The term ‘rollercoaster season’ is usually rattled out all too often, yet after following up a superb 3-2 win over Tottenham with a crushing 3-1 defeat away to Southampton, Liverpool’s season is starting to look Nemesis Inferno in its appearance.
Defeat at St. Mary’s left Brendan Rodgers’ side one point above West Brom in seventh and potentially six points behind sixth placed Everton, should the Toffees win their game in hand. With eight games left to play and a Merseyside derby still to come, there’s certainly still the capacity for change, but the odds are that the Reds may find themselves exactly where they are come the end of the campaign.
And it’s here that we face something of an interesting proposition when evaluating the success of Liverpool’s first campaign under Brendan Rodgers.
The remit for the Ulsterman has always been one of ‘progress’ for this season. Upon his appointment from Swansea last summer, the feeling was one of light optimism, albeit very much under an umbrella of cautious ambition. The Fenway Sports Group appeared eager to reassure Rodgers that qualification for the Uefa Champions League wasn’t a mandatory requirement for the season ahead, preferring to aim for a target of ‘stability’ as opposed to a top-four finish.
Although after overseeing what was the club’s worst start to a season in over a century, John W Henry and co were certainly given a stringent test of their willingness to play their part in stabilizing the club, as they liked to put it. Yet if the start was a sticky one under Rodgers, the club’s hierarchy were rewarded for standing by their man with a superb run in the lead up to Christmas.
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Yet if the one constant has been the board’s backing of Rodgers over the course of the season, the variable has almost certainly been within the aspirations set for this term. The rollercoaster like change in fortunes has made it incredibly difficult to gauge just where abouts within the Premier League they might finish and as a consequence, the goalposts for where many have perceived they should finish, have been subject to continuous change.
But for all the calls for stability and dampened expectations, Liverpool supporters have been given real reasons to set their sights slightly higher this term and that’s in no small part to Rodgers’ insistence that the club should be gunning for Champions League qualification this season, rather than a small step towards it.
His words may have been taken slightly out of context back in December, but even if his observations that second place was ‘up for grabs’ may have been misconstrued, Rodgers’ message here was loud and clear – a top four finish is exactly what the club should be aiming for.
But while Bill Nicholson’s quote about it being better to fail aiming high than succeeding aiming low holds gravitas here, should you set yourself such high targets, that’s what you shall ultimately be judged upon. And crucially, you can’t keep changing those targets at your own will, either.
As it stands, the Reds currently sit nine points behind Spurs who occupy the fourth and final Champions League spot, with both teams having played 30 games. While it’s not out the question that Liverpool could stage a stirring comeback over the course of the next eight games, if you’re going on the basis of the performance they churned out against Mauricio Pochettino’s side on Sunday, you’d have to imagine that seems highly unlikely indeed.
So should the status quo remain and Rodgers’ side finish seventh, for argument’s sake, can Liverpool’s term really be defined as a success, or even reasonable progress, for that matter?
In acquiring the likes of Fabio Borini, Joe Allen, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, Rodgers has spent over £43million on forging his own team up on Merseyside. Granted, he’s only had the latter pair since January, although on top of his additions it’s hardly as if he inherited a squad that was absent of quality. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and a certain Luis Suarez were all in attendance before Rodgers’ arrival at Anfield.
There were – and there remain – a fair share of faults within this side, but Liverpool bestow the core components needed to make something of a top-four push. And who knows, had they not put together such a terrible run of results at the start of the season, maybe there might not be such a gulf between themselves and a push for Champions League qualification.
Ultimately, if FSG were looking for a season of ‘stabilization’, then there will be few in their Boston offices that will be having any particular complaints. Should the season finish today, a seventh placed berth would represent an incremental improvement on last season’s eighth and where as the squad felt bereft of any real identity come the end of last term, they’re undoubtedly moving in the right direction under Rodgers.
But on the same coin, while Brendan Rodgers might have put the brakes on the clubs recent regression and brought a relative calm to the club, any progress made has been more of a cautious step sideways, rather than a positive step into the future. Judging by the targets that were set out for the Ulsterman at the start of the season, Rodgers hasn’t failed by any stretch of the imagination – the problem is that he hasn’t really achieved anything, either.
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