It has been a season of ups and downs for Liverpool. The failed tenures of Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish spelled out that serious institutional change was required at Anfield, and the task of bringing the club back towards old glories has been placed in the hands of Brendan Rodgers. But rather than making it into the top four and qualifying for the Champions League, as the Northern Irishman and several of the senior players had declared was their aim in the first half of the season, every step forwards by the Reds appears to be suddenly halted by a step back towards mid-table Premier League mediocrity.
It has left the fans frustrated on more than one occasion, and there are a strong contingent of supporters whom remain unimpressed with Rodgers efforts, with the club set to finish just a place higher than they did the campaign previous, behind local rivals Everton, and this time with no silverware to soften the blow. But is it a case of expectations being too high on Merseyside? Is the constant desire to assert Liverpool as a ‘big club’, despite having slid down the Premier league table over the past five years, in danger of stalling progress at Anfield? And is their continual target of Champions League football simply an unachievable goal?
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Labelling and defining can be a dangerous thing – just ask former Reds boss and current Chelsea ‘interim’ manager Rafa Benitez. Of course, the belief from Reds supporters that their side should remain a ‘big club’ is only natural, especially considering their successes during the 1980s, and their Champions League final win in 2005. But the fact is, Liverpool have never won a Premier League title since its incarnation in 1992, and their European cup-winning side included such ‘talents’ as Djimi Traore, Jersey Dudek and Milan Baros. Fate was on their side in Istanbul, and the Reds failed to qualify for the tournament the following year through their final standing in the Premier League.
Furthermore, the club have failed to keep up with the rising financial powerhouses of Chelsea and Manchester City. Whilst both have been privy to unprecedented finance at their disposal, Liverpool have overspent and wrongly invested in the transfer market for a number of years, eventually leading to the £35million purchase of Andy Carroll and a £20million investment in Stewart Downing, to name a few of their more recent transfer blunders. The Reds have slowly been buying players worse than what they’ve already got on their roster for years, and it has equated to a decline in the quality of the first team.
Liverpool may be a former European powerhouse, and they may have a worldwide fan base of 71 million supporters, but the reality is that they are no longer a member of the once proclaimed ‘unbreakable’ top four, and they haven’t made it to the group stages of the Champions League since 2009, and it is due to their players being of limited quality in comparison to their divisional rivals. Barring Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and perhaps Pepe Reina, would any of the Reds’ squad command a place in the starting XIs at any of the top five clubs?
Yet the pressure still remains on Brendan Rodgers to push the club beyond its means back towards Champions League qualification, and as he fails to achieve it, the disappointment grows. I find it surprising because, due to an outsider at least, the former Swansea manager has done rather well during his inaugural season as Liverpool boss, considering the circumstances.
Most importantly, the Northern Irishman has got the Anfield house in order. Although he will have to make a decision over Andy Carroll’s fate in the summer, he’s managed to put the sensitive issue on hold for the year, and furthermore, a number of the club’s least valuable yet most economically consuming assets, such as Joe Cole, are now off the books. At the same time, he’s turned a squad based around under-performing, overvalued has-beens into a roster geared towards youth and potential, with youngsters such as Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom coming into the fold, in addition to bringing in exciting talents such as Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, at unusually reasonable prices considering Liverpool’s rather dark transfer history.
There are always grumblings of discontent from fans, even at the most successful of clubs. But I fear the groans and moans may vent into something more serious next season should there be a considerable lack of progress, despite Rodgers’ scope for change being sufficiently limited. The papers are reporting a mere transfer kitty of just £20million for new recruits in the summer, and despite the number of senior players performing below par yet again this year, the club are hardly in a position to sell.
In an ideal world, there would be a major overhaul, with the likes of Stewart Downing, Martin Skrtel and Andy Carroll being shown the exit door, but with experienced players overall in short supply at Anfield, in addition to the fact that for at least two of the three previously mentioned players, potential buyers will be hard to come by, Rodgers appears obliged to make the best out of what he has already at his disposal, including the West Ham loanee.
Next year, the fans, the players and the manager will all want Champions League football, but quite frankly, I do not believe it is a target within their means. The likes of Chelsea, City and Arsenal will all be spending big in the summer, yet the Reds will have a modest budget, which will most likely have the majority of it eaten up by the search for Jamie Carragher’s replacement. I fear the pressure can only make the situation more difficult for Rodgers and the players, knowing in their minds that another ‘best of the rest’ finish in the Premier League will not be enough. It’s the kind of pressure that can push clubs towards implosion and strip footballers of their confidence, further creating a self-perpetuating downward spiral.
It seems an illogical notion, but it is the club’s desperation to achieve that will hold them back next season, during what looks to be yet another troubling year for the club. Champions League football should not be the aim, as it is an unachievable goal considering the Reds’ limits in terms of quality, finance and ability to change up in time for next season. I do not wish to rid the Liverpool faithful of hope, but my concern is that a lack of progress will eventually be pinned upon Brendan Rodgers, despite the fact that the club could easily be in a worse position with King Kenny still at the helm.
He is a talented manager, at a club filled with potential, but the fact of the matter is, it is one of Liverpool’s lowest points in terms of on-pitch success throughout their prestigious history. There is no quick fix or easy solution, and similarly, one will not be thought of in time for next season. What the Reds need to once again become a ‘big club’ is time, and pressure to climb up the table and into Europe from fans, before the level of finance and quality of the first team is in place, can only stall the gradual progress.