Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers' decision to field a team largely consisting of players who were at the club last season against Ludogorets Razgrad in the Champions League on Wednesday night shows he either doesn't trust his new signings (yet) or he was sending a message to the club's hierarchy.
Of the starting XI in Bulgaria, only Javier Manquillo and Rickie Lambert made the cut from the eight summer signings.
Fellow new signings Adam Lallana, Emre Can and Dejan Lovren were unused substitutes, Alberto Moreno was introduced for the last 10 minutes, while Lazar Markovic wasn't in the squad.
So just what's going on? Is it a case of the manager opting to go with players he thinks he can rely on or is he trying to prove a point to Fenway Sports Group?
Refusing to Have a Director of Football
When Rodgers was appointed as Liverpool boss in 2012, he refused to work with a director of football (as per David Anderson of the Mirror), forcing FSG to abandon their plans to implement a more European structure, which has been adopted by Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion, among others.
The role of a director of football has been debated in England for a long time—BBC Sport was debating it 10 years ago—but such a setup is commonplace on the continent, especially at the biggest clubs, and there are definite arguments for it, as explained by Man City correspondent Rob Pollard in the Mirror.
When a manager has such autonomy at a football club, it means that if or when that manager leaves the club, everything can change—from the first team to the academy setup. Liverpool have seen this occur in the past.
A director of football/sporting director/technical director ensures continuity and, perhaps crucially in the case of FSG and Liverpool, provides a football person for the manager to report to.
In the current setup, who on Liverpool's board is qualified to assess whether Rodgers is succeeding in his job? FSG shareholders have admitted time and again that they know very little about football and are still learning about the game.
So handing almost total control of the club to a then-39-year-old manager with just one year's experience coaching in the Premier League meant the whole club lacked experience. This is further compounded by the lack of experience among his coaching staff, as explained previously for B/R here.
Instead of a sporting director, FSG went with a collective model of a "transfer committee," made up of Rodgers, chief executive Ian Ayre—a man whose experience is in commerce—head scout Barry Hunter and analyst Michael Edwards.
Ayre explained the setup in an interview with Sports Illustrated: "We have a head of analysis, a head of recruitment, a first-team manager [and] myself. All of those people are all inputting into a process that delivers what a director of football would deliver."
Speaking of the committee earlier this year, Rodgers insisted he has the final say on signing a player, telling the Liverpool Echo: "Obviously, I am involved heavily in the identification of the player.
"We will never bring in a player here who the manager doesn’t want in. That’s a great credit to the owners and the other people at the club."
"The squad is very shallow," said Rodgers after he used teenager Brad Smith in a defeat at Chelsea last December, perhaps hinting at a need for new signings in the January transfer window—signings that never materialised after the failed pursuits of Mohamed Salah and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
More recently, Chris Bascombe of The Telegraph, writing about Rodgers' future at the club, explained: "There is a sense of shared responsibility. ... [W]ithin the corridors of power at Anfield it is known [Rodgers] can not be held fully responsible if players have been signed who are not up to standard."
The buck, in this case, does not necessarily stop with the manager.
Clearly, however, there is something going wrong, even if we don't know who is to blame—with only Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho being regarded as successes of Rodgers' 25 signings to date.
A shared responsibility is a nice idea, but in practice, people—especially in such an ambiguous area—rarely agree. Even less so when it relates to as subjective a matter as a player's potential. Time and again we see players not reach their perceived potential—the reason being that there is no science and it's an extremely tricky task to predict even remotely accurately.
So when it does go wrong, there is nobody to blame. Everyone just points and looks at each other. You could argue that a theoretically shared responsibility actually creates a culture of nobody taking responsibility.
It can also lead to less ruthlessness in the transfer market, as written by Sachin Nakrani in the Guardian earlier this year:
Liverpool are generally targeting the right players but signing the wrong ones, and there exists a view that the policy of buying-by-committee has played a role in that. Rodgers insists he maintains the 'first and last call' on all purchases, but a consensus still has to be sought on targets and on how much the club is willing to spend on transfer fees and wages, something that can only slow down the process.
Certainly the moves for [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan, Willian and Salah dragged on for ages before Dortmund and Chelsea respectively stepped in and paid the going rate.
The idea of a committee might have sounded good to John Henry and FSG when it was formed, but two years on, the evidence is largely against it.
Rodgers agreed to the idea of a committee, but is he now against it? Does he see the problems discussed above? Is his use of the summer signings a political sign he isn't happy with the committee?
He will know that his job is made more difficult and ultimately left in the balance by the success or failure of the committee and its signings—something he isn't in control of.
Who does Rodgers turn to when a signing doesn't work out? After all, FSG can argue he did have a say in the process. But on the other hand, he may have been coerced into it by the group.
It's created a catch-22 for Rodgers and FSG, but they can only blame themselves: FSG for bowing to Rodgers' refusal to work with a director of football, and Rodgers for refusing that but accepting a committee.