Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Crunch Time for Rodgers and Liverpool

This is crucial time for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool.  The club are in a better position at this stage of the season than at any time since 2009.  Many argue if they are to capitalise on this then the squad needs strengthening.

Rodgers has already declared publicly he believes the squad does not have enough depth.  As the season moves towards February and the final 3-4 months, it is now when the quality of a squad is tested to its maximum.

If you look back at the clubs who have finished in the top four over the past ten years, most of them have a better second half of the season than the first.  Take Manchester United for example, and you’ll often find they lose games in the first half of the season, yet not many in the second half – or at least they did under Alex Ferguson.

But as the season goes on squads are tested, players pick up injuries, fixtures come thick and fast, and you’re playing against teams who suddenly realise there is little left of the season and they may need the points too.

On the day of the 222nd Merseyside derby, Liverpool goes into the game one point ahead of their neighbours.  They have many things in their favour for the run-in, mainly the fixture list.  With the exception of Manchester United, all the top teams still have to come to Anfield where Liverpool have played their best football this season.  Some of the clubs around them also have European competitions to negotiate.  But has Liverpool got the sufficient squad depth to cope with the rigours of a season which promises to be a real dog-fight?

Since arriving at the club in summer 2012, Rodgers has made it very clear about the project he is building at Liverpool.  He has a very clear idea of the type of player he believes suits the vision he has for the way he wants the team to play.  He generally prefers mobile and flexible players, who are not one-dimensional.  He is also very clear in wanting to buy ‘potential’, good players who may blossom into very good ones.  Like many other managers, he has been very keen to use the loan system as well.

But there is disquiet amongst some Liverpool fans.  They see their rivals strengthening squads already perceived as being stronger than at Anfield, and they worry we may be left with a situation where Academy players are forced to come in during high profile matches because of injuries to more established regulars.

Following this transfer window has been a little like watching someone playing Football Manager or FIFA.  On these games you can buy anyone, for a price, and then ship them back out if it doesn’t work.  Or if things really have gone pear-shaped you can ‘do a Holloway’ and switch the game off, then start again with another team.  One of the problems with many of England’s top sides being owned by rich people is that the club’s fans just expect them to spend money.  This wild desire for the owners to ‘spend money or leave’ seems to be based on a belief that just because they’d buy their wives and girlfriends whatever they wanted, or buy their kids cars, houses etc, that these wealthy individuals should treat the football clubs in the same way and just buy players, regardless of their potential or use, simply because we might need them.

As an avid Football Manager user I have often fallen victim to a tactic of buying players simply to stop my rivals from getting hold of them.  It is easy with someone else’s money, after all, and these numbers are simply that, numbers.  But many of these rich men have become rich on the basis they were prudent with their cash.  Investing isn’t just about buying things for the sake of it; it is about paying a price you believe to be of the right value.  Any investor who has made money will tell you the time to buy is when prices are low.  But the logical principles of investing are rarely successful in football.  Sometimes buying football players can be like buying expensive cars.  Their price is at its highest the moment you write the cheque, after that the value drops with every use.

With three days to go in the transfer window the prospect of new faces at Anfield seems as distant as ever.  The club was chasing Mohamed Salah, having tracked the player for months.  As negotiations were reaching a critical stage, in came Chelsea and just asked the player’s agents to name their price, then promptly paid it.  Is Salah what Chelsea needs?  Is he even what Liverpool needs?  Personally, I think the answer to both questions is no, but this was a real example of what is happening in football and something it is very easy to accuse American owners of understanding little about.  In American sports the concept of football’s transfer window is completely foreign.  Much like promotion and relegation, and so it is easy to believe these people do not have a clue how it all works.  There is, of course, the other view which says that they are not willing to play that game and will not pay way more for a player than is strictly necessary, and just because there are people prepared to pay that price, does not mean they should.  The Salah transfer is also an example of a player’s agents chasing the money rather than thinking of the player’s career prospects.  It was rumoured the player favoured Liverpool as he believed he would get more game time, whereas he has chosen a club which already has a full squad at the club as well as another full squad out on loan.  He has chosen a club who has just sold a player for £37m because he couldn’t get a game.  It would be interesting to see what Victor Moses thinks of all this.  Since he left Chelsea on loan to Liverpool, his employers seem to have taken steps to replace him already.  An interesting alternative to hot-desking.

My personal view on this current transfer window is that it is very quiet.  In fact, I can see Jim White will be desperately trying to convince his SkyTV employers to show highlights of ‘windows of the past’ as he may struggle to fill his 24hour slot with enough information.  Even his old trump card, Harry Redknapp, seems unlikely to be letting down his car window for some more fascinating insight into the world of the ‘wheeler-dealer’.  Even Odemwingie seems reasonably settled so he may not be trusted to turn up at a football ground near you, hoping for some coverage.  In fact, to highlight how dull this transfer window is, even sponsorship and kit deals are becoming news.

My own view on Rodgers and the owners, FSG, is that they have backed him for a reasonable amount of money already and are still waiting to see a return on this investment.  There is little doubt his purchases last January of Sturridge and Coutinho have proved to be very successful.  Yet of his summer 2013 purchases, only Mignolet has been a regular.  Sakho has looked a good long term buy, yet we have seen little of Aspas, Alberto and Toure and nothing of Ilori, who is now back out on loan.  Rodgers is into his 2nd season of a 3 year contract and this could be evidence of FSG just hedging their bets a little.  Of course, it should not be forgotten they backed the manager in the summer with their handling of Luis Suarez, demanding the player remember he had a signed contract with the club and then when Suarez declared his desire to stay at Liverpool, they upped his salary considerably.  If Liverpool don’t qualify for Champions League football next season then there will be all sorts of pressure on Suarez to decide whether he continues to stay or go, and if he has a great World Cup then he may be more inclined to move on.  His agents will certainly be keen to receive another bonus, having already no doubt filled their coffers with the new contract deal.

This is something I believe football must sort out very quickly.  It can never be right for a club to pay an agent who negotiates a new contract on behalf of a player.  The agent is employed by the player, not the club, and therefore the player should pay the agent.  All too often this results in undue influence and means that contract negotiations remain in the murky, guttural depths of a suspect system which is all too easily flouted.  The days of brown envelopes, or used notes in briefcases haven’t necessarily gone away, they are just being delivered to different addresses.

For any agent who believes he and his client deserves a better contract, they usually use the media to drip information suggesting the player may be ‘unhappy’.  Even Football Manager has worked this out.  You try managing two big clubs in the same game and you’ll find yourself offered players from one club when you, as manager of that club, don’t even know anything about it.

For longer standing fans such as myself we can often make the mistake of just ‘trusting the club’.  Liverpool used to carry out its transfer dealings in secret and you could often question what was the point of buying a young Irishman from an unknown club somewhere north of Dublin, to then find he blossoms into one of the finest left –sided midfielders of his generation.  I am, of course, talking about Bob Paisley’s decision to replace Ray Kennedy with Ronnie Whelan.  There have been countless examples of Liverpool getting many transfers right.  But times have changed, in fact the previous owners saw to that, and with transfers of players being much more prevalent it is all too common to make mistakes.  After all, as anyone who has experienced re-location will tell you, there is a lot more to a move than just a change of scenery.

Has Liverpool the squad to push for 4th place?  If they all stay fit I believe they have.  But that is a big ‘if’.  Many players will be pushing for World Cup places and will be reluctant to be forced to sit out games, but the key to the club’s and its manager’s success is now managing that squad through a crucial period.  Rodgers may be forced to change the make-up of the side, especially with Lucas being out for a while, but he may benefit from players such as Sturridge, Henderson and Johnson all pushing to be the plane to Brazil for the summer.  This World Cup could provide the platform for Luis Suarez to show his talent off to the world on the same stage as Messi and Ronaldo.  Add to that the fact that Victor Moses may soon come to realise he needs to find a club for next season, whether it be his current landlord, Liverpool, or his current employer, Chelsea or someone completely different.  This could all prove to be an ideal way of bringing the squad together to fight for Champions League places.

One final point concerns the manager again.  If this is a test from FSG do not be surprised to hear one or two comments from Rodgers regarding the current playing squad.  Liverpool fans experienced a lot of this ‘moving pieces around a board’ style of tactic when Benitez was in charge.  Up to now Rodgers has been keen never to criticise his employers, but as the pressure ramps up any bitterness he may feel inside if he believes he has not been backed, may inadvertently rise to the surface.  He may soon come to find out the answer the question – was he THE man for the job, or just A man?

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