The worst start in 100 years. This statement pretty much summarizes the state of affairs as well as the mood of the supporters and players alike. Liverpool were handed a beacon of hope this summer with the arrival of Brendan Rodgers and there is no reason not to believe in the way the 39 year-old manager wants to operate. But the question is – how bad in shape is Liverpool Football Club?
In a way, the present situation at the club presents an interesting perspective. Just for a moment, leave the consequence of Liverpool scoring just two points out of their first four Premier League games and focus on the ‘why’. Although Brendan Rodgers, in all likelihood, seems to be working very hard in preaching a new school of thought at the club, there is a thin line between taking your first steps and tumbling en route to your short destinations and the fact you have some incapability that prevents you from enabling yourself to take those first steps. And the Liverpool squad certainly has its loose ends.
Four Premier League games in, let’s take a closer look at what exactly is going wrong with Liverpool’s game before debating over how effective Brendan Rodgers has been in implementing the tiki-taka style of play.
“I look at Real Madrid v Manchester City last night and Samir Nasri came off with an injury but they have a massive squad who can accommodate that. If I lose some of my key players that can make it very difficult for us for the next two or three months.” – Brendan Rodgers
Straight from the horse’s mouth, right? Be it the Premier League, the FA Cup, the Carling Cup or any other domestic or European competition, to have a squad that is deemed strong enough to pose a threat requires squad depth, simple as that.
The likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City have stocked themselves up really well and do not classify their bench as players who are backups or second choices. They have a certain degree of quality that they look to maintain through the entire squad and none of the managers of these teams is afraid to put out a winning combination on the pitch even if it requires that a top talent needs to take the bench. That is true squad depth. And it is what Liverpool are missing.
Sure, squad depth and where your club owner falls in the list of the wealthiest people in the world is directly proportional. Some owners, like the Sheikhs, are spendthrifts while others like FSG & John Henry of Liverpool are shrewd. How well is a Middle-Eastern oligarch educated about Premier League football over American owners like John Henry and the Glazers (some of them like Stan Kroenke and Henry himself, own sports team in the US and have a base lining at least)? Not much, to be honest. But, money talks, and in these times it is talking fairly loudly in the Premier League.
From John Henry’s perspective, there is just one word that he needs to learn here – investment. Make no mistake, the owners aren’t reluctant to fork out the greens; they have done so in the past but handed the responsibility over to the prodigal son – Damien Comolli, who walked around the transfer market like a 9-year old with a suitcase full of dollars, strolling around a fantasy park, visiting each stall, buying things that he will become bored of in a matter of minutes but doing so because he has the money.
So, the desire to spend is there. Now the owners need to do it in the right way. Although this summer’s transfer window was a letdown for the Liverpool folklore, it was, in a way, the right thing to do. The club reduced its wage bill considerably and will continue to do so in the upcoming winter and next year’s summer transfer window. This does not mean ‘sell-to-buy’ as imposed by the previous regime of Hicks and Gilett but a simple brainwave of offloading the deadwood (which is, actually the deadwood) and better utilizing the money to bring in players who can seamlessly fit into Rodgers’ style once it is effective and produces results.
When Brendan Rodgers stated that Stewart Downing needs to be ready to adapt to new roles if he is to secure his future at Liverpool, there weren’t many jaw-dropping faces or bewildered hands-in-the-air poses. The 28-year old former Middlesbrough man is now seen alongside Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel in the Liverpool defense. Not exactly a step up.
Liverpool boasted one of the meanest defense lineups in the League last season and to many, the partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger looked like one that would only grow from strength to strength. However, it has taken them just a gap of one summer to pour water over such expectations.
The Reds have so far given away eight goals this season. Not just that, instances of Martin Skrtel’s erratic defending against West Brom and Manchester City is not something that remains in Brendan’s little notebook but also in the memory of those who have watched these games. Daniel Agger has already picked up a red card, giving himself an unsettling start to this Premier League campaign. It will take a few more games for much-tattooed duo to ink their authority against the opposition.
To add to this, Jose Enrique’s absence has seen Glen Johnson and Stewart Downing take his place on the field. This clearly shows that Rodgers is left vulnerable once his primary line of threat is weakened irrespective of cause. Yes, the responsibility is immense but it is never easy when you are part of a squad that is looking to climb a deep pit of failure and ineptness. When Enrique returns, Liverpool need to first sort out their defense as it is part of the prep to returning to winning ways.
Pepe Reina’s Form
One of the key figures in the Liverpool dressing room, Pepe Reina, has oddly been off his game since the first match against West Brom. The three-time Premier League Golden Glove winner has seen a slump in his performances and this obviously has a direct impact to Liverpool’s form so far.
Unlike a player in any other position on the pitch, you don’t have a second keeper covering for you if you make mistakes with the ball. You fumble when a shot is on goal, you are the one to blame for. Reina has had some criticism coming his way this year and as one of the key, influential and long-serving players at the club, he needs to hit form soon if Liverpool are going to come out a fearless and intimidating side at some point this season. The fact that he has not kept a single clean sheet so far this season means there is something not going right for the Spanish international.
Some believe that Reina’s decline in form is mainly down to the departure of his coach, Jose Ochotorena from Liverpool in 2007. The former Spain keeper was responsible for coaching Reina for a period of three years – from 2004 to 2007. His departure from the club, with Benitez, followed by the spells of Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish didn’t really bring the brightest of days for Reina at Liverpool.
“I have worked with some great coaches, but the one who is the absolute master is Ochotorena. He knows me better than anyone else, understands everything about my strengths and weaknesses, and working with him has been one of the greatest experiences of my career. Ocho is the one who knows me better than anyone else and the one who can bring the very best out of me…(Ocho) is the best goalkeeping coach on the planet” – Pepe on Ochotorena in his autobiography
Lack of Impact from the Wings
The La Masia is more of a feeder than any other football body to Barcelona. It isn’t rocket science to understand that the quality coming out of the academy resting in the catacombs of Camp Nou has bolstered the club, giving it plenty of stars whose actions and performances are timeless and will turn into classics across the sands of time.
A similar approach has been entertained by Brendan Rodgers and the owners at Liverpool. To develop world-class, competitive talent at the academy is at the forefront of amongst several strategies to take the club forward. We have already seen why the emphasis on the academy is important – Raheem Sterling.
The 17 year-old Jamaican born winger has been a revelation since his full debut against Manchester City. So much is his importance that the Liverpool players were constantly feeding him the ball to initiate attack against Sunderland. Eventually he took credit for the assist to Suarez’ goal that brought Liverpool the equalizer at the Stadium of Light last week. Conclusion – he is bound to be on the starting XI more often than not this season.
Barring Sterling, there has been no significant impact from the wings in Liverpool’s play. While the central midfield comprising of Allen, Gerrard, Lucas and Sahin is vital in building up the attack, the fact that tiki-taka employs a good chunk of the importance on spreading play doesn’t vindicate the lack of action from out wide when it comes to the players in a Liverpool shirt. Suarez, in his natural wave, does cut in to set himself up from an attacking position while the absence of Enrique has consequently precluded the threat from the left side of attack for Liverpool.
On the bright side, new signing Oussama Assaidi is yet to make his debut for Liverpool and if things go according to plan, then he and Sterling could pose a serious threat to any opposition in the future. The 24 year-old attacker could provide more than what Suarez does right now while his presence allows for the Uruguayan to float around the box, something that he is incapable of doing right now due to the presence of Borini and the Italian’s style of play, which is contrary to the mould of Andy Carroll. The big Geordie’s presence was like a big tree around which Suarez could freely move and take up any favourable spot of attack. Assaidi is a growing prospect and could turn out to be a smart buy at the end of the season.
Liverpool have already recorded the worst shooting accuracy in the Premier League this season – a mere 27% of their attempts hitting the target. From an average of 19 shots per game, the Reds have managed to get just four of them on target. Couple this with the 86% pass completion rate and an average possession of 49%, it makes you wonder how things can still go wrong even when they appear in place for the player in front of goal.
The Reds have converted just one goal from open play, the one against Sunderland. The other two came against Manchester City through set pieces. This is clearly a cause for concern more than any of the aforementioned reasons.
Lack of prowess in front of goal was a lesson learnt by Liverpool last season itself. And even though they looked to solve this by attempting to bring in Clint Dempsey in the summer, the fact is he is not a Liverpool player and the club simply had no Plan B. And clearly, they are suffering because of this.
Fabio Borini has shown that he needs more time to adapt to the Premier League than was first expected. That leaves the club with just one striker and Luis Suarez seems more like the kind who is best at working his way around the defenders and into the box till the point where he has to pull the trigger. The presence of a finisher is what Liverpool are in dire need of. So much that they were even linked to the Juventus legend Del Piero before the Italian declined the offer to enjoy the Australian sun at Sydney FC.
Samid Yesil and Adam Morgan, both 18, are touted to come in and alleviate the pinch of a striker who can finish off chances but again you wonder how long it will take before they not only fit into Rodgers’ preferred style but also establish themselves as reputed strikers in the Premier League. Come winter, Liverpool’s owners need to loosen their pockets a little bit and make funds available for the purchase of a striker of high caliber who can sync up with his striker partners as well as one who will fit into the tiki-taka style with ease.
From initial observations, it looks like Liverpool have quite some distance to go before they come knocking on the doors of Chelsea, Manchester United et al for top honours. Things will go wrong and will take a while before they start looking up. It is all part of the dance. Patience, above all, is the key.
In Brendan Rodgers you trust?
Stats courtesy whoscored.com