Liverpool’s defeat last weekend against West Brom on the opening day of the new season saw a relatively new-look side in Brendan Rodgers first league game in charge deliver a decent performance, even if they were undone by some rash decisions from both the referee Phil Dowd and the players. However, despite a new footballing ethos, system and a couple of fresh faces, the same old problem of the side’s profligacy in front of goal came back to haunt them.
Last season, despite the club’s lowest league finish in 18 years of eighth place, below local rivals Everton and 17 points off the pace of a top four place, Kenny Dalglish’s side became experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory with a series of excellent displays that were hindered by lacking that crucial and often game-defining first goal.
Despite dominating the opposition, they drew at Anfield to Norwich, Swansea, Blackburn, Stoke and Aston Villa, while losing to West Brom, Fulham and Wigan. There was a time where excuses such as the side hitting the woodwork a freakish amount of times and goalkeeping heroics could quite understandably be used as reasoning for the fact that the results were not quite up to scratch, but by the end of the term, the performances declined to such an extent, that ‘luck’ or misfortune no longer played a part and the team were just plain rotten.
In the final few months of Kenny Dalglish’s 18-month reign in charge, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the Carling Cup triumph over Cardiff, they side lacked direction, focus and any sort of energy and it’s no wonder he was given his marching orders this summer, denied the opportunity to turn things around, because quite frankly, he looked somewhat clueless on where best to start, such were the huge gaps in the side across all areas of the pitch.
Brendan Rodgers has changed that already and the impact, while it may only be in its initial stages, is clear for all to see. Against FC Gomel in their Europa League game at home, it was noticeable how often Pepe Reina was prepared to play the ball out from the back rather than risk losing it by hoofing it forward, like he would have done without a second thought last season.
Even in their opening game against West Brom, Joe Allen was excellent in the first half on his debut, pulling the strings in midfield alongside Lucas Leiva, a sight for sore eyes for many of the club’s fans, even if Steven Gerrard looked a little lost slightly further forward – so there is clear progress further behind and despite something of a horror show in the game in question, that back four is solid and one of the best around in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, they still failed to register a goal from 14 attempts on goal, seven of which were on target, with Luis Suarez back to his profligate best, wasting a whole host of clear-cut chances in the first period. Is the problem now bordering on the systemic? Is a radical overhaul needed?
Well having relied upon an own goal to beat Hearts in their latest Europa League clash, the answer is that the radical overhaul is almost certainly already underway, with Raheem Sterling again impressing out on the right wing when played from the start, with Rodgers lauding his awareness and ability to find space after the game.
Fabio Borini, while he may still be raw, has been signed not only because Rodgers appears to go with what he knows, purchasing players that he’s coached before, but because he’s well-known for his clinical finishing ability in front of goal. Against West Brom, he was isolated at times and practically anonymous others, which is to be expected given that it was his first league outing and he will need time to adapt and adjust to the pace and culture of his new surroundings.
Last season, Liverpool failed to score in 13 separate league games, the same as Stoke, Sunderland, Wolves and Fulham, while they only troubled the scorers on 47 occasions, which is less than relegated Blackburn and only one more than fellow Championship side these days, Bolton.
Former player Gary McAllister told BBC Sport last week: “Suárez is a fantastic player, but I don’t know if he is a natural goal scorer, somebody like a Michael Owen. I can see him chipping in with a good amount of goals but is he somebody who is going to get 25 plus? I’m not so sure.
“But that’s me being hyper-critical as he brings so many other things to the game, like linking play and his technical abilities are fantastic. Liverpool certainly have to be more clinical with their finishing. Looking back to last season, I can just picture a lot of openings where players were snatching at the chances or trying too hard when they just needed to let it happen.”
His record of 15 goals in 45 league games doesn’t do justice to the impact that he’s had on the side, often creating chances for himself out of nothing, but it’s difficult to disagree with McAllister’s assertion that he’s not a natural goalscorer, yet it looks as if with Andy Carroll marginalised to an extent, that he’s going to be the main man asked to penetrate the opposition more often than not this season.
As a friend put it last week when questioning why I had put Suarez up front in my Fantasy Football team up front, he said “you don’t get points for industry”, which is a category the Uruguayan certainly falls into that’s great in terms of helping others around you play better, but there’s not as much tangible end product as there should be for a player of his ability.
These are early days in the Rodgers reign and it would be extremely harsh to judge him on the evidence so far, but the overwhelming majority of players have been at the club long enough to have settled by now, and any criticisms that come their way are more often than not justified, even if they are still in the midst of getting to grips with a new style. Patience is a virtue as they say, and while it’s healthy to allow some during the first few games, with a tricky run of fixtures coming up, they will have to find their feet fast.
It is often said that one of Rodgers greatest strengths is that he’s a teacher as much as he is a football manager, and while that may sound a tad on the maudlin side for most of you, as the side has proven so far already this campaign, some habits do indeed die hard and he’ll have to teach a few old dogs some new tricks in front of goal if they are to really improve and cash in on a potentially promising new era.
You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1