One of the most common phrases used with respect to Liverpool over the past few seasons involves “turning the corner” – that moment when a run of poor results is finally ended and the club begins to move only forwards thereafter. After every couple of games “We’ve turned the corner!” was trotted out, only to be followed within a few weeks by “Just another false dawn” when referring to the same moment in time. The question is: after three years of failing to do so, will Liverpool ever “turn the corner”? I’m beginning to suspect the answer is “no”; or at least not in the expected fashion.
Previously I highlighted the importance of the game at West Ham both in terms of catapulting us back into the top 10 and in terms of reducing the gap to the Champions’ League places. Liverpool duly won that game, and did it in a style that would have enhanced reputations as they lost the lead, went in down at halftime, but scored two second half goals within a matter of minutes to knockout the home side. If ever there was a moment when the club turned the corner this season, this was it. And yet in the following match we lost 3-1 at Anfield to Aston Villa, a side that went on to concede 15 goals without reply in their next three fixtures. It was the first time in more than two decades that Liverpool had fallen 3 goals behind at home against a club that wasn’t the defending champion. Another false dawn…
My thoughts over that defeat, and the hit-and-miss manner of the games that immediately followed it, is that it occurred precisely because everyone thought we’d turned the corner. Rodgers over-reacted to the win; suddenly the manager believed the football was perfect, that we could challenge for more than just top 4. Complacency set in and hasn’t left, as demonstrated by the lacklustre second half against QPR. I feel that if everyone stopped looking for that big win, that big game when we really boss the opponent, and rather concentrated on understanding that progress this season was only ever going to be measured in small steps, the ultimate effect of which could only ever be grasped once the season ended, then Liverpool would already have turned the corner.
Although we have not played last season’s top 3 clubs during our last 15 EPL matches, Liverpool are not far off a “pace” set by typical top 4 clubs in recent times. During those 15 games Liverpool have scored 21 points; only the Manchester clubs have more. That’s 1.73 points per game, which when extrapolated over a 38 game season is 66 points – enough for 5th place. We have travelled to Chelsea, Everton, Stoke, and Spurs in that time, so one can’t say it’s been a cakewalk. We have also picked up 7 clean sheets, which is less than 1 short of Liverpool at their best under Benitez, and Liverpool under Benitez were at their best defensively since Liverpool last won the top division.
Furthermore, of the 10 games against the clubs in the bottom half of the table Liverpool won 7, drew 2 and lost 1 (to Villa). This is uncommonly good against “the clubs Liverpool should beat”, and suggests that tactically we really are able to dominate a weaker side. It is clear therefore that where we have struggled is against the better sides in the league (rather than having mixed fortunes against both halves of the table), and this can easily be explained by a lack of goals in the squad, a lack of experienced players in key positions, and the simple fact that we played all the hard fixtures at a time when everything about the system was new.
It will be telling how Liverpool react over the next 6 games to the same set of 6 fixtures as we had at the start of the season, just with the order slightly muddled and home/away swapped. United are more clinical but no better in defence, City seem to be struggling (as they have all season), and Arsenal are on the up. Conversely Sunderland are battling, WBA are on a slide, and Norwich seem to have lost their mid-season form. The suggestion is that Liverpool should pick up far more than the 5 points we got at the start of the season against these clubs, even if we get nothing from the “big 3” away fixtures. Do that, and remain as clinical against the clubs in the bottom half as in the first half of the season, with all those top 6 challenger clubs due to visit Anfield rather than face us in the comfort of home, and Liverpool could maintain 1.73 or more points per game for the remainder of the season.
That would still leave us shy of 4th place, mind you, so it’s not all roses under Rodgers. He must stamp out this complacent attitude, he must get the squad to return to being compact and alert at the back, he must get the players to remember to press the opposition when they have the ball, and he must buy another source of goals. A word or two to Mike Riley to keep the officials honest wouldn’t go amiss either; groups dedicated to monitoring “dubious decisions” suggest Liverpool have been harmed by between 5 and 11 points due to poor officiating alone, with the gaps to 3rd and 5th standing at 10 and 5 points respectively at the time of writing.
Rodgers seems to me to be a sensible fellow who “gets” Liverpool, attributes not possessed in great quantity by most managers who could have been hired in his stead (and some of whom have been at the helm). But I cannot help the feeling that he has not yet fully grasped what it means to be the manager of Liverpool FC, that like his squad he is raw and therefore likely to make mistakes more experienced managers would instinctively avoid. FSG’s plan of having a young manager and a young squad is virtuous, but it overlooks the risks of removing experience from a project in its infancy. They wanted an old hand to act as a Director of Football, someone to guide the manager as well as take some pressure off him, but Rodgers refused to work under someone like Louis van Gaal or Txiki Begiristian, the latter who now holds that role at Manchester City much to Mancini’s chagrin. It would also seem that FSG’s decision to scrap the DoF role caused Pep Segura’s resignation; a man Liverpool really should have held onto.
While I can accept that Rodgers refused to play a system developed by another man rather than following his own instincts in a system he has already used for several years, Liverpool finds itself in the unusual position of being essentially a club new to the Premier League, though with a squad valued 4th highest. One cannot get rawer than new owners, an MD who has never held such a role, a new manager, a new scouting department, a new manager at youth level, and a squad with an average age below 23 where several key members are in their teens. “You won’t win anything with kids” – that’s basically all we’ve got, everywhere.
And yet despite all that our 15-game form suggests we will indeed finish in the Europa League places, which would be seen as a success even should we lift no silverware. The sacking of Dalglish last season proved one thing: finishing in the top 4 in the EPL is more important than domestic cups. This season was never going to be easy, with practically everyone gaining new experience in their roles every day. So it seems to me that we will only realise we have turned the corner with hindsight, unable to pinpoint exactly when it happened.