The in-vogue saying this season in the top flight is most definitely the term ‘transition’, but as Liverpool embark upon a deliberate change in tack under Brendan Rodgers, bumps in the road such as their slow start to the new Premier League season were to be expected, but what will the club’s latest boss have learnt so far from his charges?
To make matters simple, let’s start from the back and work our way through the side, beginning with goalkeeper Pepe Reina. The Spaniard should be comfortable with the ball-playing role that he’s been asked to perform, as it could be seen as fairly similar to the sweeper role he was given under Rafa Benitez during which he enjoyed his best spell of form at the club.
However, the 29-year-old’s dip in form has become a slump from which at the moment, there looks to be no return. With the club’s coffers being tightened, Reina remains an attractive saleable asset and without an upturn in form, Rodgers may want to follow up his initial interest in former Swansea goalkeeper Dorus De Vries again, or move for a more recognised stopper altogether next summer.
At centre-back, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger have both struggled initially with their new roles too. The 4-3-3 system is heavily reliant on the wingers hugging the touchline and the full-backs getting up and joining them in attack. This in turn should see the centre-back pairing be pushed further apart than they are normally comfortable with as they pass the ball between themselves, while also being in a position to cover the flanks.
You would presume that Agger would be familiar with this role given his skills and how Denmark like to play, but both he and Skrtel could be found guilty of committing some game-changing and result-defining individual errors against West Brom and Manchester City, with Skrtel’s pass back to Reina that gifted Carlos Tevez a late equaliser the best example. Jamie Carragher is still on the wane and Sebastian Coates still shaky on the rare occasions he does start, but even during a period of adjustment, they’ve underperformed hugely in what on paper is one of the team’s strongest positions of strength and a platform of their good form in recent times.
The full-backs are a tad more promising, with Glen Johnson starting the season reasonably well, even if he was caught woefully out of position for Lukas Podolski’s goal against Arsenal. Martin Kelly could hardly be blamed for the Yaya Toure striker against City either which saw Reina flapping hopelessly at a Tevez cross before it bounced off the unlucky defender.
There’s still a worry whether they are good enough technically to play the roles that they are being asked to perform and whether the likes of Jose Enrique and Johnson are too wasteful on the ball. Stewart Downing’s conversion to a left-back role in an attempt to prolong his future at the club is an interesting development that could pay dividends further down the line, even if it is somewhat humiliating for both the player and club at the same time in the short-term.
In midfield, Joe Allen has settled superbly into his new surroundings, while Jonjo Shelvey has been excellent whenever called upon so far. Lucas Leiva’s injury against City was extremely unfortunate but to be expected after such a long spell on the sidelines, with niggling muscle injuries sadly the norm in these cases, but it also robs the side of anyone capable of breaking up play in the middle of the park.
The club’s captain Steven Gerrard has been a big cause for concern so far and he looks as if he’s really struggling to get to grips with Rodgers’ methods. It’s not that he’s prone to trying the outrageous Hollywood passes like he used to, but that he seems positionally lost at sea, neither helping out either defensively or in an attacking sense and his form has been ropey and his passing very poor by his own standards.
Up front is where the main problems lie, though and the fact that Liverpool have scored just two goals from their opening three league games, with not one of them coming from open play, is a huge cause for concern. It’s worth remembering that Rodgers’ Swansea side failed to score on 15 separate occasions last term – the most in the league – and scored just 44 times altogether, so it may just be that this ethos is simply not conducive in English football to the free flowing of goals.
Luis Suarez has been at his profligate best , despite a corker of a free-kick against City and has been exceptionally poor on the ball, acting as a brake to any potential build-up play in all three fixtures so far. Borini has also struggled to involve himself enough and he looks a little lightweight on first inspection. The one ray of light has been the form of 17-year-old Raheem Sterling though, who was rewarded with his first senior call-up to the England side just the other day after breaking through into the starting eleven and displaying a maturity well beyond his years.
With so much changing both on and off the pitch in terms of the team’s style of play, the fresh faces and the swathe of departures, coupled with a tricky opening run of fixtures with Manchester United still to come on the horizon, a slow start was to be expected. It’s not that the pace of change has been too fast, because in these instances, dragging it out could do just as much if not more damage, but Rodgers has issues to overcome right throughout the side.
Would he have spent so much on both Assaidi and Borini is he knew he wouldn’t be able to find £6m for Clint Dempsey this summer? It’s extremely doubtful and the operational problems at the club are still getting in the way of progress, with Ian Ayre a big part of that, while FSG’s dithering is now bordering on the systemic. Their failures in the transfer market were a stark and harsh lesson in resource management which he will be hoping not to repeat in the future with the setting up of a technical committee at the club, while a recognised executive is reportedly being pursued to replace Ayre in the near future.
His 4-3-3 system is reliant on the players right through the spine of the side performing, while those out wide add the sprinkling of panache to proceedings and only Joe Allen is in any sort of form at the moment, with Reina, Suarez, Skrtel and Gerrard all struggling. Andre Villas-Boas has proven at Chelsea and to a lesser extent at Tottenham, that sometimes players need longer than you might expect to learn a new system and teething problems are inevitable.
One of Rodgers’ greatest strengths is his belief in his own methods and he’ll need that this term, particularly after a terrible deadline day for the club which left them a striker light until January. He has a small and unbalanced squad at present, wrestling with a change in style and burdened by the financial failings of the previous managerial administration.
Change will not be easy, nor will it be solved overnight and when it comes to truly assessing his work, we may not fully know even by the end of the season. But one thing is for certain, restoring the club to the top six, let alone the top four over the course of the next two to three years is going to be an absolutely huge job and the side will continue to be unpredictably frustrating for the foreseeable future as they continue to get to grips with the changes being implemented by their new boss.
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