Slowly making their way up the table, Liverpool now sit 8th in the Premier League, trying to bring the faintest justice to the expectations that followed them into this new campaign. Having moved passed the utter brilliance that was Luis Suarez, many critics looked to Brendan Rodgers as the source of Liverpool’s misery in the last few months. In this piece, Aakriti Mehrotra talks about the credit that the Northern Irishman deserves.
As Liverpool took on Newcastle United in the last match of the Premier League last season, everyone was sure that Manchester City would wrap things up and win the league. But in the facilities of Anfield, there was a Premier League trophy present, just in case West Ham United miraculously did one over the Citizens and Liverpool beat Newcastle. While the unexpected did not prevail, this was after a long, long time that the Reds came that close to the league trophy. It was credit to both the team and the manager that a squad of virtually 14 or 15 players managed to compete with the side that has been spending to win for a while now.
Naturally, expectations were very high for the coming season. Despite Luis Suarez’s departure in the summer, the Merseysiders were expected to have a successful season. Rationality said that the Reds wouldn’t be competition for the title this season but one was definitely expecting their presence in the top 4 at the end of the campaign. Au contraire, results from mid-September to late November have disappointed and surprised everyone. How much can you blame one man’s injury for a club looming in the bottom half of the table? A lot of reasons have been discussed for what went wrong in that period- new signings not faring well, injury to Daniel Sturridge, over-reliance on Raheem Sterling, usage of Steven Gerrard and Brendan Rodgers’ poor management.
Rodgers’ was adjudged Premier League’s best manager last season. But just after six months or so, people have been calling for his head and spouting statements along the lines of “Luis Suarez tricked the world into thinking Rodgers was a good manager” and so forth. These claims are not only absurd, but make you question the mental level of people trying to get “likes” or “retweets” for “banter”(personally despise the last quoted word). However, these people cannot be completely overruled. The manager obviously has his fair share of blame if his team isn’t performing well and these points – transfers, team selection – have been discussed a fair bit now so we won’t be getting into that, plenty of material out there on the world wide web to quench that thirst.
But since 14th December, (when Liverpool got beaten by Manchester United at Old Trafford) the side has managed to do rather well and if one person deserves credit for it, it is Brendan Rodgers (don’t take this to mean that only he deserves credit for Liverpool’s good run of form).
Back it up a little to give an idea of Brendan Rodgers, the manager who is both annoyingly stubborn at times, and nicely flexible in his ideas. He came to Merseyside with the Swansea philosophy. The Swans had been credited with playing a good brand of Barcelona-esque tiki taka football. The Welsh side did a very pleasing job of this as well with the manner of which they played and won their games, standing out on many occasions. The Northern Irishman thought he could achieve success in the same manner at Liverpool. But when you have naturally pacey players, what he was trying to do could not materialize. The presence of Joe Allen in the midfield didn’t really ensure that the possession brand of football could occur with the Reds. When Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho arrived in the winter and got slotted in the starting 11, the manager slowly gave up on this and transitioned his side into playing swift football. The Reds ended the season much better than they began it and things were looking positive. Last season, Liverpool’s brand of football got recognition all over Europe. The side’s swift transitions from defence to attack, their tempo of play and the counter-attacks were absolutely delightful to watch and while they were leaving their defence exposed on countless occasions – which meant that it was leaking goals – Liverpool’s attack and the presence of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge guaranteed that Liverpool continued to outscore the oppositions.
Suarez left, and Sturridge got injured. Rodgers had to use Mario Balotelli or Rickie Lambert up-front. The style Liverpool were so used to and successful in, became redundant. Frustratingly, the Reds boss continued to persist in the same manner and as expected, results did not come his side’s way.
But almost a month back, the 41 year old finally figured out the best way he can get favorable results out of his available team. He used the variation of the formation he failed with last season- 3-4-2-1. Rodgers decided that none of his available strikers could do a good job in the current system. Balotelli and Lambert are pretty immobile to carry out swift attacks and they virtually slow the pace of adventurous movements. Therefore, the manager has asked the recent European Golden Boy winner Raheem Sterling to lead Liverpool’s attacks as the false nine. Thankfully, Rodgers also put his differences or whatever the reason for not using Fabio Borini aside and started him in Sterling’s place against Sunderland as the Italian is the paciest of his available options. Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana are used centrally behind him as two number 10s who occupy what Rodgers calls the “Zola-zone” and exploit it to their advantage. Behind them is the presence of two central midfielders – Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva – ideally. Alongside these two lie the two wingbacks. Alberto Moreno, who in any case is very attack minded and hence ideal for this role and Lazar Markovic (the other suited candidate). The Serbian put on an exquisite performance against Sunderland where he started on the right flank, but progressed behind Borini after Gerrard was taken off. Markovic was used as the left wing-back against Bournemouth, where he created the first goal and scored another one.
The three man defence which has worked for Liverpool comprises Martin Skrtel as the central defender. On his right is Emre Can, Liverpool’s Mr. Versatile. The German has played in every position bar as the striker and between the posts in his footballing career. Rodgers decided to take Kolo Toure off at half-time against Burnley and decided to put Emre Can there instead. This decision was a masterstroke in the match as the Reds started building from the back and didn’t come under pressure against the threatening Ings, Boyd and Barnes. For the first time this season, Liverpool looked assured in the back. Emre Can gives composure at the back. He can chest the ball in his own box and kick it away, with the opposition attackers putting pressure. This is something so different to what Liverpool fans are used to seeing in their defence, a backline that comes under pressure too easily and looks vulnerable all the time (no hyperbole there). Since Can naturally is suited in the heart of the pitch, he is good with the ball and becomes a ball-playing defender at the back who can contribute with long range passes to start attacks and thrusts forward himself. Can’s presence at the back has helped Liverpool greatly as he gives the back-line a calming presence.
Mamadou Sakho operates on the other side of Martin Skrtel. The Frenchman was out of the squad for a long time, which was down to both his row with the club (after being left out of the Everton match) and injury. Injury to summer signing Dejan Lovren meant Rodgers had to use Sakho at the back. Even though the former PSG player is sloppy at times, so far, he has been the best of the defenders for Liverpool. His good performances have meant that despite Lovren coming back from injury, the France international has not been displaced from the starting line-up. With Sakho and Can performing well at the back, pressure is also off Martin Skrtel, who doesn’t need to necessarily make rash challenges.
Brad Jones was brought in by Rodgers to replace the poor Simon Mignolet, but the manager’s plan of giving the Belgian time out didn’t work out as the former Middlesbrough keeper was injured shortly after. Mignolet’s form has been extremely poor this season, but the goalkeeper looks slightly better than before, for which the credit has to go to Lucas’s immense contribution in the middle of the park and Liverpool’s defence doing better as well.
All in all, the decision to move into the 3-4-2-1 formation has worked wonders for many players. Lucas has become indispensable in the current team and the Brazilian has made sure his performances keep him at Liverpool till the end of the season, if not for a longer time. Adam Lallana, currently out injured, has gone on record to state that he feels comfortable in the current formation and can contribute best in that spot. Philippe Coutinho, who was infamously anonymous at the beginning of the season and had disappointed greatly with his on-field effort, suddenly looks as good as any of the world’s best attackers. He is at his creative best, working right behind the striker and setting his teammates up with delicious through balls. The Steven Gerrard conundrum is still present, but injury to Adam Lallana means Liverpool’s soon to be departing captain will be used in his favoured attacking role for a while, which also means Jordan Henderson can be used centrally – the position he is most effective in – and not on the wings.
The sign of a person worthy of respect and admiration is that he or she can correct his or her faults and wrongs. This applies to any and all fields. I can’t help but wonder that had Marcelo Bielsa’s team or Pep Guardiola’s eleven or Jose Mourinho’s side been doing so poorly at one time, and the respective managers found a remedy for disaster, the praise and adulation would have been endless. Doesn’t Rodgers deserve some credit?
Written by Aakriti Mehrotra