The Evolution of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool Blueprint
It has been a little under 15 months since the Brendan Rodgers revolution started to take shape at Liverpool, little more than a season since the newest version of the club's long-term strategy began to take hold.
A change in emphasis, on and off the pitch, was expected and asked for, with a transition season during 2012-13 expected to lay the foundations for future success.
Exactly how strong those initial foundations were to be would determine how quickly and long-lasting any improvements in fortunes would come about.
No European football, no cups and no star names incoming during the transfer windows gives an impression of much work to be done, but Rodgers' blueprint is far from complete and Liverpool Football Club remains a work in progress.
Overhaul Impossible, Balance to Redress
When a new manager walks in through the door, often the first instinct will be to start from the back, build the defence strong and use that as the platform for shaping his team.
Rodgers was afforded no such luxury; heavy expenditure previously meant transfer funds were relatively limited, and Liverpool had a huge imbalance in their final third options which needed attending before the defence, which was largely experienced and impressive.
Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez and Craig Bellamy, on the other hand, all departed from the Reds' front line during the summer of 2012, leaving behind a dearth of versatility and experience in the attack and bringing in very little in the way of incoming funds.
Similarly, the midfield was bloated with players not suited to a patient buildup and high-pressure approach, meaning the likes of Charlie Adam and Joe Cole had to be jettisoned at the earliest opportunity.
As is the case with many bosses, familiarity was the first port of call for Rodgers with players he had worked with before—Joe Allen and Fabio Borini—the major incoming deals.
Issue No. 2: The Right Mentality
Players in place, Rodgers had to set about ingraining his way of playing into his new staff.
The change in pace and style was, in fact, immediately apparent—which isn't to say results were forthcoming. The former Swansea boss was about to discover there was a world between the players Liverpool had, and the players they needed to reach the levels expected of them.
Far too many were used to defeat as a matter of course in the Premier League; understandable when partaking for the likes of Blackpool, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, but utterly not the case at Anfield.
Not only was a shift in mentality required in terms of what to do with the ball, but much more importantly a seismic change in the players' attitudes was required. Without that, three points would become one, or none, far too often.
Take the 3-2 defeat to Queens Park Rangers before Rodgers took over.
With due respect to the Reds that day, a team of lesser-technically-talented players but with a stronger spirit—let's say, Momo Sissoko, Alvaro Arbeloa, Bolo Zenden, Soto Kyrgiakos et al—would not, in a million years, have gone from 2-0 up to 3-2 down in the final 15 minutes against that kind of relegation fodder.
That kind of attitude at work needed to be irrevocably wiped out of Liverpool's system, whether by player progression and growth or by active axe-wielding in the transfer market.
Technique, Tactics, Trust
So with the squad beginning to realise the demands placed on them, with quality additions in January and with a more consistent approach to matches, tactics were tweaked to yield points as well as possession.
Rodgers would have begun, by now, to ensure that the players knew what was required of them in each match situation.
Not only was keeping hold of the ball the starting point for winning games, but any in-game switches that Rodgers wanted to make needed to be taken on board by the players as the right thing to do.
There are two sides to management. One is the coaching of players as footballers, improving their fitness and their technique, teaching them to adapt to your tactics. The other is to convince them that, no matter what happens, no matter how dire the situation, you have an answer. It is making them believe that you have a plan. Every training session you take, every game you play, you must reinforce that message.
Champions League Dreams, by Rafa Benitez.
Rodgers' methods showed a positive trend over the second half of the season as they lost just once after the middle of February up until the end of the season.
The Bigger Steps and a Positive Start
Second-season transfers are of paramount importance. Things can go wrong, or simply not as predicted, with regards to initial signings.
Joe Allen is almost certainly one such example, with Steven Gerrard's role in the team altering after Rodgers' arrival and preventing Allen from playing his natural role, as did his shoulder injury of course.
After a full year, though, the manager must have had a clear idea of where he needed to strengthen and which types of players would make the biggest impact.
After a successful winter window too, the pressure was on to reinforce the squad with quality who would take Liverpool much, much closer to the top four of the Premier League.
Liverpool had money to start, brought money in through sales, and showed strength and resolve in the Luis Suarez transfer saga. Correct decisions (judged over the next six to eight months, not days) on who else to bring in, during the past summer, will go an awful long way to deciding how successful Rodgers' second season can be.
That's the question, isn't it?
Ten points from four games and Liverpool sit pretty at the top of the Premier League, so a first defeat of the season shouldn't change much, regardless of when it eventually happens.
But, in truth, Liverpool have not yet had a 90-minute performance this season, and for all their summer recruitment do not seem to have eradicated the same old mistakes of 2012-13.
Weaknesses remain which must be worked on, and trust in players—while important and necessary—cannot come at the expense of progression when things evidently aren't working.
A break from the Premier League in midweek offers a new task for Rodgers this year: where to fit Suarez back into his plans.
After that, the Reds must get back to business with a regular three-point haul from their run of league games: Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Newcastle United, West Bromwich Albion. All are in the bottom half, all are struggling and one have already dispensed with their manager.
Slip-ups can and will happen, but Liverpool must get back to beating this sort of team as quickly as possible after the Southampton debacle.
Rodgers has, though the last match in isolation doesn't show it, come an awfully long way with this Liverpool side in little more than a year.
Further improvements in the final third may come with the reintroduction of Suarez to the team, but question marks, lingering and long-standing ones, remain over the midfield area of the side. Rodgers must surely have pinpointed by now that this zone needs urgent care and attention if Liverpool are to make good on their early top-four promise.
But, though blueprints look at the long-term structure of a successful organisation, they are each made up of individual bricks, moments, matches. And first, the small matter of Manchester United at Old Trafford.
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