The Fenway Sports Group (FSG) hired Brendan Rodgers to do more than just improve Liverpool’s position in the league table. For the Northern Irishman, it is not just about winning. The imperative is to win a different way, with fluid, attacking football.
In short, John Henry liked what he saw at Swansea City enough to take a risk on a riser in the managerial ranks. He saw European clubs like Barcelona pushing the game forward while his newly acquired Reds grew more obsolete. Worse still, with Kenny Dalglish at the helm, the 2011/12 Liverpool was the very embodiment of obstinate defiance to change.
And thus, accordingly we heard all summer about what would be new at Anfield. The 4-2-3-1 would be abandoned in favor of a trendier 4-3-3. But the real changes were not just in positioning, but in tactics. Here are the main tenets of Rodgers’ system:
1. Attacking full-backs who provide width to the attack in support.
2. Both the goalie and the centre-backs are to play the ball more at their feet. The long ball forward is abandoned in favor of slow measured passes.
3. An overall emphasis on the singular importance of possession within the midfield.
4. Modified wingers who cut inside more often than they go out to cross.
5. Less crossing in general in favor of more creative passes into the box.
6. A striker who integrates himself fully with all aspects of play; someone who assists as often as they score.
7. Finally, the whole team is to press higher up the pitch on defense in an effort to regain possession.
He inherited a mixed legacy from three managers, each with their own way of running the club. As a result, he had a lot of square pegs to deal with in building his new side. To that end, he is cleaning house in a big way and has sold or released five players to date.
Conversely, to support the footballing revolution, he has brought in four new players so far. Nuri Sahin and Joe Allen are there to instill the midfield values he prizes. Oussama Assaidi comes from the Eredivisie to add flair on the wings. Fabio Borini provides flexibility as both a striker and winger.
There are additional rumors that more signings could be in store. Clint Dempsey is the name most commonly linked. There are also stories which suggest others may be sold before the summer is up. Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll are the most commonly listed in this category.
That brings us up to today. Accordingly, the question is this: Was it all worth it? Are there signs that things really are all that different on Merseyside? Thus far, a definitive answer remains elusive. However, today’s performance at Eastlands has to count as a win in the optimists’ column.
First, let’s consider the failures or areas where there remains room for improvement.
The defense is enduring some serious growing pains in taking on their new role. Obviously, Martin Skrtel has not mastered the new emphasis on back passing yet. Daniel Agger took all of one match to pick up a red card. Overall, the club has allowed five goals in two league matches. Further, both goals against Manchester City were to varying degrees self-inflicted.
In the midfield, the biggest problem thus far is in finding an appropriate amount of patience. Against West Brom, Steven Gerrard was far too willing to put in the speculative pass. And after Gera’s goal, it was clear that Liverpool came out in the second half regressing a bit to their comfort zone in the face of pressure. Allen’s presence is helping. His impact was pronounced against Manchester City. Yet, Barcelona the club is not as of yet. There is a ways to go.
Finally, the largest cause for concern is the persisting lack of goals from the run of play. In Week 1, the Reds drew a blank. In the second match, Liverpool scored from a free kick and a corner kick. Thus, the flourish of attacking, inventive football promised clearly has not fully taken hold as of yet.
But, there are positives to consider as well. The opening home match helped to underscore the majority.
First, the defense is showing signs of improvement. There have been hiccups as mentioned. However, Glen Johnson is clearly enjoying his new bit of freedom. Pepe Reina is having a far greater impact as a passer. You can also chalk up a lot of the recent mistakes in the back to a makeshift unit. Enrique and Agger have been out for different reasons. Jaime Carragher is proving he is past his prime and Johnson has had to play out of position. Things will improve.
Next, there has been a notable uptick in, for lack of a better word, style. Liverpool is a fun team to watch this season. There is a box-to-box energy and quality to the play. That much is a welcome change. The new formation, and the measured presence of Joe Allen is a big reason why. With Nuri Sahin waiting in the wings who knows what is in store.
That really is the big question at Anfield. The simple fact is that the team has to be able to score in the run of play if they are going to chase the top four. To that end, Suarez and surprisingly, Sterling, are the most dangerous offensive weapons thus far.
However, someone is going to have to score with increased regularity. All the top clubs have that guy. Does Liverpool?
That much happens independent of a formation or a philosophy. You have to be able to score. Yet, in a sad twist of irony it will be this area that most likely defines Rodgers’ legacy.
Two matches in, one point taken. That much we know for certain is not good enough. Yet the promise is there. The ground is swelling. Where it goes from here—the uncertainty there is what makes football such a beautiful game.