x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Judge Brendan Rodgers' impact based on Liverpool's performance next season

The English Premier League giants are in rebuilding mode and whether their young manager is making progress should be decided at the end of 2013/14.

Under Brendan Rodgers' watch, Liverpool have played better football. Peter Powell / EPA
Under Brendan Rodgers' watch, Liverpool have played better football. Peter Powell / EPA

Liverpool's season was petering out. They knew where they would finish and, with less to play for, their winning touch deserted them. Their inspirational captain tried to rally them, but to no avail.

This isn't actually the story of this season. Rather it is a tale Graeme Souness told recently, talking about the 1982/83 campaign where Liverpool had the league wrapped up with weeks to go. Their modern-day counterparts are not guaranteed to stay in seventh but it is unlikely they will overhaul Everton and still more improbable that they will be caught by West Bromwich Albion.

Some could trace a descent from magnificence to mediocrity over the course of three decades, but if it is unfair to rank the current Liverpool team against the most illustrious of their predecessors, the most significant comparison is with their team 12 months ago.

The underlying issue is the question if Liverpool are better off for dismissing Kenny Dalglish, appointing Brendan Rodgers and ripping up their blueprint.

Liverpool are a place higher, have scored more goals and secured more points. Last year, however, they reached two cup finals, winning one and ending a six-year wait for silverware. It is not just Rodgers' growing band of critics and the Dalglish diehards who regard that as a far greater feat.

However, that leads some to overlook Rodgers' awkward inheritance. Liverpool took 18 points from their final 19 games under Dalglish and their performances were as lamentable as results suggested.

This was a side that, for half a season, had the record of relegation strugglers. They were then shorn of several of their potential scorers as ageing players and higher earners were offloaded. To compound that, they left themselves short of strikers on a disastrous final day of the summer transfer window, made a slow start and have spent the rest of the season playing catch-up.

Now the squad is younger, their passing more precise and the January additions Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge welcome additions to a slender group of match-winners.

The Anfield season ticket-holders, who saw the fewest number of home wins in six decades and the lowest number of league goals in the club's history last season, have at least witnessed several elegant demolitions of lesser teams. The downwards momentum has been halted, a corner turned.

Yet as this was always going to be a transitional season, the more pressing matter is not what Liverpool have done, but what they will achieve next. Rodgers deserves to be assessed on the basis of next season. Liverpool require a concerted challenge for a top-four finish.

But, quite simply, there are too many reasons to doubt their chances.

Even with Luis Suarez scoring 30 goals, they have only stumbled to seventh and the suspended Uruguayan has to sit out the first six games of next season.

Rodgers' tactics have been complicated by the arrival of Sturridge and the difficulty of pairing him with Suarez as well as incorporating three central midfielders. The question if they are best off playing 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 remains to be resolved.

In defence, individual errors have blighted their season. Yet, when they happen so frequently, they should not be dismissed as coincidences. Pepe Reina has underperformed for too long and the search for a new goalkeeper ought to start. A defensive stalwart is another priority.

With Martin Skrtel regressing alarmingly and Daniel Agger's form dipping, it is a damning retirement of the others that a retiring, slowing 35 year old has been much their most reliable centre-back. Jamie Carragher will be missed.

Without him, Liverpool could be bullied by big strikers again. It is a reason why every good run has been punctuated by a serious setback. Whenever they acquired impetus, they have encountered Christian Benteke or Romelu Lukaku or, most damningly of all, Oldham Athletic's Matt Smith as they were knocked out of the FA Cup.

Collectively, too, they have had too many off days. Factor in an unacceptable record against the rest of the top eight – one win in 14 league games – and there is little evidence they can provide the quality or sustain the consistency to prosper.

For their youthful players, this season has been a learning process. More significantly, however, an up-and-coming manager has to offer evidence he has benefited from his education. There are too many times when Rodgers has picked the wrong team or made the wrong substitutions.

The Northern Irishman spent last summer paying over the odds to engineer a reunion with his former players. Now it is hard to see where Joe Allen, supposed to embody his ethos, will fit into the team, and his record in the transfer market is decidedly mixed. As, besides his desire for a No 10, Liverpool could be looking for a goalkeeper, two central defenders and another winger or goalscorer, that has to be a concern.

And all that is assuming firstly that Suarez stays and secondly that a serial miscreant does not contrive to incur a third lengthy ban in the space of as many seasons.

And so as Rodgers prepares for his Judgement Year, it should be in the awareness that while Liverpool have made a little progress over the past 12 months, a lot more is needed in the next 12.


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