Time is here for Brendan Rodgers to come up with new master plan for Liverpool

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Eoin O’Callaghan
·Eoin O’Callaghan
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Two months ago, Liverpool went to East London and were beaten 3-1 by West Ham. Afterwards, Brendan Rodgers talked about his team’s inability to cope with being put under so much pressure and that ultimately, Liverpool’s standard of play was “nowhere near what we’d expect”.

In the direct aftermath of Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, Rodgers offered up a similar analysis. Wearily conjuring almost-answers to questions he’s repeatedly been asked since the season started, there were plenty of words but little conviction.

With the dreariness having lasted for so long now, there’s no new, fresh, illuminating conclusion to draw. Liverpool are drifting and it seems there’s little in the way of a master plan to help curb their descent.

From 12 league games, they’ve won four. On opening day against Southampton and with the game tied 1-1, Daniel Sturridge scored the winner 11 minutes from the end. He was on the pitch when Liverpool won their second game of the season against Tottenham, an emphatic 3-0 success. But he’s been injured ever since. As much as the loss of Luis Suarez was always likely to have major repercussions, Sturridge’s enforced absence has been a monumental blow. Last term, he scored 21 times but those goals accounted for 20 league points. To compare, Suarez’s 31 goals translated to 16 points. Sturridge popped up and delivered at crucially-important moments. Notably, he excelled at the start of the campaign, when Suarez was suspended, and grabbed the winning goal in the first three matches.

Daniel Sturridge (R) is challenged by Stefan Johansen during their international friendly soccer match at Wembley Stadium in London September 3, 2014. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
Daniel Sturridge (R) is challenged by Stefan Johansen during their international friendly soccer match at Wembley Stadium in London September 3, 2014. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

After a dozen games so far this season, Liverpool has managed just 15 goals. It’s worse on closer inspection. In six games at Anfield, they’ve scored six times. Only Aston Villa and Burnley have a worse record. From 12 games, they’ve failed to score in three of them – the same number as in the whole of last season.

By selling Suarez, there was always going to be a substantial dropoff. If Liverpool were going to score less goals and still retain hopes of challenging for a Champions League place, it was imperative they stopped conceding. But that hasn’t happened. Last season, they shipped 50 goals. Not since Newcastle in 2002 had a team leaked as many and still finished in the top four. So statiscially, it was a unique situation. Liverpool’s poor defending was overshadowed by a rich, explosive attacking strike force. But take the strike force away and there’s nothing to dwell on but a massive weakness.

Two years ago, Arsenal conceded 49 goals in one season (though 17 came in just three matches against Manchester United, Chelsea and Blackburn). A late rally ensured an eventual top-four position but it was a long, difficult, arduous journey to get there. The following season, despite selling their prized asset Robin van Persie, they conceded 12 goals less and finished with three points more. The dropoff was controlled, they coped with losing a star player, remained consistent and the minimum requirement of Champions League qualification was met.

As Liverpool’s crisis has deepened this season, many have wondered if the club is simply paying for an unexpected overachievement last term. It does make sense. In the five seasons before the 2013/2014 campaign, Liverpool’s average final league position was sixth and their average points tally was 64. Over the course of nine months, they enjoyed a 20-point swing and should have finished as champions. Too much, too soon? Perhaps.

It’s certainly proved unsettling for Rodgers. The successful campaign has only ensured a litany of problems for him. Suarez’s magical performances ensured an eventual departure. European competition has meant an expanded squad and less recovery time. And the Anfield faithful’s great expectations have placed pressure on the players. When it mattered last season, they buckled against Chelsea and the self-doubt that manifested itself on that fateful April afternoon hasn’t gone away. Instead, it’s come to define this season, too.

Liverpool's Mario Balotelli controls the ball during their English Premier League soccer match against Chelsea at Anfield in Liverpool, northern England, November 8, 2014. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Liverpool's Mario Balotelli controls the ball during their English Premier League soccer match against Chelsea at Anfield in Liverpool, northern England, November 8, 2014. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Where there was a purpose last term, there’s panic now. There’s no clear plan or philosophy. Sure, the players still keep the ball. The stats will tell you that they have an average of 56 per cent possession, that their pass success is 85 per cent. The stats will tell you that they take over 14 shots on goal in every game and that over four of those hit the target. But there are more important figures. They’ve now lost four in a row while the $125 million invested in Mario Balotelli, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can and Adam Lallana has yielded a return of two goals.

The club’s summer investment strategy led to many a raised eyebrow. Rodgers brought in Dejan Lovren from Southampton in an effort to rectify the defensive problems. But he allowed Daniel Agger, a solid stopper and fan favourite, to depart. It was a strange move. The spirit and passion (and the stability, too) the Dane had for the club would’ve been a reliable positive, especially in a turbulent transition. Earlier this season, Mamadou Sakho, signed last year, was left out of Rodgers’ squad for the Merseyside derby and subsequently stormed out of Anfield. He was reprimanded and the situation dealt with. But Rodgers is having to put up with more and more challenges. There’s the long-running Balotelli pantomime to deal with – the Italian always seemingly teetering on the brink of foolishness. Through it all, the defensive problems remain. Lovren has struggled under the spotlight and he made another costly individual error against Palace.

It’s foolish to demand Rodgers be sacked. He’s done too much in the last 12 months to be cheaply discarded. But he’s in unfamiliar territory and many in a similar situation continue to stumble before eventually losing their way. It’s up to him to prove he’s different from the rest.