Progress or not?

Brendan Rodgers has been in the Liverpool hot seat for 15 weeks now (in terms of the EPL season), and a common question doing the rounds is “Are Liverpool improving?”  Obviously with only 16 points from the opening 13 fixtures (7 points adrift of Kenny Dalglish at the same point last season, and on a par with Roy Hodgson the season before) it cannot be said that Liverpool are a better side than 12 months ago.  But is that a fair comparison?

At the end of November 2011, Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool had just drawn with Manchester City at Anfield, his 8th consecutive match unbeaten in the Premier League.  In their next fixture, a league cup tie at Stamford Bridge, Lucas Leiva would rupture cruciate ligaments in his knee, an injury that would force him to miss the rest of the season.  A loss at Fulham in the next league fixture ended the unbeaten run, and while Liverpool managed to see out the rest of December without losing again, the loss of Suarez to his 8 match ban saw Liverpool’s season gradually fall into decline.  From the start of January to the end of the season Liverpool would score points in consecutive matches only 4 times, including only one set of back-to-back victories.  They would win only 5 of their 19 matches while accumulating a mere 18 points; 1 more than half their total for the first half of the season.

In terms of this calendar year therefore, Brendan Rodgers is doing rather well.  Even without Lucas to stabilize the midfield (due to a “rare” thigh injury picked up moments into match day 2), Rodgers has gone 8 matches unbeaten, though admittedly including only 3 victories, and has a positive goal difference (if barely).  For Rodgers, 8 games unbeaten compared to the last 19 matches where Dalglish couldn’t go 3 games without a loss (and had a run of 5 straight defeats) marks staggering success.  By contrast to the free scoring seen against Dalglish’s side, Rodgers’ Liverpool have conceded only 4 goals in their last 7 EPL fixtures, keeping 4 clean sheets.  It’s also worth noting that of Rodgers’ 3 losses in the league, 2 came in games where Liverpool finished with 10 men.  Liverpool might not be winning, but they seem pretty difficult to beat, something that could not have been said of the side at the end of last season.

But Liverpool still aren’t winning enough.  Rodger’s EPL record reads P13 W3 D7 L3.  3 wins from 13 is a terribly low return for a Liverpool manager, especially considering that Rafa Benitez, a man overlooked in favour of Rodgers, won over 58% of all matches in all competitions for Liverpool over a 6 year period; only 5 managers in the history of the game have better averages in England, and all 5 won the EPL title with far more valuable squads.  Even Roy Hodgson had won more often than Rodgers at the same stage in the league, and this despite Luis Suarez being on top of the goal scoring charts thus far this season!  Liverpool might have stopped being bad, but that doesn’t mean they have become good.  Though perhaps even that perception is false, as during the first half of last season Dalglish’s 8 match unbeaten run contained only 4 wins, and this season Suarez had a legitimate goal disallowed against Everton that would have provided the 4th win in the current streak.

When one takes into consideration a paper-thin squad that sees Stuart Downing played at left back and Jordan Henderson at right back, with only one fit striker of two, and regular appearances of 3 teenagers in the EPL starting line-up because they are the best players we have, then one surely appreciates how much work Rodgers has to do to get this Liverpool side anywhere near the bar set by Benitez.  That the squad still contains window dressing in the shape of Joe Cole and the aforementioned Downing is an indicator of how far the quality of the squad has fallen.  A chasm exists between the value of this squad in monetary terms and its value on the pitch.  Even then, Liverpool have only the 4th most valuable squad in the league, pipping Arsenal and Spurs mainly due to the soaring value of Suarez.  This suggests Liverpool should stand far higher than 11th in the league table, so the club is still some significant way from expected form, but 4 managers in 4 years suggests massive upheaval at the club; not something any of Liverpool’s top 4 rivals can honestly claim despite recent appointments at Chelsea and Spurs.  Too, Brendan Rodgers’ chosen style of play is not one mastered in a fortnight.  It will take time, and will more than likely only bear fruit when the boys in the system mature into men.

In terms of “playing like a top team”, Liverpool create as many or more goal scoring chances per minute of possession than traditional markers for top 4 teams.  Our conversion of so-called “clear cut chances” is also highest in the league this season, which is extremely encouraging because Rodgers’ system is designed to patiently wait for the right opportunity to create the best goal scoring chance.  Sadly our creation rate of such chances is moderate, but hopefully as the players become more accustomed to the system and to one another this aspect of our game will improve.  Our chance conversion in general however is somewhat off the pace, and each game Liverpool lives and dies on the performance of Suarez and the support he gets from the players around him.  Against Wigan the front 3 was supreme and the game was easy.  Against Swansea Sterling had an off day, misplacing ball after ball and ruining the best chance of the game with a poorly weighted pass, while Enrique was hampered by Downing providing absolutely nothing in either attack or defence alongside him.  Yet Liverpool would still leave the Liberty Stadium feeling worse about the drawn result against a side that has lost only once at home all season in all competitions and now stands just one outside the Europa League places.

What has bogged Liverpool down thus far this season is that in defence we allow our opposition among the highest chance creation and conversion stats in the league, which suggests that not only do we not keep the invaders at bay, we gift them gilt-edged chances that they cannot fail to convert.  Since we’re not making good at the other end of the pitch, each goal conceded is a hammer blow that ruins our chances of a victory.  While it is true that we are gradually conceding fewer goals per game and there are rumours of money to spend in January for attacking support for Suarez, my gut feel is that we have bigger problems than just putting the ball in the net and hoping Lucas comes back in the form of his life.

In very nearly every game our midfield co-ordination has been poor, and it’s uncertain whether the imminent return of Lucas will solve all the problems.  We create a lot of chances up front, but no small percentage are chances that Suarez creates all by himself – were we creating as a team goals would come from more players than just our number 7 as a natural by-product of good play.  Instead we give the ball away an alarming amount for a possession-orientated team, and really don’t seem to work hard enough to get it back.  Rodgers highlighted the 4 P’s of this system when he first took the job: possession, pressing, patience, penetration.  In the recently completed game against Swansea we excelled in exactly zero of those aspects, and yet we thought we were good enough for the win?  Something doesn’t add up, and as I’ve highlighted previously I think the problem is simply that Gerrard is completely the wrong kind of player for this system.  It would be okay were he a peripheral player like Downing, but he is our Captain Fantastic AND he commands one of the most crucial central midfield roles to boot.  The things he does well end up hurting us; the draw against Young Boys in the midweek Europa League fixture was a direct result of him driving play forward, pulling players with him (something we had lacked to that point), and then leaving us exposed at the back when the attack breaks down while his 32-year-old legs WALK back hoping no one notices he’s miles out of position.  There will come a time when Rodgers must drop him.  I only hope the fickle fans don’t see that in the wrong light.

Progress or not?  Perhaps.  Parts of our game are definitely top 4 standard, but other parts just as clearly are not.  The return of Lucas will help us defensively, though whether he will be enough to balance the midfield remains to be seen.  But it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and nothing is decided in November.

11 thoughts on “Progress or not?

  1. I think you pose a very relevant question here and my immediate thoughts are that we have shown improvements as Rodgers slowly imposes his philosophy on the squad. While we were scrappy against Swansea I think we can see clear progress in Rodgers ideals of possession and short passing and our style is light-years ahead of Kenny Dalglish’s prehistoric kick-and-rush approach. But the paper-thin squad that you highlight, particularly in attack, is hampering our ability to turn some of those draws into much-needed 3pts. A new striker has to be the utmost priority in January, whether it is the early return of much-maligned Andy Carroll simply to bolster the ranks or a more nimble and mobile forward in the mould of Man Utd’s Javier Hernandez; a player I feel would be ideally suited to the current Liverpool system. Of course Hernandez would not be available, but perhaps a more focused effort to prise Jermain Defoe out of Spurs could bear fruit? Just so long as it isn’t Theo Walcott!

    Downing’s deployment as a left-back is inexplicable in my opinion, although consistent with Liverpool’s insistence on playing players out of position. He simply isn’t a left-back; his atrocious error gifting Nathan Dyer possession in a dangerous area on Sunday would, on another day, resulted in another sloppy goal conceded. It’s not his fault, but he’s either a winger or he needs to be sold. What staggered me more was that Downing played left back when an orthodox full back in Jose Enrique played left wing?!? Enrique is no more a winger than Downing is a full back and, while he was unfortunate to be ruled offside for the disallowed goal, his lack of natural comfort and instinct when in attacking positions resulted in his awful wasting of a good early chance as he attempted to half-head, half-chest the ball towards goal when a natural attacker would surely have shot instead?

    Jordan Henderson continues to look totally and completely lost, despite playing in supposedly his preferred central position at the weekend. In fact, such was his anonymous performance that I resorted to consciously looking for his shirt number on the pitch, so sure was I that he wasn’t playing at all!? But you are so so right to highlight the almost weekly decline of Steven Gerrard. “Gerrard, whose performance was bettered only by that of England full-back Glen Johnson, was almost untouchable in the first half” lavished one British newspaper this morning….presumably commenting on a game that I simply did not see! I saw a slow, laboured display from Liverpool’s captain, wearily chugging around the pitch as his injury-ravaged body simply refuses to rise to the heroics he once routinely pulled off. Too often Liverpool’s talisman was bypassed by the short passing interchanges, too often he arrived late on the scene, too often he seemed so desperate to make up for his shortcomings that he resorted to the impossible Hollywood pass that was a signature of his early years. It’s always sad to see a club great in decline but the harsh reality is that Gerrard’s waning powers are declining at an alarming rate. Perhaps, like Michael Owen, his early exposure and over-playing in his early days has compromised his career longevity? Perhaps the persistent lower back, groin, hamstring and thigh injuries are finally taking their toll? But the undeniable truth is that unless Gerrard can intelligently develop and mature his game in the manner that Ryan Giggs, in particular, has managed so successfully at Man Utd, his days as the focal point of the Liverpool midfield are fast coming to an end….

    • I have to disagree about Enrique, EotF, though the remainder of your post highlights valid points. One thing critical to Rodgers’ system is creating successful through-balls for a striker to run onto. It’s one of the reasons Borini was bought as his pace and intelligent movement will feed off these balls. Earlier in the season we couldn’t create a through-ball. Not one for the first 2 or 3 games. Yet after 2 games as a winger Enrique has produced the 3rd most successful through-balls in the league this season alongside Mata and Silva! That Liverpool squandered 3 “clear-cut” chances against Swansea was not entirely his fault. He’s not a great winger, but he can spot a pass, which is more than we can say for Downing who increasingly resembles Charlie Adam for ineffectiveness in the red shirt. Were he not in the shop window Robinson would be playing every week.

      I felt Gerrard was average at best, balancing not giving the ball away with frequently not being in the right position. He’s been worse this season, but it’s clear the role doesn’t suit him naturally. Gerrard is an impatient player in a system that demands the opposite, and that will affect our performances as long as he plays. He also walks far too much on the pitch.

  2. So in other words what yer saying is that the League table & Cup competitions are telling no lies & we are actually pure shite of Hodgson standards & that the limited Rodgers is a massive step backwards from the progressive Dalglish ?

    Eh ?

    • I’m pretty sure I said no such thing. In terms of points, no, we are not ahead of Hodgson. But in terms of tactics? In terms of being unbeaten? In terms of being a goal threat? In terms of lacking the one player who held the sides of both Dalgish and Hodgson together? Rodgers is hands down better than both his predecessors because, as demonstrated in the article, without Lucas Dalglish’s side was made of glass, and Hodgson’s football demonstrated no promise of improvement – it was dour two banks of four hoofball. Hodgson had Torres, Gerrard, Lucas, and Reina fit for every game and still couldn’t earn more points per game than Rodgers with one fit striker, no specialist DM or decent left back, and a squad of children! Maybe you need to read the article again…

  3. Pressing, Possession, Patience, Penetration you mention. I think I’m seeing different games to most fans lately.

    1st half, we had more possession than Swansea, a team that prides itself too on possession (still), and playing at Swansea. We pressed them a fair bit, winning the ball back in advanced areas. In terms of chances we created: Johnson was through one-on-one with the goalie. Sterling had a shot that smashed off the bar. Johnson had two headers from corners, one of which he should have done much better with. Enrique scored a goal from close range that perhaps was actually onside and disallowed wrongly. A cross came in to Enrique that he chested towards the goal, but this too was a good chance. And there were several decent shooting opportunities from outside the area, and another from Sterling inside that he fluffed.
    3 of these are really good chances which you’d expect at least one goal from. I had to watch 2 or 3 whole games last year to see as many good chances.

    2nd half was less good on all of the 4 P’s, but there was a foul on Agger in the box. We were through 2 against 1 and Sterling fluffed the pass.

    I think the fact Suarez is one of the top scorers in the country demonstrates that we are penetrating. Some of that penetration is due to Suarez himself, but last season, almost ALL of it was due to Suarez.

    I think there is a lot of improvement so far, but I also think the squad is much thinner, and weaker, and we have to play in Europa this season, which is having a negative affect.

    My three main criticisms of Rodgers so far, are
    1)Gerrard seems untouchable, and he shouldn’t be. Many games Gerrard should have been subbed, maybe even dropped
    2)Transfer dealings have not been good enough. It’s all very well complaining about Dempsey on deadline day, but Carroll should never have been let go until someone was brought in. Borini has a history of being injury prone, which for his age is a worrying sign. Assaidi (I know you disagree) is decidely average in everything he does except when his head is down and he runs with it, but the end product is nothing from this. And Sahin is talented but slow, and inconsistent. Allen is the only bright spark signing, but at 15m, you’d expect that.
    3)He tinkers too much with the side. If he doesn’t want to be in the Europa, then fine, play a weakened young side, and they get through or they don’t. I’d be fine with that. But don’t play half a side, then a second string, then a first team then half a side again in Europa. It’s just confusing, and gets confusing results. He’s also tinkering with formation too much, which seems crazy considering they haven’t even got to grips with one formation yet. So far this season I’ve seen are: 4-3-3, 4-1-2-3, 4-2-1-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1, 5-3-2, 5-4-1
    It’s a bit excessive given we’re only 13 games into the season.

    • Against Swansea I felt we gave the ball away cheaply all game, didn’t press (neither side did, possibly because both managers expected the opposition to be comfortable in possession?), and our penetration was lacking. We were fairly patient, alternating possession with Swansea without panicking, but that in itself wasn’t spectacular. So I felt we didn’t display much control of the 4 Ps. In general terms, all season we have improved in these aspects, but for me the Swansea game wasn’t great. I was surprised that Rodgers had such a positive assessment of the game, but I guess he was showing Swansea respect. Hopefully as he grows into the Liverpool job he will want us to win more, even away, even in Wales.

      I agree that Gerrard needs a kick up the rear, but it’s not likely to happen this season. I think Rodgers has to throw off the idea that he is a “lesser” manager, and really become LFC manager ala Benitez.

      As for tinkering with the side, my feeling is that Rodgers is discovering that certain players don’t suit certain roles or are better equipped at performing in others. For instance, since switching from a 2-1 midfield triangle (2 more defensive players, 1 more attacking) to a 1-2 triangle, Liverpool have played more than 200 minutes without conceding a goal, and for the most part Jordan Henderson was key to midfield balance. He has not excelled any more than last season, but his attributes better suit the side; from Rodgers being keen to move him on prior to the start of the season, Henderson has now featured in 4 of our last 5 matches. I also think that Suso presents a conundrum, as he is a fine attacking player, but one that does not contribute towards midfield stability; a crucial aspect of the system. Rodgers has not found the true balance in the side, though Enrique has been quite a revelation as a left winger, not just because of his ability to spot a pass, but also because he and Johnson work well in tandem down the left (just as Sterling and Wisdom do on the right). This kind of tinkering is for me entirely expected for a new manager teaching a club a new system, and is actually quite refreshing considering how obstinate Rodgers came across in pre-season about how his ideas were the only ones and he would change them for no one and no thing. Any points from tonight’s game and Rodgers has us on the longest unbeaten run in the EPL since 08/09 – not bad for 14 games in even if he doesn’t succeed! Yes, we need to win more, but having come off 18 points in 19 games with maximum 2 games unbeaten for the last half season under Dalglish, 16 points from 13 with an 8 match unbeaten run is definite progress.

  4. I am being totally naive to wish for Andy C’s return ? I am told by all & sundry that he simply does not fit into Brendan’s style of play. Nevertheless I have this mental image of Andy drawing defenders on through balls & cross balls & in the process allowing Luis even more freedom. I have just become so accustomed to accept that if Luis does not score we probably are not going to score. Even in the prolific Torres era there were players who found the back of net- Dirk & sadly SG who has lost that gift as you rightly point out.

    • I don’t think Carroll will do that in this system though. It worked to an extent under Dalglish but only because we were much more direct in our play. I think Carroll is a good player, and he can certainly create space for his team mates, but it is his lack of both speed over the first 5 yards and his speed of thought that prevents him really excelling under Rodgers. I feel that now that the players are beginning to understand the system, Borini will have much more impact when he returns than Carroll ever will, and all because his movement off the ball is something Carroll could never achieve. Borini struggled in the games he played, make no mistake, but no small part of that was down to those in the supply line not being certain of their roles and therefore not reading his runs or seeing the spaces he saw. The best example of what he can do was in the Young Boys game in Bern for Shelvey’s goals; Carroll would just have been in the way.

    • I too find myself torn between the merits or otherwise of an early recall for Andy Carroll. I share Thundyr’s view that Carroll’s lack of pace and mobility does not sit comfortably in Rodgers’ style involving slick, quick movement and short, sharp passing. But equally I cannot for the life of me understand what either Carroll or Liverpool are gaining from his stop-start spell at West Ham. West Ham under Sam Allardyce play perhaps the total opposite style to Liverpool under Rodgers so it’s not as though he’s even likely to develop into the sort of player we need during his year away….and we desperately need some attacking depth. He’s a £35M asset – albeit overpriced – and I just don’t see what we as a club are gaining by loaning him out for free to a club/manager who simply will not develop his style. Either bring him back in January or sell him, okay for a lot less than £35M, to raise some much needed cash….

  5. Unfortunately silly mistakes have cost us again, this time at Spurs. Have no idea what Reina was watching as that Bale goal went in. Maybe there was a deflection, maybe it swerved, but I don’t care, that is in the middle of the goal, and he should at least be attempting to save it rather than walking completely the wrong way.

    Defending on the first goal, poor closing down initially, then awful marking of Lennon at the back post. I think that was Downing. Well that’s what you get playing an unsettled left winger out of position at left back. Henderson a poor miss with an open goal too. Add in a bit of bad luck with decisions and play, and you end up with a self-inflicted loss.

    Rodgers has to start taking the blame for this complacency. Arguably, none of Reina, Henderson or Downing should have been playing, and arguably they’ve cost us 3 goals in a game we lost by one goal. Because they haven’t earned their place. And nobody is going to convince me Assaidi is a better player than either Maxi or Kuyt.

    A frustrated fan again.

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