Liverpool have been stuck in a dark era now for over 20 years, where the one shining light has been Istanbul in 2005, the only night the fans can truly say the club has been where it is supposed to be. Of course there has been plenty of domestic success during this time, however it is safe to say nobody at the club will be satisfied until winning the Premier League is a reality and realistic objective on a regular basis. Finishing in 7th place this season will not have done Brendan Rodgers many favours in convincing the critics who have had their reservations about him, however he is adamant progress is being made, and those who are prepared to look a bit deeper into what is actually going on will probably be inclined to agree.
The first thing the Liverpool fans need to come together and understand is the level of trouble that the club was actually in as recently as two years ago. The club was in terrible hands, with money being spent in the most irresponsible ways possible and was eventually close to going into administration, and this was reflected in the wilting league positions. Fringe players like Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic, Christian Poulsen and so on, were all receiving close to and in excess of 100,000 per week, players were being bought for massive fees with no real attention to fitting a particular philosophy (the players and fees in question are talked about more than enough). In short, there has been no identity to the club, which even the return of Kenny Dalglish was never going to solve. Things had to be changed from the ground up, from not only the owners, youth development policy and transfers, but also the philosophy, atmosphere and an identifiable collective goal within the club. Reversing all of these issues that have been deteriorating Liverpool is certainly going to take more than two seasons, but the more important aspect to establish is whether the club are currently in the right hands with Brendan Rodgers.
To examine this, we will look at what can be regarded as Liverpool’s most successful season in the league in recent times, which is the ‘nearly’ season of 08/09 in which they racked up 86 points (usually enough to comfortably win the league), only losing two games along the way and went on to finish 2nd to United. The reason this season is significant is not only because of the finishing league position, but also the nature of what the team had at the time. Rafa Benitez was in charge, and had a clear identity, philosophy and vision for the side, he had developed the ideal group of players with the right mentality and the right attributes on the pitch, and this led to the right results. So what direction are Liverpool heading in their attempts to go above and beyond what Benitez achieved in 2005 and in 08/09?
Benitez vs. Rodgers Philosophy
The philosophy for Benitez revolves around the rigorous tactical organisation he demands from his teams, prioritising a strong defence before attractive attacking football. After all, if teams find it impossible to score against you it automatically boosts your chances in the league (hence why Liverpool only lost twice that season, but drawing too many was essentially their downfall).
In 08/09 he had an incredibly strong squad, playing a 4-2-3-1 with Gerrard as the advanced midfielder behind Fernando Torres. The defensive midfield combination of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso provided the perfect balance with the energy and physicality of Mascherano and the finesse, passing range and dictation of the tempo through Alonso. The back line was stable and reliable, with Skrtel, Agger and Carragher all competing for centre-back, while Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio were more than capable in the full back positions. Despite this focus on defensive security, Liverpool went on to score 77 goals, which was largely down to Torres and the scoring support he received from Gerrard, racking up 30 goals between them they were able to transfer the work of the defence and creativity in midfield to finishing the chances in the final third. So how do things shape up differently now for Liverpool in the Brendan Rodgers era?
At the start of the season Rodgers wanted to implement his Tiki Taka style 4-3-3 straight away, with the full backs playing high up the field almost as second wingers, and an attacking game based on ball retention, maximizing the field space, and penetrating with off the ball movements and clever play. However he soon realised he had to be a bit more patient with the way in which he dilutes his philosophy into the club, and this formation turned into more of a 4-2-3-1 as the season progressed (particularly with the return of Lucas), and on many occasions a 4-4-1-1 after the introduction of Sturridge. In the majority of the players Rodgers has bought so far (Borini, Allen, Coutinho, Aspas, Alberto, Sturridge) the common trend is speed and technical ability. Rodgers has no issue with bringing in small players as long as they fit the technical mould, appreciate space, and are tactically capable of understanding their roles in the team.
The good thing is that there is now a strong, identifiable club philosophy which Rodgers can base everything around. He believes in ‘small’ players, trusts his young players (with seven academy debutants last season), is demanding of his older players and in the market he is proving that price tag isn’t everything, with Coutinho and Sturridge evidence of this. With so much to address he has done a remarkable job in the first season of ‘trimming the fat’, moving on the players who would unfortunately never fit the mould of what he is trying to build. Charlie Adam was never going to adapt to the playing style, neither was Andy Carroll, some players like Joe Cole had showed glimpses of potential, however his age, inflated wages and lack of consistency was decidedly not worth the risk. This left Liverpool with a very slim looking squad at the start of last season, which may have contributed to the poor start leading up to the new arrivals in January. Perhaps Rodgers felt that sacrificing half a season with a small squad was worth the risk in order to rebuild and properly implement his philosophy on a group of players he can trust, but where did Liverpool suffer as a result of this?
The ‘Big Games’
An important area to look at when assessing where Liverpool can improve next would quite obviously be their performances in the big games. This is arguably what prevented them from a top four finish in Rodgers’ first season, and when comparing it to the 08/09 season, there is certainly ground to be made up.
In 08/09 Liverpool were unstoppable in their top 6 clashes, they drew the Merseyside derby at Anfield but won 2-1 at Goodison Park. They then famously beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford, and also took huge away wins from Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, and scored a last minute winner through Dirk Kuyt at the Etihad to beat Man City 3-2. Liverpool also beat United, Chelsea and Spurs at home, while two draws with Arsenal including the 4-4 thriller were seen as unfortunate points dropped.
08/09 – Total Points from top 6 at the time: 22
Last season however shows a distinct contrast and area for improvement. Liverpool certainly did not under perform in the majority of these games, they took the initiative and dominated possession on most occasions, so the problem lay in finishing the big teams off. 2-2 seemed to be the typical score, as Liverpool recorded this result five times against Man City (twice), Everton, Arsenal and Chelsea. With two disappointing 2-1 defeats to Manchester United, the 3-2 win against Spurs was the only highlight of the season against the top 6, in an otherwise terrible run of results.
12/13 – Total Points from top 6 at the time: 10
Points from Losing Positions
An area where Brendan Rodgers has made a significant impact is in Liverpool’s points gained from losing positions, which is arguably a necessary requirement for any team with top four or title winning aspirations. All you have to do is look at Manchester United and the culture they have developed within the club over the last 25 years, to see that no matter what the score is they are never beaten. This is a psychological advantage that not just any manager can instill within their players, it is a know how and confidence in what to do collectively when things do not go to plan, and you will see that Liverpool have suffered dearly in this department in recent seasons.
[box_light]Points from losing positions is calculated by taking any game in which the team went behind, then adding the eventual points gained by full time. For example being 1-0 down and finishing the game 2-2 gives a total of 1 point gained, being 2-1 down and winning 3-2 gives a total of 3 points gained.[/box_light]
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As you can see Liverpool’s points gained from losing positions suffered dramatically after the 08/09 season, making desperate times for the fans who began to know as soon as the team went behind, there was then little to no chance of them coming back to win. Contrast that to this season, there were many occasions where Liverpool looked finished and then came back to salvage points, this kind of mentality and ability to never say die has been revived emphatically under Brendan Rodgers and this should give the fans confidence.
Quality in Depth
One area where Liverpool have been lacking since 08/09 has been quality in depth, with an abundance of mediocre players on big money. Benitez had players in 08/09 who have left and gone on to play for teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid, represent their countries and win World Cups and Champions Leagues. The following years saw that quality go unreplaced, particularly in centre midfield where the combination of Mascherano and Alonso remains sorely missed. What Rodgers looks to be gradually working towards is filtering this quality back into the club, he stated wants competition, which seems to be why he now has two top class goalkeepers in Reina and Mignolet (whether either will settle for the bench remains to be seen). He proved that he can buy instant star quality with Coutinho and Sturridge who can both go on to be top players, and has shown that he is prepared to nurture young talent and develop the potential future stars like Suso, Sterling and Wisdom. With important players already in the starting line up, and now four new signings (with possibly more on the way), the competition for the first eleven should be more intense this season at Liverpool than it has been for years.
So when we take into account the three seasons between 12/13 and 08/09 when Liverpool last looked a threat, it certainly looks as though Rodgers is onto something. The club has taken a turn for the better rather than the worse, which suggests he should definitely be given some time to mount his case. There will always be impatient fans, but the truth is the club has been sinking for years, and that sort of damage will not be fully reversed in one, two or probably even three seasons. It would serve the club well to remember how long it took Ferguson to win his first title for United, and look at the rewards that come with that kind of patience.