Biggest Issues Currently Facing Brendan Rodgers in His Liverpool Project

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Biggest Issues Currently Facing Brendan Rodgers in His Liverpool Project
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Nobody can deny the fact that Liverpool have made tangible, consistent and evident progress under Brendan Rodgers.

The former Swansea boss arrived last summer to take over a team who had finished sixth, seventh and eighth over the previous few campaigns, and his own first season in charge would have shown him just how much work was ahead if he was to return the Reds to anywhere near the heights they managed in the middle-to-late part of the previous decade.

Sixteen months on, many hurdles have been faced, fought, overcome—but yet many more pressing issues remain, even from the short-term perspective. 

 

A Window of Opportunity

Overall, his first season could be termed solid rather than spectacular, though in truth it was not a "straight line graph" of a season; amongst the usual undulations of top-flight football it was a noticeable upward curve which began around the new year and continued mainly until the end of 2012-13.

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The present season, then, had something to build on, yet far more was expected. A top-four finish is the mid-term aim of the club, a hugely important and necessary stepping stone to offer a launchpad to better challenges, better finances, better players in the future.

To more silverware.

As such, with other clubs—Chelsea, Manchesters United and City, Everton—in a state of regeneration and the Reds (and Spurs) one year further along their project, the 2013-14 season presents a window of opportunity for Liverpool and Rodgers. Punch above their weight, while others struggle for the consistency and quality that their expenditure and squad strength should show, and an early return to the Champions League could be on the cards.

 

Tactical Preference and Fitting Around the Players

Flexibility and unpredictability are important weapons in a manager's armoury, yet the players must be comfortable in the systems expected to be used on a week-to-week basis.

Rodgers initially showed a preference for integrating his usual 4-3-3, but in truth Liverpool have now seen several variations of two other main tactics utilised with regularity.

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A 4-4-2 (and variations thereof) has often been seen as the manager looks to get the best out of the available attacking players throughout his spell in charge, while the 3-5-2 used lately will almost certainly remain a key "option" to switch to rather than continue as the dominant starting formation.

Rodgers' big decision is now to decide which is the optimum formation to start the majority of matches with.

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Would Borini have left if Rodgers wanted two up top every game?

Not simply because the best players should have a fixed role in the team, though that is of course important too, but because it will affect everything else going forward: contract renewals to current players, expenditure in the transfer market, potential young players to add to the under-18s and below.

It's no good spending £20 million on a top-class winger if Rodgers prefers to play 3-5-2 with wing-backs, similarly, how many centre-forwards should be at the club as backup to Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge if Liverpool play with two up top as opposed to one central and two wide?

 

Squad Depth, Squad Quality

On that last point, the balance of the squad is clearly lacking at present...depending on the system selected.

In a 1-2 shaped midfield when playing a 3-5-2 (i.e. Lucas deeper, Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson pressing in tandem) , Liverpool vitally need another central midfielder to add to the current collection of four. The same goes for 4-3-3.

If 4-2-3-1 (or 4-2-1-3) is the shape of the future, they probably don't; instead, two from four would operate centrally with Phil Coutinho or Luis Alberto ahead, and a new signing might be better sought to replace Henderson's hard-working efforts in a wide area of attack, letting the England man fight for his place centrally.

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Liverpool's formation vs. Fulham was labelled 4-2-2-2 by some, but Henderson's role was clearly as a wide midfielder, pointing to a 4-4-2 with extreme licence to roam for Coutinho. Henderson himself was able to cut infield where possible, but far less. He mainly worked the right channel.

A 4-4-2, on the other hand, means Liverpool almost certainly have to invest in another forward—but centre-backs are well-stocked, meaning Tiago Ilori could join Andre Wisdom on the loaned-out list.

That's the depth issue.

The quality perspective is subject to, well, subjectivity; one man's "world class" is another's gutterball. Ultimately that decision lies with the manager and his recruitment staff, who have to identify the player who can improve the team while fitting into the optimum tactical setting.

Rodgers' immediate issue here is deciding which of his current first team could be improved upon, quite possibly without de-railing the spine of the team at the mid-way point of the season which could negatively impact upon the club's league form, even if technically or tactically, the incoming player is perceived as better.

 

Progressive Youth

One of the big plusses of Rodgers' first season was the volume of youth players handed their opportunity to shine in the first team.

Raheem Sterling became a regular player within months, while a small group became regular faces in and around the matchday squad: Suso, Wisdom, Conor Coady. Further players made their debuts, including Jordan Ibe, Jerome Sinclair and Adam Morgan.

While the natural order of improving the side dictates that better, more experienced players will inevitably (or hopefully) come into the squad at their expense, it's important that those youngsters are not entirely sidelined.

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Suso, Coady and Wisdom are currently out on loan, the former performing exceptionally well at La Liga side Almeria, while Michael Ngoo, Morgan, Krisztian Adorjan, Jack Robinson and others have also been sent out to gain first team experience elsewhere.

Sterling could well follow in January after not making much of an impression on the first team this term.

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Sterling: in poor form, but with a huge future

It's vital we note that game time is important to these youngsters, and without European football (and an early cup exit) the Reds don't have the volume of matches to hand them regular opportunities. Should they shine enough, they will come back next term fitter, stronger and more confident in themselves.

They must, then, still remain in the manager's thoughts, even as he prepares his next wave of senior signings in winter and summer transfer windows.

The club's academy has done incredible work over the past five or six years and young players now think of Liverpool as a club they can move to in the knowledge that, if they work hard and show their ability, they will get a chance.

For the future of the club, that has to remain the case.

 

Money and Recruitment Decisions

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The Reds don't have hundreds of millions to spend like PSG or Real Madrid, and as this past summer showed, the lack of European football is an issue to some players. Not all, but certainly some, and it might turn out to be that one extra element of quality that costs points or games at vital moments.

Any signings, then, have to be pretty much spot on. They might not all be for the first team (an unfortunate point of squad football lost at times in the media and to fans who expect back-ups to perform like £30 million stars and youngsters to play 40 games in a row straight off) but they must all serve a purpose.

Money well spent—such as Simon Mignolet and Mamadou Sakho from this year's crop, and the two winter signings from last season—will always repay itself, both on the pitch and from a return on initial investment point of view.

So what of Rodgers in this regard?

The truth is, we can't be sure.

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Were Liverpool ever genuinely interested in signing Ashley Williams? If so, they've done far, far better by signing Sakho. Who takes that credit?

This is not fact, not truth or guarantee, but there have certainly been murmurings that Rodgers is not the be-all-and-end-all at Liverpool in terms of deciding who to sign. Those same mutterings over the summer hint at some of Rodgers' choices to be flat-out rejected this summer by a cloaked and mysterious committee. Even so, the manager likely has the end decision on most new arrivals which are agreed on, and so far, it's certainly been more hit than miss.

 

Sustainable PPG Rate and "Second-Half Syndrome"

Liverpool will return after the international break to play their 12th Premier League game of the season against none other than local rivals Everton.

The Merseyside derby should not entirely be used as a barometer to judge Liverpool's (or Everton's, for that matter) season, but it will certainly give another glimpse as to how certain players perform under pressure, how determined the team are to continue racking up victories and how they fare against other top-half teams.

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As of now, the Reds have 23 points from their 11 games, a points-per-game rate of 2.09. Extrapolated over an entire season, that would yield 79 points for Liverpool this season, their most since they finished second in 2008-09.

It's not entirely probable that they will maintain that exact rate of points accumulation...but staying at 2.00 points per game would yield 76 points, comfortably enough for a top-four finish in any of the last six seasons.

That has to be Rodgers' target, his sole aim for the season and everything to which his match-day focus is burned upon.

It's easy enough to say Liverpool just have to take care of their own games, and to an extent that is right, but the league is made up of 20 teams and as of right now, probably eight of them are thinking they have a sneaky-to-excellent chance of making the top four.

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Liverpool are four points away from eighth. That's how tight the league is at the moment, despite the team's excellent start to the campaign.

Rodgers, last season, was fond of telling reporters that the team would improve after Christmas, that in the second half of the season, results and performances would improve as the players got to grips with what he was asking. As it turned out, he was right.

But this year, they have to do it all over again—because every other new manager will be thinking the exact same thing.

David Moyes. Manuel Pellegrini. Jose Mourinho.

Three managers, three clubs, three massive expectations of finishing fourth as a minimum. They're all below Liverpool right now, but it is going to be such, such hard work for the Anfield club to stay there. Basically everything is going to have to go right for them if they are to achieve that fourth place or better, both within their own team and with things going wrong elsewhere.

It comes back to the window of opportunity; it's doable for Liverpool, but this is the season they need to take advantage of the situation in.

It's been a case of so far, so pretty much excellent for Liverpool in 2013-14. Performances haven't always been perfect, but results have largely made up for that. That's what gives the team the platform now, as individual and team displays pick up significantly, to already be in a position to challenge.

Rodgers has worked wonders already, he really has. But there is so much more to be done before it can be anything resembling mission accomplished—and even that will only be for phase one of Liverpool's return to the top.

Bring on the derby.

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