By Paul Tomkins.
Things are rarely as simple as they seem. And yet, over the weekend, I had people telling me they knew exactly what was going wrong at Liverpool. And it was often just one thing. (I was told I was ‘naive’ to think that it’s any more complex than that, by the archetypal Dunning-Kruger tweeter.)
One comment – stated as a fact – was that last season was 99% down to Suarez, 1% down to Rodgers. I found this odd. Being pedantic, I noted that Suarez didn’t even play when 10 of the 84 points were won; meaning that, at the very most, it could only have been 88% down to Suarez. The Uruguayan scored 31% of the Reds’ league goals, and even adding assists, was still involved in fewer than half of them. Then there’s the assumption that Rodgers had nothing to do with the striker’s improved form, or the other 57 league goals that did not involve the now-departed superstar. It is, of course, a ludicrous suggestion, but stupid is as stupid does.
Another blamed Balotelli for everything. Everything!
But having given it some thought, I reckoned I could name quite a few reasons for the club’s struggles in 2014/15, which, as an approach, is never handy on Twitter with it’s 140 character limit. So I thought I’d list a few here.
1) Let’s start with the obvious: Suarez has gone. As of last season he was one of the best three players in the world. If you have a player so good that it’s like fielding two players, it’s hard to go back to 11 mere mortals. However, as I said last week, I think the prospect of a ban of a year or two for his next bite (and he’s had three in four years), along with the fact he wasn’t even eligible until this weekend, meant he probably had to be sold. And Southampton are showing that you can sell your best players and reinvest wisely (just as Liverpool did in 1987). Maybe Southampton scouted better this summer, or maybe there were other factors at work.
2) The summer signings haven’t worked (yet). Moreno looks a potential star, but has been patchy, as you’d expect from a young import. Manquillo looks a great prospect, but at 20 is raw. Ditto Can, who has had injuries. Markovic has disappointed, but he’s also only 20, and I assume all four of these don’t speak much English (yet). I think this quartet have a good chance of becoming important, just like Jordan Henderson (also 20 when he arrived) has done. But they may not. You never know.
While you can’t demand that any player, no matter what they cost, hits the ground running, we haven’t seen enough quality from the players aged 24 or over, who cost just either side of £20m. Lovren, Balotelli and Lallana haven’t added anything to the team (yet), beyond the occasional flash of quality. All three have plenty of Premier League experience, which goes to show that the problem is often adjusting to a new club, not simply a new league.
That’s £60m on three players, and right now you wouldn’t say that any of them are better than 6/10 on their contributions so far. But of course, even older players can take time to adapt (or, like others, they might never adapt). And while he only cost £4m, Rickie Lambert, the oldest arrival, has looked very nervous whenever he’s started. I won’t be too harsh on him, as he was bought as a squad player.
Liverpool had to increase the squad size by four or five players (net). That made it harder to go in really big for one or two stars – which could have been done, but would have represented a gamble (all the eggs going into one or two baskets). Right now, it doesn’t look like money wisely spent, but things change. You can blame the lack of an impact on Rodgers, or on the transfer committee, depending on how you see things.
3) Mario Balotelli’s style. I defended the player yesterday in a piece for TTT Subscribers, because the criticism has been excessive, and at times, frankly ludicrous. But equally, it’s not completely clear if he is suited to the kind of game Liverpool need to be playing. I think he’s done okay in most games, but he does appear to lower the tempo of the play, rather than injecting some urgency. I saw a stat before the Hull game that said, based on his shot locations in Premier League games, there was just a 1% chance of a player not scoring a single goal from those chances. Maybe that’s down to 0.1% after this weekend’s game, and obviously he’s having a tough time in front of goal; he’s had some bad misses, and forced some good saves. You can choose to think that’s because he’s not very good, or you can put it down to the kinds of runs that strikers sometimes go on (see Peter Crouch, 2005).
4) Daniel Sturridge’s injury. In the absence of Suarez last season, Sturridge stepped up to the plate. Indeed, his goalscoring record at Liverpool is remarkable; virtually three goals every four games, and he doesn’t even get to take the penalties. Obviously it seems that – just like Kun Aguero – he’ll never play a full season, but to miss the early months of 2014/15 has meant that last season’s goalscoring unit has been totally ripped out, and the creative midfielders have no one whose game they already understand. If Sturridge had been fit, it would mean one fewer newbie thrown into the XI. Just because Sturridge suffering some kind of injury at some point was predictable, don’t overlook the damaging nature of the timing.
5) European football. Liverpool didn’t win 26 league games last season because they didn’t play in Europe, otherwise not playing in Europe would mean another 13 teams could have expected 84 points. But it probably helped. There was more time to prepare for games, and more time to rest between fixtures.
During Rafa Benítez’s time I pointed out stats that showed that Arsenal and Liverpool struggled after international and Champions League midweek games much more than Chelsea and Man United, who had bigger, costlier squads and larger wage bills to sustain them. And while it may be confirmation bias playing tricks on me, it seems that virtually every club that qualifies for the Europa League suffers domestically, because they rarely have a large pool of players. The extra demands of European football take their toll. This season the Reds have had far less energy, as shown in performance stats. Some of the lack of pressing may be down to players like Balotelli, but it’s not just him. Injuries have meant that Steven Gerrard, now 34, has probably played more than was expected.
6) Gerrard has been ‘found out’. While it’s clear that he’s still a very talented footballer, the impact that switching to deep-lying playmaker had last season – which helped garner 11 wins in a row, as he ran games from in front of the back four – has now been negated by opposition tactics. This is what happens in football, and you can’t expect a manager to make another switch that instantly pays instant dividends. Of course, it is still Rodgers’ job to find a solution – but it’s not easy.
Some may argue that the manager should have seen this at the end of last season, and maybe that’s correct. But with so much change this summer, to have switched the captain’s role would have been to add further changes, and to have left him out entirely would have meant yet another new buy or rookie going into the XI (and would have made for a very young side indeed; Liverpool are already low on experience). Theoretically, such changes may have worked, but it’s also possible to see why, with so much upheaval, Gerrard remains at the base of the midfield. And let’s not forget that when he was pushed further forward from the start at QPR, he couldn’t get (or be got) into the game.
7) Pace and balance. Whatever Rodgers has tried to do this season has involved some kind of compromise, due to personnel issues. He hasn’t been able to field as much energy or pace going forward, and so he’s tried to switch things around, without ever finding the perfect balance. There does seem to be an excess of players who like to play just off the striker, so maybe this is another reason why Gerrard has been largely kept deeper.
And was Adam Lallana a necessary buy? On the one hand it seems the answer is No, but if you’re going to play with at least two tricky attacking players every game, then you probably need four in the squad. Maybe buying just one of Markovic and Lallana and spending £20m elsewhere might have worked better. And of course, the best buy of the summer may prove to be Divock Origi; we just won’t see them until 2015.
One problem is that if you start with Sterling, Coutinho and Lallana, plus Moreno, and then also include Joe Allen, you’re suddenly not looking very comfortable on set-pieces. (Swap any of those out for Lazar Markovic and the average height remains low.) Indeed, I’m not sure Liverpool regularly field any players who are over 6’3” (or have them in reserve), but can field five or six at 5’9” and under.
8) Set-pieces. Last season Liverpool scored more than you’d expect from set-pieces, and this year, rather than reverting to the mean, it appears to have swung right to the other extreme. Corners keep hitting the first man, whether taken by Gerrard or Coutinho. And at the other end, perhaps down to height, perhaps down to poor management and/or on-field organisation (and concentration), the Reds are being punished; if not by the first phase, then by the second.
With half of the outfield players often below average in terms of height, Liverpool need a commanding goalkeeper. Simon Mignolet is not that man. He is a good shot-stopper (stats suggest he’s below average on high shots, and well above average on low shots, perhaps due to the lower starting position Gary Neville highlighted; but it also seems that more shots are hit low than high, so maybe that starting point makes sense). However, he’s not particularly confident on corners and crosses. He doesn’t inspire confidence. He seems like a nice guy, rather than an utter bastard who’ll scare away attackers.
Rodgers appears to favour technical ability over physicality, and while that’s not automatically a bad thing, you feel that in England there will be teams who rely on size and power. In particular, Manchester City and Chelsea are very imposing sides, who carry maybe two or three shorter players at most. So while they find room for Hazard and Silva, they have a greater number of big, strong, powerful units in defence and midfield, and that helps them deal with the more agricultural Premier League opponents. By contrast, Liverpool don’t really have that. And Lovren, who was bought for his defensive ‘presence’, has not yet gained his composure. In time, Emre Can could prove important in this respect, as a powerful midfielder with unlimited potential, but he’s new, he’s young and he’s had injuries.
Without knowing how much time Liverpool allocate to set-pieces in training, it’s hard to say that they need to do more; but it doesn’t look like they work at it as much as you’d want. Then again, coaching is all about compromise: there are only so many hours in the week (which are lessened with travel and rest periods for midweek games), and if you are a manager who wants his team to be sharp passers, then most of the time will be spent focusing on that, day in, day out. If you want your team to be set-piece experts, you assign a greater proportion of time to that (and pick bigger players – although bigger players who are also quick, strong and skilful are usually the ones that come with high price tags and large wage demands; these are the über-players).
However they do it, Liverpool need to start defending better from set-pieces, and better in general. A cross into Liverpool’s box is always a Hail Mary – not for the team who makes that pass, but for the Reds’ fans saying their prayers.
9) ‘Swings and roundabouts’. By this I am referring to the up-and-down nature of football, and how it’s rare to be consistently good, either throughout an entire season, or from year to year. Emotional and physical highs and lows can lead to paybacks of varying degrees. Both Liverpool and Man City had ‘emotional’ campaigns, followed by trips to the World Cup for many of their players. By contrast, Chelsea’s season was effectively over about a month earlier, and while they appear to have spent extremely wisely this summer, perhaps they got some kind of ‘break’ before the World Cup.
There is plenty of evidence that show players suffer after a World Cup, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that Liverpool suffered an almighty mental comedown in May; as seen by Suarez’s uncontrollable tears at Palace, and how Gerrard later called it the worst few months of his career. So it seems that rather than take all the positives from last season, it felt like a body blow, and the departure of Luis Suarez probably salted the wound. Liverpool had climbed Everest, but instead of the great pride at getting to within inches of the summit, it felt like they fell 3,000 feet. Indeed, if Gerrard thought it was worse than the six months he spent under Roy Hodgson at Anfield, that tells you a lot about the impact it had.
10) Momentum. Now, as a concept this has been eschewed on TTT due to the scientific research into the area, but if momentum doesn’t mean you’ll win the next game, a good start can provide insurance. When Liverpool had an iffy autumn last season, there was the safety blanket of those nine points from the first three games. They did play any better or worse than they have so far this season, but the extra points shielded the manager and players from criticism; and when they did start playing better, they already had a healthy points-per-game ratio to build on.
I’m sure lots of other things are going wrong too. I’ve listed a few that have sprung to mind, but there will be incidents within games that were not won, and issues like the lack of penalties being awarded to the Reds. (Note: if a team ever wins a lot of legitimate penalties it will be highlighted and used against that team at a later date. Referees are put under pressure. It’s suddenly perfectly legal to bundle Raheem Sterling over in the box.)
I am not absolving Rodgers of all blame. If he had a greater say in the summer spending then it hasn’t helped (thus far), but we can all debate who we think are his players, and who were the selection of the committee. As happens with most managers, he may well have been over-praised last season, and over-damned this.
What I will say is that last season was fairly exceptional given the starting point of the club (7th the year before). Whatever the factors, Rodgers clearly did very well indeed, even if you don’t wish to garner him with all the praise. He has earned the time to put things right.
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