Editor’s thoughts – Jordan Chamberlain – @Jordan_AC90
Following a sixth place Premier League finish, a disastrous European campaign and semi-final cup exits, Brendan Rodgers was extremely lucky to keep his job this summer just gone.
He spent £107m on nine new players before last season, and barring perhaps Emre Can, none of them lived up to price-tag or expectation.
In fact, at times his managerial decisions in 2014/15 suggested he was entering a mid-life crisis.
They were unnecessarily flamboyant, utterly too complicated and wreaked of a man who’d started to believe his position was untouchable following our marvellous title assault the previous term. It was like the smart kid showing off in school by using the hardest formulae to answer simple questions, then sulking when he got it wrong.
Attacking midfielder Lazar Markovic, signed for £20m, was used mostly as a right wing-back. Raheem Sterling (who subsequently threw his toys out of the pram and pined for a move) played centre-forward, or even at wing-back himself. Central midfielder Emre Can played as a centre-half. Jordan Henderson sometimes played wide. Adam Lallana was used in a different position every week. £16m Mario Balotelli, desperate for a strike partner, was never granted one. We lost our final game of the season 6-1 to Stoke, with central midfielders Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Coutinho, Gerrard and Lallana all starting. Nobody has ever worked out what formation Rodgers attempted to use.
Fans didn’t understand what our tactical objectives were, but more importantly, the players didn’t either. Quite frankly, it was an overcomplicated mess.
But following a crisis meeting the owners gave Rodgers another chance, convinced the Northern Irishman had the talent to turn it around.
And after three matches, three clean-sheets and seven points, there are suggestions that the famously stubborn Rodgers has learnt from his mistakes.
In the transfer market, he went back to basics. Right-back Glen Johnson is leaving? Sign upgrade Nathaniel Clyne. We need a striker to replace Lambert and Balotelli? Sign Christian Benteke. Raheem Sterling is leaving? Sign Brazil international and one of the Bundesliga’s best players Roberto Firmino. Replace Brad Jones with Adam Bogdan. Experience and leadership needed upon Steven Gerrard’s exit? How about James Milner on a Bosman…?
Back in summer 2014, he and the committee messed up. We already had a blueprint that worked in the diamond formation, with Sterling playing behind Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez – but instead of reinvesting the £75m windfall from Suarez’s sale in a world-class replacement, with the aim of carrying on where we left off – we ditched our successful tactic with the hope that Markovic, Adam Lallana, Balotelli and co. would transform us into a totally different side. Why spend £40m on wingers when we didn’t even use them? Suarez was our best player, but his exit didn’t mean we had to change our identity.
And in trying to change it, we lost it.
But this term, Rodgers is building an identity that is so much less fussy than the various 2014/15 attempts.
He’s settled on a formation with two wide attackers and a centre-forward, akin to nearly every other top club in Europe. Against sides we should beat, one of the three central midfielders (Coutinho) plays further forward as a no.10, and versus tougher opposition an anchoring midfielder (as Lucas was against Arsenal) joins the middle three instead.
It’s simple. It makes sense. Fans understand and it the players do as well. Players are playing in their best positions, bar Joe Gomez, who in truth is young enough to forge a new one – and he’s been sensational at left-back anyway.
Emre Can is no longer a bizarre ball-playing defender who sprints up the field, but an energetic centre-mid. James Milner is a better central midfielder than he is a winger, and is being used as such. Each player has an obvious job to fulfil for the side, and it’s resulted in a far more organised defence. Dejan Lovren, so hapless last term, has been told he’s first-choice alongside Martin Skrtel and is taking his chance. He knows his role and what is expected of him.
Most refreshing is that Rodgers has accepted he’s not a footballing deity and has shown a willingness to learn and improve. He brought in Gary McAllister, Sean O’Driscoll and Pep Ljinders, encouraging them to challenge him. Simon Mignolet now plays to the strengths of Christian Benteke by kicking long. Centre-backs get rid when they have to instead of stupidly playing short in the name of ‘good football’.
There’s been times when Rodgers would celebrate finishing with more possession than the opposition, or salute Joe Allen’s 95% pass completion ratio. ‘We were the better team. We dominated them,’ he’d moan, having seen his side fail to create any meanwhile chances at home to Aston Villa…
A footballing philosophy is only worth celebrating if it bears fruit, and Liverpool’s footballing philosophy should be winning before anything else.
Away to Arsenal last night, it was obvious we needed extra steal in midfield. Rodgers selected Lucas and the Brazilian had Mesut Ozil in his pocket.
Jose Mourinho is the best manager in the Premier League, but he’s not ostentatious in the slightest. Any fan in the country can pick his starting XI for a big game. He drops Oscar and selects Ramires to bolster the midfield. It’s obvious, but it works. He’s a winner.
It seems that Rodgers is now starting to understand that. He’s ditched the tactical pizzazz and is using square pegs in square holes – maximising the strengths of his young, talented squad. It’s only early on, but it’s fantastic to see.
Editor’s thoughts – Jordan Chamberlain – @Jordan_AC90
Read More: Editor’s column: Brendan Rodgers has finally learnt to put square pegs in square holes