devoid of such pragmatism. We were bold and fearless, and Rodger’s belief in the ability of his players to out-perform the opposition empowered those players to perform better than any had previously. No players are empowered in our current system. Our performances are a self-conscious and laboured struggle, a poor version of that cynical Chelsea side. Two years ago our performances were a serene and simultaneously destructive waltz, which scared Jose Mourinho into negative football comparable to what we played against Arsenal. Liverpool should be aiming to better our rivals, not bow down to their superior abilities.

Youngsters have not been trusted at centre-half

The final Rodgers principle compromised has been his belief in youngsters. This is perhaps a mystifying statement when you consider just the list of youngsters he has played in Premier League games: Andre Wisdom, Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, Jordon Ibe, Jaoao Teixeira, Jordan Rossiter, Jon Flannagan, Brad Smith, Jerome Sinclair, and Joe Gomez.

Rodgers clearly believes that his young players are good enough. Except, he doesn’t quite. How many of these players have been played at centre-back? Andre Wisdom and Joe Gomez have not yet been given the chance to perform in their favoured position; Tiago Ilori has come and departed despite a pedigree that initially seemed to impress Rodgers. Emre Can’s success there (out of position) only lasted until his first bad performance.

Meanwhile no other senior centre-back in Rodgers’ reign has proved that they are capable of performing well for 35 games a season. The league was arguably lost in 2013/14 from the mistakes of Kolo Toure, who was mystifyingly above Mamadou Sakho in the pecking order for the first games of this season. Martin Skrtel has survived at Liverpool for a decade by being slightly better than our third-choice defender, but done nothing more. Dejan Lovren has proved his Southampton season was a positive blip either side of horrendous form. Given all this, why hasn’t Rodgers given a youngster with proper potential a shot in the first team?

Whilst having faith in your players can be rewarded, any faith in Dejan Lovren is as well placed as faith in Jose Mourinho to not be an incredibly unpleasant human being. Who is to say whether or not Ilori or Wisdom or Gomez or Can would do a better job there this season, but to categorically assume that none of them are an upgrade on Dejan Lovren is a laughable suggestion. Liverpool are suffering because Brendan Rodgers won’t try a youngster in this one position, and that goes against his own mantra.

Is there any way back?

Many people have recognised Rodgers’ departure from his previously bold and perhaps naïve footballing principles. Many cynics of the game welcomed that approach. However, the best iteration of Brendan Rodgers, flaws included, was when he was at his most principled and naïve. For eighteen months, Liverpool were once again Liverpool: manager, club and fans were aligned like they had not been in decades. Rodgers needs to rediscover his own penchant for attacking football, and believe in the skill and bravery of all of the players at his disposal to execute his bold ideas for how football should be played. Sure such an approach was flawed, but what approach isn’t? At least Rodgers then showed intent to win in a manner that fans could get behind. Until he does this again, Liverpool will suffer. Unfortunately for Rodgers and his fans, as every game passes it increasingly likely that he will never rediscover those managerial traits that made Liverpool fans dream again.

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  1. I’m a Man Utd supporter — so now you know how we felt under Moyes! it’s a well written piece, both clubs are still on the road back to former glories.

  2. Great post, alas I think Rogers is done. It was a bold move taking a chance on a young manager but I think for a club of liverpools stature we need a winner. Of course that’s no guarantee of success but it’s a better chance. We have a great squad, imagine what a manager with tactical know how could do with these young players .

    In my opinion the time has come for change.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. We are playing in fear at the moment. The system and tactics all appear (shoddily) built just to try to contain the opposition rather than to attack them. Rafa could do this, Brendan cannot. If he’s going to lose his job, as all managers do at some stage then why not go out at least trying to play to your strengths and core beliefs? We look Cowardly, it’s embarrassing.

  4. I couldn’t be more disappointed than I have been the last two games. West Ham was a nightmare and Man U was embarrassing. Brendan Rodgers looks like someone that has lost his way. He has totally abandoned aggressive tactics in favor of a boring, ineffective, defensive style. In addition to horrendous tactics his player selection often bewilders me. Why on earth is Lovren starting of Sahko? Why haven’t we giving Gomez a chance at center back? When In the 4-3-3 Why not play Ibe when he is your only player comfortable wide? I don’t claim to be a football savant but BRs decisions to date look as if they are being made by a man afraid of losing his job instead of one trying to win. It is “let’s try and clog up the defensive side and hope we somehow get a goal”. It’s boring football and it is bad football. Liverpool has the talent to be very competitive if we only had a manager capable of using them correctly. I am afraid that if he doesn’t have an epiphany within the next few games he must be replaced.

  5. during the Man U game, @ halftime a sky sport analyst words were “it’s man united’s for the taking. lowest point as liverpool fan right there. we’re playing with so much cowardice it’s heartbreaking.
    Oh who shall save our club from woeful Rodgers? Ancelloti? Kloop? Rafa?
    Anyone realy is an upgrade. .

  6. It never fails to leave me shaking my head, letting out St. Paul’s “Oh those Thessalonians — when will they ever listen?” sigh and then re-reading the article to my dog to make sure we both understood: an article at the Liverpool Echo or AnfieldIndex is penned that asks what Brendan Rodgers can do to re-capture the magic from that 2013/2014 season.

    Guys, Johnny Henderson addressed this a few days ago: that “magic” was provided us by Luis Suarez, not Brendan Rodgers. Follow the bouncing ball here: with Suarez that season, Liverpool finished 2nd and was the most-exciting team on the planet while Barcelona trailed Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in La Liga.

    The following season without Suarez, Liverpool was boring and offensively impotent and the Manager should have been removed following lackluster performances at the end of the campaign. Barca, meanwhile, won La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League with brilliant Uruguayan.

    Rodgers is a buffoon and is unable to “recapture” anything he had no credit for accomplishing. For God’s sake, there’s an online plea to raise €10M to ‘Sack Brendan Rodgers.’ Who cares if it fails? It’s a damning indictment that someone thought to pursue this course of action.

    • Patrick I completely agree that Suarez was obviously the main reason for our success that year, but that’s not the point of my article. I think that Rodgers is a fundamentally different manager than he was in his first two years at the club. If Rodgers were to channel his managerial principles from that period in our current side, I think the club would be in a better position now than it is. To imply that the only difference between now and then is Luis Suarez is unfair on pretty much everyone else at the club and quite naive, just as anyone who says it was all Brendan Rodgers.


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