It’s been another strange season being a Liverpool fan. Pre-season was littered with turmoil, which is to be expected when appointing the clubs third manager in 24 months, which is not something we have experience before. On the back of an underachieving LEAGUE season in 2011/12, almost all of the buys from the previous regime were rumoured to be on the way out. Websites, newspapers and phone ins would all list similar names when referring to “dead wood”, many of which had only been at the club for one full season.
Despite a cup final win, and one cup final loss in the only two cup competitions we entered in 2011/12, the modern day obsession with finishing in the top four resulted in major change at Anfield. Damien Comolli was fired, less than 18 months after becoming the clubs first – and hopefully last – Director of Football, along with club legend and icon Kenny Dalglish, just 16 months into his second spell as manager.
The biggest criticism of this period was a number of expensive buys had failed to deliver. Andy Carroll arrived half way through the previous season while injured, Luis Suarez arrived at the same time, then Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson soon followed. These had all arrived for double figure millions, and only Suarez had offered value for money. Jose Enrique, Charlie Adam, Seb Coates, Craig Bellamy and reserve keeper Doni also arrived, to make the squad almost unrecognisable to the one when FSG bought the club.
Despite dominating numerous games in the league during 2011/12, creating a host of chances and hitting the woodwork more often than David Moyes talked about how much money Liverpool spend, the league season ended below expectations.
Being successful in other competitions and winning trophies was clearly more relevant to the players and manager than the owners, so FSG ripped up their 18 month old “project” after spending almost £40m net, and started a new one. FSG, Comolli and Kenny had built almost half of a new squad with 9 signings in six months in 2011, 11 players leaving, including our best striker to Chelsea. Shelvey and Spearing were promoted to more prominent roles in the first team squad, and Kenny also introduced Flanagan and Robinson at times, due to injuries.
That’s a hell of a lot of change in the space of a season and a half, and to be successful in one competition, and get to the final in another, when you only enter three competitions was, in my opinion, a fantastic achievement. It offered me strong encouragement for the following season, with a little tinkering, and mainly the overdue need to buy a good finisher.
However, in modern day football, money talks louder than it ever has. There was no doubt many of the expensive signings had not hit expectations in season one. I found it surprising though that the knee jerk reaction from the owners was to fire the manager, when their mantra had consistently been about buying for the future.
Adam, Henderson, Enrique, Carroll, Coates and Suarez were all 25 or under when they arrived. Only Downing and Bellamy – and free transfer Doni – were older. There was a lot of talk about reducing the average age of the squad, sell on value, long term project etc, and it all seemed to fit.
It is to be expected at any club, at any level, that if a new manager arrives, he will want to bring in players and let go of others. So this change ridiculed any previous talk of a long term project.
Brendan Rodgers arrived, given the unenviable task of replacing the clubs number 1 legend as manager. Keyboard warriors everywhere – well mostly Twitter and Facebook – had decided long before Kenny had been fired that players like Downing, Henderson, Adam, Carroll, Coates, and despite a fantastic start also Enrique, were not good enough for Liverpool and should be shipped out, sharpish, even if it meant a big financial loss, to bring in “new blood”.
Probably the same fans who will now be screaming crisis about the latest financial losses, in the accounts released by Liverpool FC. Ironic,really.
In the first few weeks and months of Brendan Rodgers time, it actually seemed like he agreed. Carroll, whose extortionate transfer fee was a result of a purposeful tactic of buying him for £15m less than we sold Fernando Torres (according to JWH), was always going to be the highest profile possible casualty. Charlie Adam also moved on, who despite his good technique was too often caught in possession of slowed attacks down.
I am sure the deal we struck for Carroll led Aston Villa and Sunderland to demand higher prices for Downing and Henderson. It may have been a tactic for a £15m difference between Torres and Carroll, but it led to an expensive domino effect.
Anyway, before any others could be moved on this summer, Maxi Bellamy and Kuyt had all decided to move on for various reasons, making us pretty light of options in the top end of the pitch. They weren’t sold by Rodgers, they decided to leave. Arguably, this could be a reason why Henderson and Downing survived the summer “Rodgers Revolution” or “Brendan’s Broom” (sorry), and we entered September believing it was just a matter of time before those two at least go through the Anfield exit door.
In the early stages of the season, the team was almost unrecognisable from the previous season. Sterling, Sahin, Suso, Wisdom, Allen, Assaidi and Borini all made their full debuts in the league, with even more players getting their chance in the, now almost irrelevant, cup competitions.
More noticeably to me, was who was not regularly involved in the key games. Despite 6 regulars leaving from last season, Downing, Henderson and Enrique were all left out and publicly criticised by Liverpools new manager, at different times in the first couple of months of the new season.
The scapegoats of 2011/12 were being left out in 2012/13, yet results had not improved.
We had lost a lot of experience the previous summer, both in players and staff. As individuals, each new player and young player given their chance showed glimpses of talent (or in Sterlings case, undoubted quality), but we were not a team yet, and many were still learning the game at the highest level.
We are now three quarters of the way through the season, and it is safe to say that Enrique, Downing and Henderson are all regularly back in favour, either from the start or from the bench. Sometimes earlier on in the season, when they were used, especially in Downing’s and Enrique’s case, they were used in totally different positions. Thankfully, that madness has now ended.
As well as these players returning to favour, the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge has meant Suso, Shelvey and Wisdom are back in the reserves, learning the game. No doubt, they will be back. Borini has another injury, Sahin has left the club and Assaidi is only recently back from injury. Only Joe Allen is still regularly involved at this time. What is maybe less evident though, is the improvement from the previous season of the players in their second full season.
In all competitions, Downing has played 11 less games up to now than last season, but increased his goal tally from 2 to 4, his assists from 2 to 6. Improvement.
Henderson, up to now, has played 14 games less than last season, but scored one more goal, and been singled out for praise a few times by the management. Growing.
Enrique has played 19 games less, and had more injuries, but has scored his first 2 goals for the club, and is definitely back to top form. Steady.
Even Suarez, who has been an undoubted hit since day one, has scored 11 more goals this season than last season, when previously his finishing and reliability has been questioned. Class.
My point is, one season is never enough to judge players, as they often improve in the second season. Look at other players in the squad like Skrtel and Lucas. Skrtel was similar to Coates when he first joined. Awkward, slow, committed too many fouls, but in his 4th season was voted fans player of the year. I remember against West Ham at Anfield one night, Lucas was disgustingly booed on, when he came on as sub. Three years later, he was player of the year, and now his song is one of the loudest on The Kop.
These players were all dismissed as dead wood, at one time or another, yet have all gone on to improve and contribute better things in their second season.
I bet we can go back as far as young players like Rush, Whelan and Johnston in the 80’s getting their chance, being left out, before becoming legends years later. My Dad said he was on The Kop watching Terry McDermott in his first season, and was guilty of saying he would never make it. Luckily, Bob Paisley had more patience, as did Rafa with Lucas and Skrtel.
As we approach the end of the season, when everyone reflects on the performance, expectation and progress, or maybe even a lack of it, there is one thing I can guarantee. Just like with Enrique, Downing, Henderson, etc, this seasons new signings Borini, Assaidi, Allen, Sturridge and Coutinho will be judged on whether they should still be at the club next season before the next transfer window opens.
I, like everyone else, have an opinion on who has done well, and who hasn’t. However, as I won’t get carried away by the encouraging starts made by Sturridge and Coutinho, I feel it is too early to write off Borini, Assaidi, and Allen, especially as they all fit into that under 25 bracket when they arrived, so have time to improve.
Hopefully we are in an era of stability, and will keep Rodgers as manager for more than a season or two. This will reduce the uncertainty and inconsistency that a new manager brings with a squad overhaul, and gives new players who were bought for the long term, more time to prove themselves. You never know, they might surprise you.