How do you measure that which, in itself, is not an end result?
The 2012-13 season, for Liverpool at least, was never going to be about challenging for major honours, but instead about putting in place the foundations for which the years to come would be based upon. And those seasons, perhaps one, two or even three years yet into the distance, would be about titles and silverware.
Or at least, that remains the plan.
In the meantime though, as a club with an expectant fanbase and a history of winning trophies to uphold—yes, a recent history too, Liverpool won a cup last season—there has been plenty of work for manager Brendan Rodgers to get through in his first season at the club.
The year has presented plenty of challenges for the new boss, but his role was to get the club heading, on the pitch, toward the way he wanted them playing for future seasons. So how has he fared in the various aspects of his job?
Transfer Ins and Outs
The season can be rather clearly defined for Liverpool in the success of the two transfer windows: Summer 2012 saw frustration, anxiety and an annoying habit of Tottenham doing better than Liverpool, a theme which carried on into the season itself.
January 2013 was far better for the Reds and thus so was the second half of the season.
Fabio Borini, Joe Allen and Oussama Assaidi may go on to prove themselves good acquisitions for Liverpool, but their first season on Merseyside does not dictate a guaranteed path of success. All are young players and have had excellent performances, but similarly all three have been out of the side regularly. Injury curtailed the middle and latter thirds of the campaign for Borini, while Allen started on fire and gradually cooled.
Nuri Sahin arrived on loan to much fanfare—but lasted only half the season before departing. Samed Yesil came as one for the future and should not be judged, but the three senior signings did not have enough of an impact for Liverpool to be entirely happy with Rodgers' first window.
Thankfully, vast improvements were made in the winter window. Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho came in, for a combined £20 million or so, and have provided 13 goals and eight assists between them in half a season.
Lessons were learnt, quality was identified and good value was sought.
With regards to outgoings, experienced attackers Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez and Craig Bellamy signalled a changing of the guard. All three offered goals and a certain mentality, neither of which were initially adequately replaced.
A scattering of youngsters departed, Jay Spearing and Andy Carroll only secured loan moves, while Charlie Adam and Alberto Aquilani were expected and necessary departures for different reasons. January then saw Joe Cole finally offloaded for good, along with Alexander Doni and a further flurry of loans.
If the summer window provided potential depth for the future with an element of risk and over-payment, the winter edition was a complete success. Balancing the two out, Liverpool can take their transfers for 2012-13 as good—but with room for improvement.
Transfers: 7 out of 10
Tactics and the Long-term Game Plan
The idea was to get Liverpool playing a passing game, focusing on ball retention and movement in the final third. High-pressure pressing off the ball was a key facet of Rodgers' approach, and the early signs of both aspects were promising.
A home game against Manchester City, defending league champions, showed how well Liverpool were progressing along those lines—and also where there remained much work to do.
Tactically, it is arguable that the Reds were indeed shifted back a step or two as the season progressed. The return of Jamie Carragher to the side was necessary but meant that the defensive line dropped deeper. That in turn created more space higher up the field—meaning the entire block had to shift deeper, stopping the ability of the forwards to consistently press a high line.
Whether the players are in place yet to do that remains to be seen.
It is difficult to appreciate whether there has been a large amount of success from the Reds in this regard. At times, there is no particular structure or methodology to the attacking play, rather that the hope is that Philippe Coutinho or Luis Suarez are able to create chances between themselves.
This area of Rodgers' job is key as to why it is precisely him that has the job, and as such, he needs to ensure that big (and rapid) strides are made along this line early next season. On the other hand, he has shown an adaptability and flexibility which is both necessary and impressive. Rodgers might not have all the starting pieces he wants yet, but he has been able to make the most out of what he has on a number of occasions, which bodes well for the future.
Possession is better, Liverpool are dominating games and creating plenty of chances—but that has sometimes come at the cost of protecting the defence, maintaining balance in the team and fitting in all the best 11 players at once.
Cup Runs on Three Fronts
The League Cup, which Liverpool were defending, was a complete disappointment. It's far from the most important tournament, but the Reds simply should not be losing knockout games at Anfield against supposedly weaker opposition.
Similarly, the FA Cup saw the Red bow out to a sacred "giant-killing act", beaten by Oldham Athletic.
The Europa League at least had the positives of giving youngsters at the club significant playing time, and there were fairly memorable wins at Udinese and Young Boys to show for it. But for all the drama and tension of the away goals defeat to Zenit St. Petersburg, the fact is Liverpool exited Europe at the Round of 32 stage.
Not good enough, in all three cup competitions.
Cup form: 4/10
Premier League Results and Standings
And so the big one, the main focus of Rodgers' job, the Premier League.
Liverpool finished eighth in 2011-12, so the seventh place finish is a technical upgrade, but that's hardly the most important point given the relative anonymity both placings offer.
The Reds desire to return to the top four of the table, and they ended the season 12 points off the pace—an improvement on last year's 17-point gap. There were also positive trends in terms of games won, goals scored and total points gained, as well as total clean sheets and a big change in points won off teams finishing in the bottom half of the league—43, up from 28 last term.
Downsides, of course, therefore came in points won against the top half—18, down from 24 last season—and in total goals conceded.
A vast improvement came in how Liverpool finished each of the campaigns.
Taking into account only league results from Jan. 1 until the end of the season each year, Liverpool placed 17th with just 18 points taken in the last 19 matches in 2011-12, whereas this time around the Reds took 33 points from 18 games, good for sixth-best over that period of time.
Ultimately, there have been definite signs of "getting better" and a whole lot more of not being anywhere near good enough.
Premier League form: 6/10
Overall Assessment and Expectations
Before giving an overall grade, it's important to take note and remember: A mark out of 10 is given judged against what the club aim to achieve, long term.
If the aim is merely progress each year, then Rodgers deserves a 10 for his Premier League form this year. He has progressed. Liverpool have gotten better and have achieved a better finishing point. But that's not what the club want from him, and so he gets a six. Qualifying for the Champions League might have warranted an eight or a nine, and winning the league a 10.
But the other part to take into account is, is a six acceptable this time around?
Clearly, nobody expected the Reds to finish top this year. So a 10 was never in the reckoning.
So although the scale (as all great scales should) goes up to 10, did Brendan Rodgers really have a glass ceiling of seven, or eight, in the Premier League rating?
Year Zero for Liverpool—as has been termed this season—was all about putting plans into place. Silverware, continental football, fantastic signings; all of that figures in the plans for the team, but not just for one year. For many. And so, at the expense of instant success, time and effort (and, yes, money) have been put into the club to ensure that any success that is eventually attained is sustainable and earned, rather than fleeting and fortunate.
Brendan Rodgers, therefore, has perhaps almost met expectations for this season.
There will be some who, rightly or wrongly, question his signings. Others his formation, or his substitutions, or post-match press conferences. What matters is the end game, and the fact that the manager realises that the bar will be raised higher and higher each season.
Whereas the glass ceiling might have been a seven this year for Premier League form, after three transfer windows there is perhaps far less room for error in attaining a top-four place after two seasons. An eight, or nine, is attainable.
But that is for next season, and this time around it is perhaps fair to suggest that Rodgers has certainly not exceeded expectations—but, thanks in no small part to a fine January window, he might have just about met them.
Brendan Rodgers debut season rating: 7/10.