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By Paul Tomkins.
I don’t know if the 2012 documentary Being:Liverpool helped improve Liverpool’s global appeal at all – it’s hard to imagine people falling for the club in the way that Istanbul lured in new Reds – but perhaps it helped sell thousands of shirts which, in turn, helped pay for Luis Suarez’s new contract.
In many ways it was a harmless PR stunt. But some lasting damage occurred when it came to Brendan Rodgers’ image. Here was a new manager – and a young one, to boot – having just replaced a literal living legend (no erroneous use of the word where King Kenny is concerned!), and his first steps were shadowed by a camera crew.
In truth, Rodgers came off looking a bit awkward, and the now infamous ‘three envelope’ stunt was not only an old trick, but one incorrectly worded. (“Make sure your name’s not in one of these envelopes” – well, players can’t do that, because they can’t alter the space/time continuum; they could only look to prove the manager wrong if their names were in the envelopes, even though the gimmick means they were probably empty.)
So began the comparison’s with Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, which, in turn, gave the sense of a manager full of clichéd nonsense, talking a lot but delivering little. It’s fair to say that those comparisons were highly egregious. It’s also true that the manager has grown in stature and confidence since then, to the point where those notions look ridiculous and even spiteful.
But the reality of the situation is that Rodgers arrived as a young manager who hadn’t done a lot. No big deal at Watford and Reading, he inherited a rebooted Swansea project and ran with it. He took it to promotion and mid-table in the Premier League, which are admirable achievements, but a decade earlier George Burley had done even better with Ipswich, whom he took straight into Europe, and he didn’t end up at Chelsea or Newcastle.
Rodgers achieved promotion and top-flight mid-table stability with fine football, but the achievement was little or no better than what Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Phil Brown, Paul Lambert and various other unremarkable or largely unproven managers had achieved. Therefore it was possible to wonder if Rodgers was overhyped, by a patriotic media eager to protect British coaches.
As I noted last season, there is nothing remarkable on Rodgers’ CV for us to use as a comfort blanket. His appointment required a leap of faith; some were happy to offer blind faith, some (like me) were on the fence, and some, for various reasons, had it in for him from day one.
At the time FSG were still relatively new to football, and here they were appointing the least-decorated Liverpool manager in over 50 years (if you include trophies won by Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Roy Evans in their roles as assistants, and, first time around, Kenny Dalglish’s incredible success as a player, which afforded him a ton of goodwill and knowledge of how to win titles.)
Graeme Souness returned to the club in 1991 with his stellar Liverpool cachet and Rangers success; Gérard Houllier had once won the French title and was given some credit for being part of his nation’s World Cup success in 1998, in the summer he moved to Liverpool; and Rafa Benítez had just won La Liga twice in three years, along with the Uefa Cup, with what were only the third best team in Spain. These were comfort blankets for the cold, dark times. Even Roy Hodgson had league titles, albeit in minor leagues.
When Dalglish returned as manager in 2011, he did so with a CV that had been bulging up to the late-‘90s, when he fell out of work, and it was so easy to recall memories of 1987/88, and the most exciting Liverpool side in memory; made all the easier when his new side started putting three past Manchester United and Manchester City. By contrast, Rodgers’ big club experience was confined to a brief time at Manchester United as a kid, and running the Chelsea youth set-up. He’d never won a meaningful trophy, nor been under any real scrutiny.
To add to the image issues, once Rodgers had gone, Swansea initially played more exciting, incisive football under Michael Laudrup, and, at a time when Rodgers’ Liverpool were still a bit hit-and-miss at the start of 2013, won the club its first trophy. In that context it seemed sensible to continue to wonder if Rodgers, whose Liverpool side went on to finish an unremarkable 7th, was quite up to the task, rather than feting him as the bright new face of British football management.
Put like this, and in the face of both rational and irrational doubts, Rodgers has had to overcome a lot since his unveiling. Add Bitegate, and Suarez’s desire to leave in the summer, on top of the mammoth task of replacing the club’s most beloved living figure, and you have to say that Rodgers has looked and acted nothing at all like the slightly nervous man seen in Being:Liverpool who, perhaps understandably, was trying too hard to impress. (Perhaps it helps that he doesn’t have a camera crew capturing his every gesture.)
There are a weaknesses, of course, which can be easy to focus on, but it’s also true that every team has its Achilles heel; even the greatest of recent Barcelona sides weren’t perfect. Set-pieces are a constant source of concern for Liverpool, but time spent rehearsing those is time spent away from practising passing patterns. Perhaps that’s why Barcelona aren’t very good at defending set-pieces, either, and why long-ball teams spend a high percentage of their time working on gaining advantages from corners and free-kicks.
After a lot of criticism, and comparisons with their awful compatriots who preceded them at Liverpool, it’s fair to say that FSG are having a quite incredible 2013.
Having gone almost a century (and that merits the uses of italics) without the World Series before they pitched up, the Red Sox recently won their third title during their 11-year ownership. The Sox were totally abject just a year earlier – it was a record-breaking collapse after a decent start – but with the fan-base close to revolt, they turned it completely around in such a short space of time. Unthinkable back in July, FSG could possibly say goodbye to 2o13 with the Reds top of the table.
Despite the the League Cup success, 2012 will go down as an Annus horribilis for Liverpool too, particularly at Anfield. Being:Liverpool therefore documented a club with an identity crisis, having shed its most successful servant. And yet that all seems such a long time ago now.
The fact is, the club, and FSG, are making fewer mistakes. Even Suarez (touch wood) is winning over some neutrals with his attitude and behaviour. It feels like a club, and a manager – and indeed, a group of players – who have learnt a lot in a short space of time. People are making good calls, and it’s paying dividends.
Personally speaking, given the situation as it stood, I would have sold Suarez in the summer for £50m. Of course, even those who wanted him to stay didn’t see him averaging at over 1.5 goals per game. Remember when 0.5 (or “one in two”) was considered prolific? The Uruguayan doesn’t even take penalties, either!
If Suarez had done something stupid on his first game back – maybe biting the head off the Anfield cat, or challenging the entire opposition XI to a bout of Greco-Roman wrestling – then keeping him would have looked foolish. Instead, John Henry very publicly put his reputation on the line in a bid to keep the player at all costs. A few months on and Suarez is scoring goals at an unprecedented rate, and has signed a new contract.
The £35m ‘wasted’ on Andy Carroll (although only half was technically wasted, given the amount recouped) seems easily forgotten.
Indeed, 2011, which was widely regarded as a transfer debacle, doesn’t look quite so bad right now, considering that Liverpool’s two best performers at the moment are Luis Suarez and Jordan Henderson, signed by the much-maligned Dalglish and Comolli combo. If Liverpool “wasted” £110m in 2011 – and many of the purchases didn’t help at the time – then when you add the erratic Jose Enrique and the almost-forgotten Sebastian Coates, the club has at least £120m left in on-pitch assets from those deals, on top of the c.£30m already raised from offloading the less astute purchases. Remember, Liverpool sold Andy Carroll to West Ham for more than they paid for Daniel Sturridge.
Indeed, right now you could add the crazy £35m Andy Carroll fee to the £50m Torres money from that bonkers January evening and still not get to what Suarez, in this vein of form, is currently worth.
A £90m valuation for one player perhaps paints over the cracks of Carroll, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and co., but that’s what football transfers are about: you are guaranteed nothing but a varying mix of successes and failures. As I’ve said for many years now, it just needs two or three really special players to transform a team’s fortunes, meaning that plenty of signings will turn out to be duds.
Arsene Wenger, seen for so long as the transfer guru, has signed loads of seriously under-performing strikers – Diawara, Jeffers, Chamakh, Gervinho, Arshavin, Baptista, Suker, Boa Morte, Reyes, Wreh, Aliadiere and others I’ve no doubt forgotten – but you look at Anelka, Henry and Van Persie, plus the improving Giroud (and for a while, Adebayor), and you see that one gem every few years is usually enough in any given position. In ‘2013 money’ Wenger has ‘wasted’ over £100m on strikers during since 1996, but it would be wrong to focus on those errors given the success of others.
Right now, Moses and Cissokho, albeit both only on loan, look like “failures”. The good news is that Moses, after a bright start, is not getting game time because Sterling, who seemed to have totally lost his confidence (and possibly his way) is once again looking like the lad of 15 who skinned youth-team full-backs; except he’s now doing so to senior players and internationals. He’s just had his 19th birthday, and most 19-year-olds learn the game in the reserves.
Cissokho is out of the team because – weird of all weirds – Jon Flanagan has it in his head that he’s Roberto Carlos. If you asked in August which of Cissokho, Enrique or Flanagan would be the Reds’ best left-back, scoring goals and performing Cruyff turns, you wouldn’t have picked a confidence-starved young right-back whom no Championship clubs even wanted to take on loan.
The Reds’ transfer business of the summer of 2012 was also flawed, with Rodgers furthering the niggling doubts with some unremarkable business. He seemed to be thinking rather small, like the manager of a mid-table club.
Joe Allen, who I think can still win over his doubters à la Lucas and Henderson, hasn’t yet proved value for money, and the others who arrived with him (bar youngster Yesil) are all sold, returned or loaned out. Then there was the Andy Carroll loan mess that left the Reds almost strikerless, the failure to land Clint Dempsey (which almost cost the Reds Henderson) and various other uninspiring events. It was a very inauspicious start, magnified by the American television show.
However, the transfer committee that FSG subsequently put together, which includes Rodgers, looks, on the overall balance, to be an inspired decision: it’s almost insane to think that Sturridge, Coutinho, Sakho and Mignolet all arrived in 2013 as very sensibly-priced players with years left ahead of them if they stay fit.
Not every signing will work out, not least because you can’t start fielding 16 or 17 players to give them all the chance to shine. My old rule of thumb, as a pure guess, was about 50% of buys working out well. Having since studied roughly 3,000 deals in the Premier League era, I’d say that around 40% are successful in one form or other (either on the pitch or in terms of making a profit to reinvest), with around only one in ten proving outstanding for the purchasing club, whether it be Thierry Henry at Arsenal or Kevin Davies at Bolton.
In terms of money spent, 2013 has delivered stunning pound-for-pound returns for Liverpool. Loanees Moses and Cissokho have underwhelmed, and freebie Kolo Toure isn’t in the side (but hasn’t let anyone down when he’s played). That’s three players who obviously rack up wages, but no transfer fee. Liverpool won’t be saddled with debt if they fail.
Ilori and Alberto were bought as young squad players, so it’s hard to comment on the wisdom of those deals at this juncture, other than to say Alberto has looked a very tidy player in his brief cameos. Which leaves just Aspas, at £7m, as “wasted” money based on performances so far. That can quickly change, as can perceptions of, for example, a senior player like Sakho, who just two games ago wasn’t even in the side. But based on things as they stand, which is all I can do here, the transfer committee has had an exceptional hit rate since its creation a year ago.
Whether or not Rodgers has the final say on transfers, he is working wonders with what he’s been given. If he only has a minimal input on deals, like ex-Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas, then he’s doing even better to work so well with players he didn’t choose. Either way he comes out of it well. And yes, he was lucky to inherit Luis Suarez, but he has to take some of the credit for the striker’s otherworldly form. If Rodgers was a fraud, as some suggest, then Suarez wouldn’t be so happy with him.
So 2013 has been one of great improvement for Rodgers’ Reds, and FSG must be hoping every year could be like this one. In terms of their football ‘franchise’, however, it’s only roughly the halfway stage. Nothing has been achieved yet. Their team are top on merit, but quite remarkably, also only one defeat away from slipping to 5th, with their second choice from 2012, Roberto Martinez, having made Everton a watchable, winning side. The top six is incredibly tight right now.
Perhaps ‘AVB’ was in the frame too back in 2012, but this summer, having recorded Spurs’ best points tally in the Premier League era, he was in the Caribbean yachting topless with his underlings. Months later he was shivering on the touchline, having been frozen out by his bosses.
Things change quickly in this sport, so this is not a case of crowing, or suggesting that Rodgers and FSG have it cracked. Football can flip too quickly to say that. But insofar as this season – and 2013 as a whole – is concerned, it’s hard to imagine things having gone any better.
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(Independent on Sunday)
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