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.