So that’s that, then. Following months of speculation and clamouring from a large section of the fan base, Brendan Rodgers finally lost his job as Liverpool manager. It’s not surprising – the results and performances progressively got worse, particularly over the past six months – but it is a sad and all too familiar tale for Reds fans; it seems every time the team appear to be on the cusp of greatness things tragically and drastically fall apart.
Rodgers was arguably fortunate to survive this long following Liverpool’s capitulation over the final few months of last season, culminating with the 6-1 drubbing away to Stoke on the final day; many fans thought he should have been sacked after that. I was probably one of the few who understood the decision to keep him and for the most part agreed with it. It’s not that I could have presented a passionate case as to why I thought Rodgers would turn it all around, but in this instance I didn’t agree with sacking a young manager, still learning on the job, who was a whisker away from winning the most unexpected of league titles not twelve months earlier.
Both Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez found themselves in similar situations before Rodgers, but neither of them were granted such leniency by previous owners. The circumstances were different, though. Both managers had been in the job for several years and Liverpool had enjoyed sustained strong spells to build their respective squads, where, with the appeal of Champions League football – and mostly free of the strict restrictions to transfer targets now imposed by FSG - they could lure top players to the club. Not that either manager necessarily deserved to lose their job when they did; hindsight, of course, is 20/20. But this is a recurring pattern that has plagued the club through the 21st century.
What Rodgers nearly accomplished in 13/14 was unparalleled, and having seen how changing managers twice after they came so close to the Holy Grail didn’t result in us taking the one final step to greatness, I felt like we owed it to ourselves to see whether that one fantastic season was an aberration or whether in a few years’ time we’d look back and wonder “what if we gave him more time?” Brendan was obviously on a very short leash, however, and after opening the season with a few decent results things quickly turned bad, and the club have made the right call making a change this early whilst there is still a lot to play for this season.
Revisionism is rife in football - we’ve all been guilty of it at some point - but it’s a shame that many fans have chosen to gloss over what a ride the 13/14 season was and disparage the role Rodgers played in it. For the younger generation of fans who’ve never seen us win the league, myself included, this was the best football we’ve ever seen from a Liverpool team. Sure, the 08/09 season we finished second under Rafa was a great laugh as well, as were the myriad memorable European nights against some of the best teams on the continent that now seem a lifetime ago. But the second half of that season was simply unlike anything we’ve seen in recent times.
Luis Suarez was obviously the crown jewel; the most talented player I’ll likely ever see in a Liverpool shirt, but to suggest that he was the only reason The Reds morphed in to the best team on the planet over the second half of the season is ludicrous. His goals, in all their resplendence, were often beyond comprehension, but he scored 31 of Liverpool’s 101 goals that season - that’s less than a third. Still an incredible haul, and importantly many of them helped to maintain momentum when Sturridge was sidelined – just as Sturridge’s goals early in the season did whilst Suarez was suspended - but he was a key cog in a prolific, functioning machine; he did not do it all alone.
Rodgers was pragmatic enough to forego his preferred formation and style of play to build a system that got the most out of Suarez and Sturridge. Rodgers was clever enough to switch Gerrard to a deeper role in front of the back four to utilise his brain and talent on the ball whilst saving his legs. Rodgers was brave enough to thrust youngsters Jon Flanagan and Raheem Sterling in to starring roles during a title run-in when many would have played it safe and chosen more experienced players instead. Rodgers found a system that worked, and then he built upon that and made Liverpool flexible enough to switch seamlessly between a variety of formations, often in game, depending on the opposition and the players available. It was a brilliant collective effort from players and staff, and Rodgers was as responsible as anyone for the brilliant run Liverpool had.
I’ll always like Rodgers for that six month spell from December onwards. The 5-0 drubbing of Spurs at White Hart Lane, absolutely playing them off the park and then Flanno lashing a volley in off the bar. Hammering Everton 4-0 at Anfield, yet being disappointed we didn’t put a historic beating on them when Sturridge missed a penalty early in the second-half. How absurd does that sound reading it back? Then the 5-1 annihilation of Arsenal. I doubt the first twenty minutes of that game will ever be bettered by another Liverpool team. That ridiculous Suarez chest and volley from thirty-yards that crashed off the post, imagine if that goes in?
The rest of that season was actually a blur, in large part due to the severe post-match hangovers that followed every fixture. Southampton away and then a trip to Old Trafford at the start of March was where everyone thought we’d fall apart and we won both games 3-0, seeing them off comfortably like minnows. Couple of other wins against jobbers then we turned Spurs over 4-0 at Anfield. Then West Ham. Then that Man City game. Sterling completely having Kompany off early on. Coutinho conveniently learning how to shoot. Being convinced the drought was over and the league was ours.
We all know how it turned out, and it ruined Stevie. It ruined most of us, too. You could tell throughout the whole of last season how much it affected Gerrard, and the best thing he could have done was get out of Dodge and not relive it every time he stepped out at Anfield. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it, either – and I don’t think I’ll ever be as emotionally invested in a Liverpool team I was then. But what a six months that was. We won 11 games straight between February and April. I know it counts for nothing at the end of it, but this is as close as it gets being a modern-day Liverpool fan. Those older than us have plenty of memories, but even Istanbul was over a decade ago – this is a different era. It’s a damning indictment of how far we’ve fallen that this was the highlight of the last ten years, but Rodgers’ role in it all should not be diminished just because last season was a disaster.
I remember writing just after the January transfer window shut that Liverpool’s failure to bring in any new players could cost them the league, and I’m still convinced it did. A new signing or two would have been the difference between second and first. The transfer model FSG have put in place and the farcical recruitment process stem much further back than just last summer after we sold Suarez, and these are systemic issues that FSG must address as well as finding Rodgers’ replacement.
When we needed a goal against Chelsea we had Victor Moses and Iago Aspas as our top two attacking options from the bench: that’s the club failing the manager. £20m wasted on Tiago Illori, Luis Alberto and Iago Aspas in the summer of 2013 were the warning signs. Whoever suggested signings those three players should be promptly following Rodgers out of the door. Then spending nearly £120m on new players yet replacing Luis Suarez with Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli is so staggeringly incompetent that it doesn’t really matter if Shankly was in charge, nobody would have been able to progress with such a drop off in talent. Sturridge’s injuries last season were unfortunate, but he’s hardly been a paragon of durability throughout his career.
Rodgers’ eye for a player was extremely questionable, too, though. Joe Allen, Fabio Borini, Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana have proven to be an exorbitant waste of money, with little return from the £70m investment on players the manager clearly wanted. It’s hard to support the manager’s claim for more control over transfers when ‘his signings’ were just as bad; the only difference is they were actually given substantial playing time. The majority of the signings made this summer, whether they were Rodgers’ choices or not, are of a good pedigree, and it appears the club managed to strengthen the squad without the risk of massive overhaul if Rodgers was replaced.
Whether this Liverpool squad is good enough to challenge for the league, or even finish in the top four is up for debate - but it is clearly capable of playing much better than it has under Rodgers and that is the crux of the issue. The product on the pitch for the last six months has been truly abject, and this is ultimately what cost Rodgers his job. After a good run over the winter period going 13 games unbeaten, the nosedive from the loss at home to United in March, to the semi-final loss to Villa at Wembley, to then getting hammered by Charlie Adam and Jonathan Walters in the worst club loss in 50 years was arguably enough to see him ousted, but if FSG have proven themselves to be anything it is patient and calculated.
The players obviously must bear a lot of the blame for the team’s struggles, but the team has lacked an identity; a blueprint from which to work from. It’s clear that the rut had set in, and a full pre-season working with the squad and new signings ultimately made no difference to the results. The manager had no idea how to solve any of the issues that have continued to trouble his side, particularly when it comes to defending.
Conceding goals was constantly Rodgers’ Achilles heel, despite several new faces and a variety of different systems. Liverpool got away with it when they could just outscore the opposition, but the goals dried up following Suarez’s departure and despite brief spells where the backline has looked solid, they have always eventually reverted to type; they are a shell of the side who lit up the league not eighteen months ago.
A new manager will not be the panacea to the club’s woes, however, whether it’s Jurgen Klopp, Carlo Ancelotti or Mike Bassett coming in. Liverpool’s current model is one that is inherently flawed, and the apparent money saved in not paying extortionate wages is more than wasted in fees for gambling on potential when the setup is not in place for them to fulfil it. The club are hoping to repeat what the likes of Montpellier, Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have accomplished in recent years by winning trophies with a smaller budget than their competitors, but the odds are stacked against them – none of those leagues have the money and quality through the league that the Premier League boasts.
But that is another point for another day. The club have taken the right first step in improving by getting rid of Rodgers. He’s a young, talented coach who should go on and have a good career, despite his incredibly tedious middle-management rhetoric. The squad he left behind may be bereft of true world-class players, but unlike the one he inherited it’s not full of overpaid, mediocre dross; it’s a predominantly young side full of talent that needs a great coach to revitalise and improve it. The spine of the side needs improving, but there is a strong core group of players to work with; a solid foundation for success.
Let’s just hope the club have learned from their mistakes of the previous five years or they are destined to repeat them - and that all starts with appointing a manager who has a proven track record of winning things.