Saturday afternoon on the South Coast was yet another example of two steps forward and one step back for Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers this season.
To seasoned observers of the Merseysiders in recent years, and especially since the Northern Irishman replaced Kenny Dalglish (via the Daily Telegraph) in the Anfield dug-out last summer, the unexpected 3-1 loss to relegation-threatened Southampton at St Mary’s would have come as absolutely no surprise at all.
In fact, one could fairly confidently have predicted the result the moment the hyperbole started to flood out of Anfield following the previous weekend’s come-from-behind 3-2 home triumph over Champions League-chasing Tottenham Hotspur, the Reds’ first win all season against a team placed higher than them in the Premier League lest we not forget.
Whether it be captain Steven Gerrard issuing his now customary rallying call (via The Guardian) for a push for the top four that inevitably follows any semblance of consistency achieved by the club in the top flight, or the manager himself (via the Liverpool Echo) warning his higher-ranked rivals to watch over their shoulders for the threat posed by Liverpool to their Champions League ambitions, the Reds we were confidently told were on course for a memorable end to the campaign.
And, for any long-suffering Liverpool fans who feel this may be a case of deja vu all over again, then do not worry as yes, we have been here before, just last month in fact after impressive away draws on the spin at both Arsenal and champions Manchester City were followed by the inevitable subsequent 2-0 home loss to West Bromwich Albion.
Well, when Rodgers and his backroom staff sit down this morning in the cold light of day to examine the league standings, they will see Liverpool sitting in seventh place in the table, a whole nine points behind Tottenham in the fourth and final Champions League berth for next season.
However, perhaps of more relevance and importance to how Rodgers’s first campaign in charge of the club will be thought of come the summer, the Reds still currently trail sixth-placed Everton and fifth-in-the-table Arsenal in the race for Europa League qualification by three and five points respectively, and having played a game more than their both their rivals, with just eight matches of the season left to play.
"I don’t know which fixtures he [Rodgers] spoke about because we had kept a clean sheet twice in a row and won both matches. Also, we did not disappoint in the game against United" - Skrtel
So, if one were a betting man, you would have to say that the odds are now heavily stacked against the Merseysiders making it into Europe next season, while their chances of bettering last year’s woeful eighth-placed league finish are also up in the air, a campaign should anyone need reminding that did culminate with silverware in the Anfield trophy cabinet, but still with the dismissal of Dalglish for not meeting Fenway Sports Group’s (FSG) desired standards, which must be of great concern to Rodgers as he ponders the climax to this campaign.
But it will not only be Liverpool’s up-and-down inconsistent league form, and their three early exits from each cup competition that they have taken part in this season, that will be focusing the minds of the club’s American owners across the Pond in Boston.
No, there are other equally worrying developments that they will be closely monitoring between now and the summer, and then again when we move into what will without doubt be Rodgers’s make-or-break campaign at Anfield next season.
Firstly is the maturity of the team, or more accurately the lack of, something that the Liverpool boss himself alluded to his post-match press conference at St Mary’s when he honestly, but equally worryingly, observed that: “We're not the sort of team yet when, if we're not at our best, we can see through results” (via Sky Sports).
Now, that should be pretty obvious to anyone who has watched the Reds lose nine of their 30 Premier League games played so far this season, more than any other side in the top seven of the table and if not corrected sooner rather than later will continue to result in this maddening yo-yoing of top-flight form.
However, sides can take time to mature together and Rodgers will be hoping that is the case with his squad of players, although surely of much more concern to him and his coaching staff is Liverpool’s total inability to keep clean sheets against top-level opposition, something that they have failed to manage in all 10 Premier League fixtures so far this season against those sides in the top seven, which unsurprisingly has resulted in a damaging overall record of one win, four defeats and five draws in those contests.
What may also be worrying Rodgers is that these defensive lapses appear to be now spreading to against those teams from the lower reaches of the table too, a fact he acknowledged in the aftermath of Saturday’s drubbing by the Saints when he pointedly noted: “We've been in a run of late where we either don't concede or we do, two or three” (via Goal.com).
And, coupled with those on-pitch frailties is a worrying lack of any sort of a Plan B in the Rodgers tactical game plan should his beloved Plan A of possession-based football built slowly from the back, combined with intense pressure of the opposition high up the field, fail to produce the desired results.
Only one team in the history of football, Barcelona, have successfully managed to preserve with this tiki taka style of football, and remember that their players are schooled from infancy on the training pitches of La Masia to be comfortable with the ball at their feet playing in this way, and even then the Catalans have had to tweak certain elements of their game to be more direct under new coach Tito Vilanova this season so they can keep evolving and be successful.
However, it is not only on-the-pitch matters that will need addressing this summer if Rodgers want to be a success at Anfield, as there are also other issues off the field of play that FSG will surely be closely monitoring, and none more so than his future transfer acquisitions.
''Thank God I have left Brendan Rodgers" - Sahin
In essence, every manager lives and dies by the players that he brings to a club, as they are ultimately the ones who deliver the results that either keep you in your job, or see you exit stage left, and as we saw last year with the ruthless manner in which Liverpool owner John W Henry dispensed of Dalglish’s services, this could not be more true of the present Liverpool boss.
Now, initially last summer the one-time Reading, Watford and Swansea City head coach was severely restricted financially in his transfer dealings as a direct result of his predecessor’s wastefulness in the transfer market, although that should still not be used to camouflage what an utter waste of money his very first addition to the club has been, £10.5 million striker Fabio Borini.
Meanwhile Rodgers then staked his reputation on his next signing at Anfield, £15 million Wales international Joe Allen, who the Liverpool manager likened to Barcelona and Spain midfield play Xavi Hernandez (via the Daily Star), although with the player barely having featured in the first team in recent months due to a complete collapse in form, one wonders if he is starting to regret that bizarre comparison.
True, with more financial muscle behind him in the more recent January transfer window, Rodgers did manage to bring in both Daniel Sturridge, who do not forget he initially refused to sign last summer owing to concerns about the forward’s attitude (via The Guardian), and Brazil schemer Philippe Coutinho.
And, so far so good with regard each player’s initial impact on the team, although it is very much early days for these two new signings and the jury will still be out on both attackers for some time to come before either is labelled a genuine transfer success simply owing to the relatively small time frame they have been at the club.
Lastly, there have been disconcerting noises coming out of Anfield of late about Rodgers’s man-management skills, now such a vital part of modern-day football coaching, especially since the entry of a so-called Jose Mourinho into Planet Football, with the "Portuguese Man of War" taking this aspect of the game to new and unchartered heights this past decade.
Now, maybe there is a connection here, as Rodgers himself learnt under the "Special One’s" wings at Stamford Bridge as the West Londoners’ reserve-team manager and perhaps has tried to emulate some of Mourinho’s man-management techniques during his early months at Anfield.
In fact, Rodgers’s now infamous envelope scene in the documentary "Being Liverpool", where the manager holds out three envelopes in front of his squad in preseason training and tells them they contain the names of a trio of players who will let the club down during the ensuing season is something straight out of the Mourinho book of mind games.
However, Mou with his two Champions League winners’ medals and his plethora of league titles from throughout Europe in his trophy cabinet has the gravitas to pull off such a stunt, whereas Rodgers in his first "big" job in club management and with no such comparable success behind him simply cannot.
And, whether it be Nuri Sahin (via The Guardian), Martin Skrtel (via the Daily Telegraph), or Josh McEachran (via The Guardian), you do just get the sense that while this is a man utterly sure of himself and his own management skills, maybe not all those around him are quite so convinced as to his star qualities.
As with anything in football though, all these doubts, question marks and uncertainties will be become far clearer given time, both at the end of this current campaign and more realistically after Rodgers’s second season in charge of the club.
But, if we are still discussing the very same issues come May 2014, then we can safely assume that the Rodgers Revolution has failed to take off.
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