Alongside Manchester United as England’s most globally celebrated club, the Reds have, as we all know well, slumbered on their treasure trove of honours accumulated in the seventies and eighties. Failed attempts at resurrection have transpired since then, with the league title proving elusive these past 25 years, while United rose to dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson and conquered Liverpool’s prestigious 18-time winners’ record. Since then, Liverpool have still enjoyed success – FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Cup and Champions League titles have all been won post-millennium – but almost every Liverpool fan maintains the belief that a Premier League title is the most important of the lot. Especially since their northwest rivals have leapt on to worldwide super-brand heights, the need for domestic dominance has become somewhat of an obsession on Merseyside.
They almost did it too. Last season Liverpool were oh so, so close. The Premier League trophy was theirs to let go of, and they did just that, thanks most prominently to capitulation at Crystal Palace and that slip from the man least deserving of such a cruel twist of fate, Steven Gerrard. Manager Brendan Rodgers was hailed as a messiah of sorts, catapulting Liverpool to the brink of reclaiming their long-lost thrown while Fergie-less Manchester United struggled even to make it into the top half of the table.
Brendan Rodgers was rightly given praise for Liverpool’s 2013/14 campaign, which saw them finish as runners-up to Manchester City and secure a return to Champions League football. An attacking brand which prompted over a century of goals scored and Liverpool’s worst defensive record since 1914/15, as well as the refreshingly English look to the squad, had fans displaying “Make Us Dream” banners which pointed at hope for future success. Rodgers was lauded with the LMA Manager of the Year award for running his team so close to glory, and a contract extension was agreed to keep the Northern Irishman at Anfield until 2018. If the reader is a Liverpool fan, then less than 12 months ago the future looked like it promised success.
Then, there was last summer. Player of the season Luis Suarez was too tempted by the chance of playing with Messi et al. to stick around another season. Daniel Sturridge was struck down by a series of successive injuries which kept him out of action for much of this season. The pillage of Southampton’s successful squad from the previous season backfired, as Lovren, Lallana and Lambert have failed to fluidly transition into Liverpool’s high expectations, while the Saints have further improved under Ronald Koeman. Other signings have flattered to deceive and one in particular did not even have the decency to do that much – Mario Balotelli’s Liverpool move will likely go down as one of the biggest flops of the Premier League era. And for all their transfer activity – spending upwards of £115 million on nine players – positions that were widely considered necessary in addressing were overlooked. Much maligned Glen Johnson is still first choice right-back, Simon Mignolet has no realistic competition as goalkeeper and the defensive midfield options of Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva continue to frustrate supporters.
From an edge of the seat gung-ho mentality, the Liverpool of this season have been in stark yawn-worthy contrast. They are the lowest scorers of the Premier League’s top six and look set to tally less than the 59 goals they managed last season in the first-halves of matches alone. While Suarez and Sturridge scored a combined 52 goals last season (31 and 21 respectively), this campaign’s top scorer for the Reds is Raheem Sterling with a slightly less impressive seven goals after 32 matches. Sure, Rodgers has somewhat improved his side’s defence, but at a drastically conservative cost going forward, and still not enough to contend consistently with the league’s better teams as recent results against Manchester United and Arsenal have shown. Of course, Liverpool’s unbeaten run from mid-December to mid-March was impressive, but it only served to somewhat counteract the disastrous start they had which included seven defeats from their opening sixteen fixtures. Even fourth place now seems like an unrealistic option, even with Manchester City’s recent derailment.
To pile on the league misery, Liverpool are out of the FA Cup at the hands of a very beatable Aston Villa, they left again with barely a whimper upon returning to the Champions League, and Rodgers is now their first manager in over half a century to have failed to win a trophy in his first three years at the helm.
It all sounds very doom and gloom all of a sudden, given the optimism this time last year. This summer will be absolutely critical, both in terms of managerial and playing staff. I think Rodgers, for better or worse, will get one more season to try and revive the optimism he instilled. However, it would certainly be worth hiring a seasoned advisor to aid the 42-year old, and likewise it would be advisable for Rodgers to put his ego aside and listen to a voice of reason. Mistakes like Mario Balotelli and Ricky Lambert cannot be repeated, while the initial dropping of Mignolet only for Brad Jones to quickly suffer injury left all concerned looking very foolish.
There are positives to cling to still for Liverpool fans. Rodgers is relatively young – he was only 39-years old when he took over the Reds. That means that, if the club’s owners are willing, he has the potential still to learn from this season and emerge from it a more experienced manager. He has also started to put together a young squad of potentially exciting players; Coutinho, Markovic, Henderson, Sturridge and, if he stays, Sterling, are positive attacking options in their early twenties. A defensive overhaul is required, of course, and a proven striker to partner Sturridge and replace the Suarez void, and it is in these positions that Rodgers will have to admit he failed to adequately supplement. As an obviously intelligent man, this season will hopefully have shown him a thing or two about how best to address these problems.
Liverpool, I think, will not benefit much from doing the easy thing: firing Rodgers. What could another manager realistically hope to achieve in the similar space of time as he has had? The media are in a Klopp-frenzy, and he is a proven manager for sure, but Dortmund have had an even worse campaign this year than Liverpool. Apart from him, it is difficult to imagine someone like Ancelotti or Guardiola taking over a team without the Champions League, should they leave their respective clubs this summer. A new face will likely, at best, provide initial optimism while rebuilding the team under his philosophy as Rodgers has done.
Brendan Rodgers has the potential to be a top manager, and he very nearly delivered the obsessive Premier League trophy to Anfield in 2014. Liverpool should give the Northern Irishman one more season to prove himself, to find out whether he can push on and benefit from his mistakes. Otherwise, the Reds will yet again be looking at a new manager, repeating the impatient cycle that has failed them these past 25 years.