Premier League Preview: Clock Ticking for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2015

Jurgen Klopp’s widely reported leak on Thursday morning that he would be prepared to end his sabbatical early to take a job in the Premier League was about as subtle as leaving his calling card in a Liverpool phone box.

Like being bitten by a puppy that had previously only threatened to lick you to death, Europe’s most genial coach has chosen to bare his teeth at a time when Brendan Rodgers’ own pearly whites have lost their sparkle.

An out-of-work coach interrupting a little light gardening to remind the world of his existence, via Sky Sports, is hardly a crime, but given the timing, it’s about as forward as letting your presence be felt at a funeral by making a pass at the widow of the deceased.

A third set of boos (at the end of normal time and after both periods of extra time) to mark Liverpool being taken to penalties by a Carlisle United side 65 places below them in the English football ladder were still fresh in the Anfield air when someone in Germany was asking for the international dialling code for England.

It brings to mind the Woody Allen quote: "When I was kidnapped, my parents snapped into action. They rented out my room."

Maybe it wasn’t just a goofy smile and infectious personality that won Borussia Dortmund back-to-back Bundesliga titles after all. 

Given Rodgers is the type of man who perspires optimism and would still be grateful for his lot if the Christmas turkey was divvied up and he was given the feet, it’s difficult to quite tell how he’s feeling about the incessant speculation over his position.

Whether you love or loathe him, though, there’s something terribly brutal about the thought of awkward breakfasts at the Rodgers residence. Stony silence over eggs and coffee as Brendan reads his sixth "Five candidates to replace Rodgers at Liverpool" column of the morning.

"That’s football," we chirp in unison, before endlessly speculating about another man's job.

When the Carlisle player who had escaped from one of Nando's chicken farms had his penalty saved to see Liverpool through to the Capital One Cup fourth round, it looked to be genuine relief that enveloped Rodgers' face.

An obvious statement perhaps, yet is it not possible a Carlisle victory could have elicited the same response?

If Rodgers really is a dead man walking, how much desire is there to delay the inevitable, to refine, to revise best-laid plans, if the spectres of Carlo Ancelotti, Ronald De Boer, Garry Monk, Ronald Koeman, Klopp and Co. cannot be exorcised?

While Liverpool were labouring to a single goal from 47 shots in 120 minutes, Mario Balotelli and Iago Aspas both scored fine efforts for their new clubs this week. The latter will be forever associated with taking the worst corner in the game's long, rich history, but it's started a bit better at Celta Vigo. His chip-in midweek was precocious to the point of being obnoxious and helped seal a 4-1 win over Barcelona.

The question is whether the club's often-derided recruitment policy is a failure of strategy, or more they don't have the right management team to make it work. Many supporters would argue both sentiments are true.

Fenway Sports Group, the club’s American owners, saw Rodgers as being a coach capable of making good players great ones via work on the training ground.

The idea was that he was the ideal candidate to work with a budget that is handsome, but still only the fifth highest in the division. In his three seasons, Rodgers has averaged fifth place.

Rodgers has been given the rarest of luxuries in football, time and money. In each of the past two summers, he has brought in seven new first-team players, though, hence the argument Liverpool shouldn't still be in a perpetual state of change.

On the flip side, losing his best player Luis Suarez to Barcelona, most promising player Raheem Sterling to Manchester City and captain Steven Gerrard to Father Time was hardly his fault. Swapping Pepe Reina and Daniel Agger for Simon Mignolet and Dejan Lovren was, though.

 

Liverpool vs. Aston Villa, Saturday at 3 p.m. BST

In normal circumstances, a visit from Aston Villa is usually the type of fixture that an under-fire manager dreams of, but then games against Norwich and Carlisle were also earmarked as being ideal vehicles to get Liverpool’s season out of first gear.

In a strange quirk, none of the last eight Premier League meetings between Liverpool and Villa have ended as a home win (six away victories and two draws). So that's good news for those Liverpool fans threatening to attend the game dressed as Klopp, via the Telegraph. It'll be interesting to see if any accessorise their outfits with fishnets and stockings. 

Villa themselves are, like Liverpool, also in a period of "transition"; a term Jonathan Wilson this week described in the Guardian as being "the curse of modern football" and a "great excuse." He added: "Whenever a club are underperforming, it is because they are in transition."

Whatever your lexical choices, and Rodgers' are invariably uniquely his own, there’s no getting around the fact the Ulsterman is, at best, on borrowed time.

The Independent’s Simon Hughes wrote an insightful piece last weekend, albeit before the Norwich and Carlisle games, that claimed Rodgers retains the support of Mike Gordon, the president of FSG. Liverpool chief executive officer Ian Ayre is another supporter in the boardroom.

A week is a long time in football.

Hughes continued: "Should Gordon and Ayre be overruled, however, insiders say it is unlikely that FSG will turn to the manager who many regard as being a natural Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp.

"At Borussia Dortmund, the charismatic Klopp enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the club’s passionate support and brought them remarkable success. However, it seems that Fenway have been warned against hiring the German, presumably by someone with firsthand practice of working with him."

After six games of the new season, Liverpool sit 13th, having won just two matches, against Stoke City and Bournemouth, respectively. When combined with a miserable end to last term, which many thought would prove to be Rodgers' swan song, Liverpool have taken a paltry 16 points from their past 15 top-flight matches. 

Even if Klopp is kept at arm's length for now, a tough-looking Premier League fixture list that after Saturday's game reads Everton (a), Tottenham Hotspur (a), Southampton (h) and Chelsea (a) will surely have to be negotiated with a marked improvement if Rodgers is to keep his job. 

Whatever the future holds for Rodgers, and there's no denying the rationale behind those that vehemently argue he's run his course at Liverpool, Klopp's behaviour this week seems opportunistic and, frankly, unbecoming for a coach rightly regarded as one of the continent's finest. 

 

North-east leads sack race - Newcastle United vs. Chelsea, Saturday at 5:30 p.m. BST

In perhaps the only race in the world that nobody actually wants to win, the north-east has two leading medal hopes.

The region's best side at present is probably Middlesbrough, who play in the Championship. Newcastle United and Sunderland could be joining them by Christmas at this rate.

When, to his wife's chagrin, Dick Advocaat performed a U-turn in the summer to stay on at Sunderland for another year, he did so at least in the knowledge of what he was working with. At 67, surprises get fewer and fewer with each passing year.

For Steve McClaren, whose Newcastle side entertain Chelsea at St James' Park on Saturday, it's been a baptism of fire. And it's one that has seen the flames of optimism that briefly flickered over a summer of significant investment to the tune of £50 million now well and truly extinguished.

Draws with Southampton and Manchester United that sandwiched a defeat at Swansea City meant for a so-so start. What has followed has been a shower of the variety that even Steve's old England brolly wouldn't have been able to repel. 

An abject defeat at West Ham United on a Monday night was followed by an equally inert and disorganised home loss to Watford. Worse was to follow on Wednesday as Sheffield Wednesday (reserves) ended Newcastle's interest in the Capital One Cup before it had really began. 

McClaren has won just one of his eight games to date, against Northampton Town in the previous round of the cup, and in midweek, frustration saw some supporters clamour over the top of the St James’ Park dugout to howl derision at the manager, as Michael Walker of the Guardian reported. 

In 2015, Newcastle have won four times. It's the back end of September. 

"I’ve been in football too long to be embarrassed," said McClaren, via the Guardian, sounding like an old guy who takes delight in telling a nurse he's had an accident. 

"People say it's a crisis, and it's getting very close to it. We deserve to be criticised," he told Sky Sports.

In an attacking sense, Newcastle have been rank. According to WhoScored.com, they top the charts in terms of fewest shots (37), fewest chances (37) and fewest goals (three). At £13 million, Aleksandar Mitrovic spoke confidently of being the next Alan Shearer when he arrived in the summer. To date, he's been more Marco Boogers. 

Georginio Wijnaldum came replete with real pedigree but has faded badly, while Florian Thauvin and Chancel Mbemba turning up for games wearing tuxedos recalls the Vincent van Gogh line: "If boyhood and youth are but vanity, must it not be our ambition to become men?" Newcastle have a team of boys at the minute. 

Chelsea arrive at St James' Park on the back of three wins in as many different competitions. On the field they appear to have clicked into gear, while off it, it's been a more problematic week.

Diego Costa's three-match ban after being found guilty of violent conduct by the Football Association following a clash with Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny has not sat well with Jose Mourinho. Doctor Eva Carneiro's departure from the champions has not sat well with the rest of the world. 

 

Can Martial keep on scoring? Manchester United vs. Sunderland, Saturday at 3 p.m. BST

Only eight players in the Premier League's 23-year history have scored in their first three matches. Few would bet against Anthony Martial adding his name to that list as Manchester United host Sunderland on Saturday. No United player has ever previously managed it. 

Louis van Gaal's capture of a 19-year-old for £36 million, even with the public caveat that he was more a gift to his heir apparent, Ryan Giggs, than one for the present, was the moment when football really did seem to have eaten itself. 

Four games later, and we can't get enough of the Frenchman. Happy to play on the shoulder of the last man, Martial fits United like a bespoke suit from Savile Row.

There's something intoxicating about watching a kid play with the cold detachment of a seasoned pro. Rangy and athletic but lithe in his movements, Martial—not just with his goals, though they've helped— has given United an attacking impetus otherwise entirely absent from their laboured early-season efforts. 

With him in the team, United have averaged a goal every 22.8 minutes in the Premier League. Before that, 106.5 minutes were required to trouble the scoresheet.

Given Martial has only figured in two league matches, such statistics can look like manipulation to enhance a point, but in this instance, the figures show what's blindingly obvious. United are a much better side with the teenager spearheading their attack. A 75 per cent shot-conversion rate might be tough to keep up, though. 

His first goal for the club against Liverpool was so uncannily similar to a Thierry Henry trademark he should have delivered it in a Renault Clio. And he's done little to quell comparisons since, as each of his next three strikes saw him open up his body before finishing immaculately. He makes the hardest thing in football look easy, and that's quite a feat for anybody, let alone a teenager.

Sunderland arrive in Manchester in the knowledge they have beaten United once in the previous 26 league meetings between the two clubs. In midweek, they were beaten 4-1 at home by Manchester City in the Capital One Cup, while their only win this season to date came against League Two side Exeter City in the previous round.

One suspects anything but a hiding on Saturday will privately please Advocaat.

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