Football ebbs and flows. Nothing is ever set in stone. Success is neither predictable or inevitable. Delve into the Rodgers archives and Liverpool’s recent history is a painful illustration.
By Sam Patterson (@sam0007ster)
This season, many Reds – including myself – were, for so long, reluctant to tempt fate (even if our side were more than twenty points clear). The pandemic has thrown yet another spanner in the works which only goes to show that nothing should ever be taken for granted – even if it seems inevitable.
So in the wake football’s postponement, I thought it best to take a trip down memory lane and tell the story of when inevitably and Liverpool football Club seemed totally irreconcilable.
Football can be exhausting at times because for some (like me) it’s a way of life. It splits families. It divides friends. It’s absorbing. It offers the most exhilarating highs and the most utterly sombre lows.
October 2015 offered the latter. On the 1st of that month, Liverpool played out a 1-1 draw against FC Sion – a midtable team from the Swiss Super League – on a dreary UEFA Europa League night at Anfield. Predictably toothless, the performance was marked by a chorus of boos at the final whistle.
That night would turn out to be the penultimate nail in the coffin for Brendan Rodgers’ Anfield reign. Crucially, much of the Anfield faithful had lost patience. The Reds sat seventh in the league having accumulated just four points from their last five league fixtures. Change loomed.
The doom and gloom made it easy to forget that Rodgers was a man who in 2013/14 – less than two years before his fall from grace – came agonisingly close to leading Liverpool to the holy grail – a first league title in twenty-five years. That’s when Rodgers’ vision, the rite of passage from fledging mediocrity to English league champions, seemed like it was going to come up trumps.
I was eighteen at the time and had never seen my club lift the league championship. So, through rose-tinted glasses, it was painful to see the curtain fall down on an epoch which had promised so much. We’d gone through too much to achieve so little. Football has a remarkable way of going full circle. At one stage, Rodgers was on the cusp of being etched into Anfield folklore. 12 months later, many wondered if he could be etched out of the annals of LFC history altogether.
The Reds fell off a cliff. Even Steven Gerrard, Mr Liverpool, felt his time was up. So then, of course, he wrote a book – My Story – in which he talks about an age when fans dared to dream (I was one of them) and when Rodgers – perhaps foolishly – dreamed with them.
It’s April 2014. The Reds are five points clear at the top with three games to play. Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea travel to Anfield and all Liverpool need is a solitary point. But “we thought we could blow Chelsea away”, Gerrard says. The blues rested several of their big-name stars with the second leg of their Champions League semi-final just days away.
“[But] we played into Chelsea’s hands. I feared it then and I know it now”. As it went, Liverpool panicked. The occasion overawed them. Tactics seemed to go out the window and the rest – the infamous slip and Liverpool’s inability to break down a defence which included little-known debutant Thomas Kalas – is history.
It’s October 2014. Liverpool re-enter the big-time – the silver lining for finishing Premier League runners-up – and play the likes of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. But Rodgers decides to chop and change and rest players for league fixtures at the weekend. Gerrard – Liverpool’s all-time leading goal scorer in Europe – is one of them. Remember, he’d spent five years in mediocrity dreaming of a return to the Champions League.
It’s March 2015. Liverpool are scrambling to qualify for the very competition Rodgers had so ungraciously shelved. The Reds welcome fierce rivals Manchester Utd to Anfield in a decisive clash and Gerrard, still arguably Liverpool’s most influential player, is benched – again. When told of this decision, Gerrard remembers, “a sudden lump formed in my throat. I had a split-second decision to make. Do I have a go at him?”
Rodgers instead starts Joe Allen, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson in a midfield which lacks authority. By half-time, Liverpool are 1-0 down and struggling to impose themselves. After the interval, Gerrard enters the fray. Gunning to get stuck in, he flies into tackles, inciting roars of rapturous acclaim.
But then, out of fervid passion, he over-steps the mark, stamping on Andrea Herrera’s ankle for which he deservedly receives a straight red card. He knew he’d let the team down and later apologised on camera for it. But one can’t help but see this as the symbolic culmination of an era which promised so much and ultimately delivered – in terms of silverware – nowt. Absolutely zilch. Zero.
From the Beginning:
You see, I find there is an ambiguity when discussing Rodgers’ time at Liverpool. Today, we often forget the state of play before his arrival. King Kenny’s return in 2011 bought with it plenty of hope but not too much in the way of a long-term plan.
Yes, there was an eagerness for success, but that eagerness culminated in the £35million swoop for Newcastle forward Andy Carroll. That’s not to say Carroll – a player who thrives off long-balls and the nitty-gritty side of the game – was (and still is) a handy player on his day. But the fleet-footedness of FSG to then hire a manager who extols Guardiolian virtues – intricate football built from the back – was an ineffable illustration that the owners didn’t know what success at Liverpool looked like – yet. In 2012, the club lacked identity.
Rodgers was the king of sound bites, so soon enough ‘the process’, ‘the new cycle’, the ‘long-term vision’ seemed clear. He spoke as eloquently as he did thoroughly, delineating his total devotion to playing ‘the Liverpool way’ which, as he saw it, was a model of footballing rectitude; football played with integrity. In his words, “offensive, creative football, but with tactical discipline”.
Other things were less than impressive, however. In fact, his first summer transfer window was touted a complete disaster. Principal owner John W. Henry, in an open letter to fans after the window closed, even admitted his ‘disappointment’. The Reds had failed in a last-ditch attempt to lure Fulham striker Clint Dempsey to Anfield, a deal which may have seen Jordan Henderson go the other way. How times change, huh.
“I am as disappointed as anyone connected with Liverpool Football Club that we were unable to add further to our strike force in this summer transfer window, but that was not through any lack of desire or effort on the part of all of those involved. They pushed hard in the final days of the transfer window on a number of forward targets and it is unfortunate that on this occasion we were unable to conclude acceptable deals to bring those targets in…”
Nevertheless, Rodgers had at least added Fabio Borini, Joe Allen, Oussama Assaidi, Nuri Sahin and Samed Yesil. These names were not overly inspiring, nor did any of them become fan favourites in the years which followed. However, in terms of playing style, these were all young nimble footballers, expressive in mind and orientated towards the pass-and-move game which Rodgers had so successfully employed at his previous club, Swansea City. The direction the club was heading in under FSG had, until now, never been so clearly marked.
It seemed as if Liverpool were working under a manager whose philosophy was at least honest and progressive; someone who didn’t lose sight of his overall intentions.
He also shipped out the deadwood – Carroll included – and decided against a last-minute move for veteran striker Michael Owen (32). He was in no mood to back-track from his philosophy or take steps which may have been considered retrograde. Established names left too, notably long-time servant Dirk Kuyt, Argentine Maxi Rodriguez and Welshman Craig Bellemy. So there was a palpable sense that the Summer of 2012 represented a clean break with the past.
A seventh-place finish in 2012/13, twenty-eight points off champions Manchester Utd, was way below par (obviously). Yet the trajectory was up. Brazillian Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge joined in January and both made flying starts. The latter formed an exciting partnership with Uruguayan Luis Suarez, scoring eleven goals in sixteen appearances. The former was a classy prospect and the out-and-out number 10 Rodgers was crying out for. Rodgers and the transfer committee had certainly done their research having ascertained two top-class talents for a little under £20million.
It quickly became obvious that Rodgers’ side was more dynamic and haphazardly ‘helta skelta’ than the more functionally minded LFC sides of the early 2000s. It was exciting, yes, but flaky. The Reds could score three but just as easily concede three.
One of Liverpool’s most impressive performances came at the Etihad in February, where a lively Sturridge was too quick-minded for an ageing Joleon Lescott and inexperienced Matija Nastasic at the back. Suarez was a menace throughout. Both full-backs – Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson – pushed high and wide. Jordan Henderson initiated a relentless press. Confidence flowed. The Reds, at every opportunity, poured forward.
But inconsistency was the buzzword. Liverpool couldn’t keep a clean sheet and Sergio Aguero was on hand to capitalise on some lackadaisical goalkeeping from Pepe Reina and earn City an unlikely point. Liverpool drew this game 2-2 when they really could (and should) have been out of sight. But the signs were good. They were really good.
The best version of Liverpool under Rodgers was bold, sometimes impetuously bold, but bold nonetheless. On this basis, then, he needed the right players to play this way and succeed – that’s obvious. Some commentators argue the reason his team didn’t win titles was the lack of a plan B in the big games against the best opponents. Notwithstanding, he possessed a very impressive first 11, a squad of 12-13 very good players, which could play an attractive brand of high-octane football. It had its flaws (the number of goals his teams conceded was substantial), but at its best, the attacking talent Rodgers had at his disposal papered over cracks again and again.
2013 saw the likes of Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto arrive at Anfield. Like Borini and Assaidi before them, they were nifty footballers on paper with decent pedigrees. But were they certified game-changers? Far from it. Were they certified starters? Not in the slightest. In his autobiography, Gerrard admits he was concerned about whether they’d make an impact in the Premier League:
“Straightaway, as soon as I saw them [Aspas and Luis Alberto] in the dressing room, I knew they weren’t going to make it in the Premier League… It boiled down to physique. They had the bodies of little boys – they looked about fifteen. I thought ‘Jesus, how are you going to cope against John Terry, Ashley Williams and Ryan Shawcross?'”
He was, of course, right. Alberto and Aapas never got a look in. In the main, Rodgers relied on what he already had. Admittedly Mamadou Sakho – a French international centre-half – was signed from PSG for an extortionate fee, but he was hardly a ball-playing centre back, rather a hard-tackler and deep-line defender. It seemed a capricious signing when you consider Rodgers’ preferred his backline to be mobile, offensive and high.
The thing is even Rodgers’ best Liverpool team was lopsided. It boasted one of the best attacking line-ups in world football – potent, powerful, creative – and yet its backline lacked the composure to play in small pockets of space and the pace to deal with runners in behind. Year in year out, Rodgers spent money – big money – but his judgement was hit-and-miss.
Then came the mad chaos of 13-14. The failure to qualify for Europe in 12-13, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise. Week after a week, Liverpool recuperated and recalibrated, licked their wounds and went again. They blitzed some of the best in the land and romped to big-margin victories against the likes of Arsenal, Everton, Spurs and Manchester Utd.
The Reds finished second in a season which defied all reasonable expectations. Rodgers seemed to find a formula which worked and had Liverpool playing in the mould of Red Arrows. Suarez, after so much speculation over his long-term future, played as if his life depended on it. The Uruguayan scored thirty-one goals and deservedly claimed the PFA Player of the Year award. Sturridge, equally as imperious, scored twenty-two.
Sure, it was disappointing not to lift the title at the end of it, but this was surely progression – or so it seemed. And Rodgers had Liverpool fans believing again. 13-14 was not dreamt up, it was real. The Reds really had moved from a mediocre seventh-place finish to the heights of a second-place finish. They really had accumulated twenty-three more points than they had in the previous campaign. The Reds were competing again, and Rodgers’ frantically paced football was lauded up and down the land. The rise was exponential. The improvement was incomprehensible.
But there was another side to the story…
It would soon become clear that this success lacked solid foundations. Foundations are something to fall back on – Rodgers’ were flimsy. Even in the heights of 13-14, Liverpool conceded fifty-goals; more goals than they had conceded in the last campaign. Most games were a slog. Whilst they’d scored five away against Stoke, they’d conceded three. Whilst they’d scored four at home against Swansea, they conceded three. It was an exhilarating season, but Liverpool’s soft centre was for all to see. And when circumstances changed, Rodgers struggled to adapt.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail:
In the following summer, Suarez – Liverpool’s beating heart – forced his way out and signed for Barcelona. The Uruguayan left for what was reported to be a fee of £65million. The wheels were about to fall off and Rodgers was slandered for his recruitment. A large piece of the jigsaw was gone, and the club decided it was best to fill one void with a million different pieces.
They allowed Alexis Sanchez, who would opt for a move to Arsenal, fall through their fingers and then, instead of opting for patience, took a ‘calculated punt’ and signed the much-maligned Italian forward Mario Balotelli from AC Milan… more trouble than he’s worth. There was a string of other signings as well, including Alberto Moreno, Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, Javier Manquillo, Dejan Lovren, Rickie Lambert, Divock Origi and Emre Can. Four of them (Lallana, Lovren, Moreno and Can) became consistent starters, but none were consistent performers.
Rodgers decided to employ a similar formation to the one which was so successful in 13-14, a decision which, with hindsight, seemed narrow-minded. He started with a diamond in midfield. Balotelli and Sturridge at the forefront, Sterling in behind, with Gerrard central and two interchangeable midfielders working around him. There was an encouraging start at least. Rodgers’ men put on a mightily impressive display at White Hart Lane in September, but that’s as good as it got.
Sturridge – now Liverpool’s only out and out goal scorer – struggled for fitness and only managed twelve league appearances (most of which were the odd thirty-minute cameo). And Balotelli’s goalscoring record was enough to send shudders down the spine. The Italian netted just the one league goal all season. The £20million splurge on Southampton defender Dejan Lovren also backfired as the Croatian was slammed for his overconfidence and erraticism. In defending, Liverpool were too easy to get at. In attack, the Reds lacked guile and a clinical edge.
The Reds exited Europe’s premier competition at the first hurdle, crashed out of the FA Cup to Aston Villa in the semi-final, and finished eight points off Manchester Utd in 4th.
Liverpool had bought in abundance, but instead of evolving they had regressed. Why? A lack of patience in the market and due diligence is the simple answer. But digging deeper, a more intelligible answer (one of many) can be found in the contrast in fortunes between then and now (perhaps a subject for another day).
Too often under Rodgers did Liverpool bend over backwards to other clubs and splurge substantial capital on players to merely fill voids. Rodgers also started to backtrack from the ideals he’d deployed so scrupulously when he first arrived. Two of his most important – honesty and consistency – were blithely shelved.
His surprise move for Balotelli was unprecedented for the very fact he was once at pains to deny it would ever happen. Before a pre-season friendly in Miami, just under a month before the Italian put pen to paper on a ‘long-term deal’, the Northern Irishman told journalists:
“I can categorically tell you Mario Balotelli will not be at Liverpool… In my last press conference I was asked a question about Mario Balotelli and I talked about what a talent he was and what an excellent player he was. And the next day it was wrote as if we were signing him. I just gave my perception of him as a player. It shouldn’t be transmitted into us signing the player.”
And then just one year later, Balotelli was a castaway with Rodgers struggling to find solutions. And Raheem Sterling – once seen as Liverpool’s future – was also on his way out. The Englishman handed in a transfer request with Manchester City his eventual – and desired – destination. It felt like the end, but Rodgers was determined to stick with it.
His determination – as admirable as it was – resulted in an attempt to change tac completely. Assistant Colin Pascoe and first-team coach Mike Marsh felt the axe, whilst Sean O’Driscoll and former player Gary McAllister joined as their replacements.
It was clear Rodgers was out on a limb. He’d been criticised in the past for his lack of a plan B but now he found himself over-endorsing and over-enforcing plans B and C. In doing so, he then spent over £30million on Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke for it was believed the 6ft 3inch man-mountain, a Carroll-ilk sort of forward, was the man to reignite the proverbial fire. But the exciting, dynamic fast-paced football which had won over so many plaudits was abandoned with a stodgier, seldom effective, football. He’d gone backwards, but I was too immersed to realise it then.
Rodgers would have been well-advised to look more closely at the ‘bigger picture’. The Balotelli and Benteke signings, certainly from the outside looking in, were as much off-he-cuff as they were capricious. He was desperate to fill voids when a more calculated, methodical response would surely have proven more fruitful (just think of the aftermath to Philippe Coutinho’s exit in 2018).
2012-2015 was an age of dreams, an epoch of near misses, the days of the ‘surprise-package’, of Gerrard’s last chance, of overwhelming agony and unbearable frustration. It was a journey without destination. The constellation of disparate emotions experienced by fans under Rodgers still rings true today. It surely had inexorable correspondence with The Kop’s refusal to blare out the words ‘We’re Going to Win the League’ with any sort of conviction until Jurgen Klopp’s side went a mammoth sixteen points clear at the end of January. It is part of the reason why it took so long to turn doubters into believers…again.