April 27th, 2014, and Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers – clearly aggrieved after Chelsea had just dealt a colossal blow to his side’s title aspirations with a 2-0 victory at Anfield – had the following to say about the Blues’s tactical approach to the game:
“I don’t think it’s a tactic. Anyone can ask a team to just sit back and defend on the edge of the box.”
Fast forward seven months, and a subtle yet significant alteration to the 41 year-old’s claim is perhaps in order, as the painful reality appears to be that any manager apart from Rodgers himself is able to coax a solid defensive performance out of his players.
Liverpool’s dreadful 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday means that the Reds have now kept just two clean sheets in their last 24 games in all competitions. They have already lost as many league games this season as they managed in the entirety of the last, and a defeat against Ludogorets Razgrad in the Champions League on Wednesday would be their fifth in a row and would mark their worst run since 1953.
The small matter of Luis Suarez leaving the club in the summer – whose goals effectively deflected attention away from Liverpool’ defensive shortcomings – is no excuse for such damning statistics. Rodgers has been given considerable time and funds to improve his side’s defence, yet the Reds backline has actually regressed since the Irishman took over two years ago. In the 2011/12 season – Kenny Dalglish’s last as manager – Liverpool conceded a total of 40 league goals. In the two subsequent seasons under Rodgers, they let in 43 and 50 respectively, and the current tally for this campaign of 18 from 12 games – 1.5 goals per game – means that the Anfield outfit are well on course to break their record for most goals conceded in a Premier League season.
£63 million has been spent on defence alone by Rodgers since he became manager in June 2012. The fact that things have somehow worsened despite significant investment highlights the Liverpool boss’s two major managerial flaws: his inability to find value in the transfer market, and his lack of expertise in defensive coaching. Simon Mignolet has been woefully out of his depth since he joined the Reds from Sunderland in the summer of 2013 and is clearly a mid-table Premier League goalkeeper at best, while Dejan Lovren’s status as a professional footballer continues to beggar belief, such has been the Croat’s embarrassing incompetence in central defence. The pair cost a combined £29 million; to put this into context, Hugo Lloris – a genuine world-class goalkeeper – was bought by Tottenham for just £12 million, while Vincent Kompany was priced at £6 million when he signed for Manchester City.
Rodgers would argue that every manager has his weaknesses, and that his own strengths lie elsewhere. It is hard to dispute this; last season’s LMA manager of the year is undoubtedly very talented, and the attacking prowess of his Liverpool side has at times been breathtaking. However, his continued refusal to accept that his defensive approach simply isn’t working is having a damaging effect on the club’s on-field performances. There has been no sign whatsoever of an improvement in the Reds’ backline solidity, and until Rodgers bites the bullet and hires a defensive coach – as Dalglish did when he brought in Steve Clarke to help him out – Liverpool’s problems will persist.
The Liverpool boss is highly unlikely to do so, which is why he must go. Although the man from Ballymena is one of the most intelligent, progressive and tactically astute managers in the game, his stubbornness with regard to his clearly faulty defensive methods is sending Liverpool into freefall. A questionable record in the transfer market is just about excusable – Rafael Benitez hardly covered himself in glory with his signings, and neither did Kenny Dalglish. However, these two men at least ensured that the Reds defence retained a degree of respectable solidity.
Liverpool’s backline woes need to be addressed urgently if their season is to be saved. As talented a manager as Rodgers is, he does not seem to be the man to make this happen.
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