Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Is Rodgers the man to oversee Liverpool's transfer window?

I last wrote an overview of the situation at Liverpool way back in April 2012.  A lot has happened in the intervening years, but, rather depressingly, many things remain the same.

Back then, Kenny Dalglish was  manager.  Liverpool had just been beaten at home by West Bromwich Albion and there was a sense among supporters that sweeping changes needed to be made in the summer close season.   Less than a month later, the club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), invited King Kenny to an ‘end of season review’ in their home city, Boston, and sacked him suddenly and unexpectedly.    

Three years on, Liverpool has just lost at Anfield to Crystal Palace and Dalglish’s successor, Brendan Rodgers, has been summoned to the United States to debrief FSG after this Saturday’s game against Stoke.  It’s no wonder that some commentators wonder whether the meeting will have a similar outcome to the ‘review’ of 2012.

When I wrote that post, there was at least some silverware in the trophy cabinet.  Liverpool had beaten Cardiff City in the League Cup final and were looking forward to playing Chelsea in the FA Cup final.  This year, the club reached two cup semi-finals again, but lost both, including a devastating FA Cup defeat to Aston Villa. 

On the other hand, Brendan Rodgers’ team cannot finish below seventh in the Premier League table and is more likely to finish fifth or sixth, whereas Kenny Dalglish led Liverpool to eighth place in 2012.

There was also the little matter of a serious challenge to win the league title, masterminded by Rodgers last season.  Although the team failed ultimately to top the table, second place was regarded by most fans and commentators as a considerable achievement and the manager was thought to have exceeded FSG’s expectations.  It was an exciting season for Liverpool, full of masterful team performances and driven by outstanding attacking play by Luis Suarez.

As summer 2015 approaches, however, Suarez has long since moved on, to form part of Europe’s best forward line, at Barcelona.  His goal-scoring partner, Daniel Sturridge, spent most of the season injured and Liverpool has netted just over half the number of goals scored last term.  It also looks likely that Raheem Sterling, a talented nineteen year old forward, will be sold to Manchester City.

If the playing staff doesn’t need to be rebuilt in its entirety, it certainly requires extensive refurbishment.  Arguably only one player in the squad, Phillip Coutinho, could not be replaced easily enough with someone better, if the funds were available.

At goalkeeper - Simon Mignolet’s form improved dramatically after Christmas, when he overcame his reluctance to leave the goal-line and claim the ball from crosses.  However, his deputy, Brad Jones, will be sold during the summer and the club has to find a replacement who will compete with Mignolet for a first team place.

On this season’s evidence, Rodgers hasn’t decided whether Liverpool’s defence should contain three or four players.  Whichever system is employed next season, the club will surely decide to add one central defender to the (reasonably) solid duo of Skrtel and Sakho. 

A consistent pairing hasn't been established at full-back / wing-back either.  The Spaniard, Alberto Moreno, is young, but makes defensive errors and was recently dropped.  His compatriot, Javier Manquillo, played rarely, particularly as the season advanced.  Meanwhile, the inconsistent England international, Glen Johnson, whose wages are reputed to be high, will be sold in the summer.

Rodgers tried various midfield players and wide players at wingback.  Lazar Markovic and Jordan Ibe are youthful, fast and energetic, but their passing and decision making skills are a work in progress.  Other players, like Jordan Henderson, look more effective in central areas. 

Steven Gerrard’s departure deprives the team of its figurehead and captain.  Although his performances this season weren’t generally as powerful or dominating as previous years, he takes with him a store of experience and inspiration which will be almost impossible to replace. 

Henderson, the vice-captain, has spoken about filling the void left by the captain.  He has the enthusiasm and the work ethic required, but he’s not yet a world class player like Gerrard and, honestly, it’s not clear that he has the ability to become one.  That’s not to diminish Henderson’s contribution to Liverpool, which has been considerable.

Emre Can shows enormous potential, but Rodgers cannot decide how best to accommodate his skills.  Can played most games this season as a third centre-back, but at times looked uncomfortable defending.  In midfield, by contrast, he appears happier but is too often caught on the ball.  The German can almost certainly become an important player for Liverpool, but first his role has to be determined.

One of the chief criticisms of the team this year has been its inability to score goals.  With Sturridge injured, Rodgers was left only with Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini as conventional strikers.  None of this misfiring trio was able to establish himself in the first eleven.  As a result, Rodgers often used Raheem Sterling as a makeshift centre-forward, or, latterly, played Philippe Coutinho in the position known fashionably as ‘the false nine’.

The Brazilian’s creativity should surely be the hub of any Liverpool line-up next season, but he still needs proper strikers to feed.  Belgian international, Divock Origi, joins the club next year, but it’s worth remembering that he only recently ended a six month goal drought at Lille and isn’t regarded as a conventional centre-forward.  Top of Liverpool’s summer shopping list will be at least one goal-scoring striker. 

The club will have to do plenty of business in the transfer market this summer and the only question most supporters are asking is who should oversee the rebuilding exercise.  Should FSG give Brendan Rodgers a stiff talking to at the ‘end of season review’ or tell him to look for another job?

A lot of fans have made up their minds already, but I’m still undecided.

There’s a lot I like about the way Rodgers goes about his work.  He’s pragmatic and flexible about changing personnel and tactics; he encourages young players and reportedly works hard in training to improve their skills; he also seems to value and respect the history and traditions of Liverpool FC.

Conversely, his tendency to experiment with different line-ups and formations can seem like indecision or even cluelessness.  Sometimes, his readiness to give the media a quote borders on self-promotion and he doesn’t always appear to grasp the seriousness of a bad defeat.  Most seriously, there are concerns about his judgement in the transfer market.

Liverpool’s recruitment policy is famously implemented by a ‘transfer committee’, which includes chief executive, Ian Ayre and other officials, as well as Rodgers.  This body has allowed the manager to escape some of the blame for bad signings, but he is an important member and must have had significant input into the club’s investments.

Since arriving at Liverpool in June 2012, Rodgers has overseen one genuinely successful transfer window.  That was during January 2013, when Coutinho and Sturridge were added to the playing staff. 

Last summer the club spent £117 million on players, none of whom established themselves as unquestionable assets to the first team.  The arrivals included unqualified failures, (Dejan Lovren £20 million, Rickie Lambert £4.5million, Mario Balotelli £16 million), signings who seemed hugely overpriced and have not yet proved otherwise (Adam Lallana £25 million, Alberto Moreno £12 million) and young talent which may or may not eventually prove good enough (Lazar Markovic £20 million, Emre Can £9.8 million).

It’s likely that there will be lots more transfer activity this summer but it remains to be seen whether this will involve the owners ploughing significant sums of money into the squad or whether the manager will be expected to fund signings largely by selling players like Sterling and cutting wages. 

In either scenario, a manager will be required to recruit the right players and deploy them in the right formation to qualify for the Champions League and, preferably, win a trophy.  That will involve either having a firm idea of the system that he should play and the determination to buy personnel to operate it, or having the ability to find exceptional talent on the transfer market, then developing quickly the most effective tactical system to suit those players.

Is Brendan Rodgers the man to fulfil the task?  It’s possible, but I’m far from convinced.  If Rodgers fails to persuade Mike Gordon, president of the Fenway Sports Group, then he could be out of a job.