Sunday, 20 September 2015

Is it Time?

Is there a time for keeping a distance
A time to turn your eyes away
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day

If you’ve read any of my material before hopefully you will know I’m not one for knee-jerking.  I despair at clubs/supporters who want a change of manager after just a few matches into a new season.  Owners and Chairman have tried to justify this treatment by arguing if they leave things as they are then the club could a long way from their target, whereas making a change early enough means they can still have a decent season.

Being more of your ‘old-school’ Liverpool fan I have always been proud of the patience the club generally has had with managers.  Roy Hodgson was the exception.  He shouldn’t have been chosen in the first place, he was a victim of a power struggle between two owners who were hanging onto something they’d lied through their teeth to gain.  It was clear from the style of play and the players he signed that it just wasn’t going to work and as soon as the two cowboys were sent packing by FSG, they wasted no time in bringing in a replacement.

The club had become a joke and was on the back pages for all the wrong reasons.  Kenny Dalglish was the perfect answer.  He brought the fans back onside and re-introduced a good feeling around the place.  Of course his presence presented many other problems as the club still wasn’t achieving in the League as we all wouldn’t wanted, but two cup finals softened the blow a tad.  But with fans so desperate for success playing at home became a hindrance rather than an advantage.  If the team didn’t score early enough the fans would get nervous and this would translate back to the players.  This lead to another problem when an icon is chosen to lead the club back to the promised land, in that it becomes almost sacrilege or blasphemy to criticise him.  Dalglish went for a short-cut in the transfer market with a policy of buying British in a belief it often takes a foreign player longer to settle in.  He made one big exception, Luis Suarez, who was an exceptional player.

FSG decided at the end of the first full season they wanted a change.  I didn’t personally like the way they went about it, but they were decisive and so they were at least worthy of being trusted in some way.  They were such a difference from the previous clowns that in some way you just ignore one or two things you don’t like in the hope the ‘greater good’ is, well, better.

Brendan Rodgers wouldn’t have been my choice to take over from Kenny Dalglish but he was a promising coach, young and British and in some way there was something about a coach like him getting a job at the top six club when the fashion was to look abroad.  He came in with a reputation for attractive passing football and it wasn’t that long before you could see the changes he was making on the training ground were having an effect on matchday.  Many of us were prepared to give him time, where others wanted him gone after an opening day defeat at West Brom.  Steven Gerrard’s assertion he was a good manager went much of the way towards the time he was given by the fans.

The second half of his first season was much better as things appeared to be falling into place.  Two 5-0 wins and two 4-0 wins contributed to a feel-good factor culminating in a 6-0 demolition at Newcastle.  This last match was significant as it was the first match without Suarez after his incident with Ivanovic.  The play that day was a pleasure to watch as Sturridge looked as if he relished his role and responsibility.

The second season is one which will live long in the memory as suddenly we were on the verge of a League title.  The team was playing some of the most exciting football seen here and people like me were having to think back to the magnificent teams of 1987-1989 or the 1978-1980 to remember whether we’d ever seen better.  The 5-1 destruction of Arsenal when we were 4-0 up in the opening twenty minutes, 4-0 wins over Everton and Tottenham and a 3-0 win at Old Trafford combined to the growing belief it was our time.  When we beat Manchester City 3-2 on the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough it just seemed as if nothing could stop us.  In the end something did and we had to settle for second place.  But we believed we’d found a method, a way of playing and a manager who could take us places.

Then Suarez left.

I always hoped he would give us one year of Champions League football, but as it was he’d already promised Steven Gerrard that a year earlier, and so when Barcelona came in he just couldn’t resist.  Sturridge was injured too and so we were robbed of the opportunity of seeing that team, which had held so many people spellbound months earlier, perform on the European stage.

Two wins and three defeats from the first six League games produced an agitated feeling around the place.  Six defeats from the first twelve matches, along with the limp attempt at qualifying from a Champions League group it seemed impossible not to, just provided further ammunition for those who always doubted Rodgers.

The sixth defeat in the league provided a turning point as it demonstrated how far the team had gone from the free-flowing pacey attacking side we had witnessed six months before.  Against Crystal Palace our attacking build-up was so laborious Crystal Palace found it far too easy to sit back, soak up the pressure and then hit us on the break.  What followed was one defeat in the next seventeen League matches and a run of thirteen unbeaten.  This took us to within two points of Manchester United in fourth and things were looking much more promising.

The story is that Rodgers had spent a whole day and night in his office desperately trying to work out what had gone wrong and how he was going to turn it round.  This is where he hit upon the tactic of using wing-backs and playing three at the back.  It worked.  Teams couldn’t adjust to our style of play and gradually the confidence returned.  Until, that is, we met Manchester United. 

United weren’t playing with much confidence themselves but that day van Gaal had a tactic to combat ours and exposed our wing-backs.  In the end we might have scrambled a draw but it would’ve been more than we deserved.  We then got thumped at Arsenal and our confidence looked shot.  Personally, I could stomach those defeats as even United themselves have had seasons where they’ve finished in the top four with a poor record against other top four sides.  What I couldn’t accept was what followed.

A goalless draw at West Brom and the defeat at Hull City was unacceptable.  Six points from those games would have us two points behind United with four games to go and fourth place would still have been on the cards.  From there the season just fell away in such a pathetic way with us finishing sixth and suffering the most embarrassing League defeat since the days of Souness.

Saturday’s defeat to Manchester United means we have lost seven of our last fourteen matches.  So this is where I believe changing things now is not necessarily a result of the first five games of this season.  Changes were made over the summer but all they seem to have done is make it harder for Rodgers to be flexible.  Intent on a 4-3-3 system he has backed himself into a corner to have to play Milner in central midfield and use players like Firmino in a sort of wide position.  Rodgers has always failed to resist the idea of playing players in unfamiliar positions.  Even in his early days he was accused by loanee, Sahin, as using him in a different role to one he promised.  Johnson and Flanagan swapped flanks to differing levels of success and of course last season there were times when Sterling was utilised in a wing-back role.

There is little doubt we are missing Daniel Sturridge and the club’s insistence of not buying a decent striker last season has continued to plague us.  Christian Benteke looked a good signing but with a flaw Tim Sherwood identified at Villa.  Benteke had struggled to seem interested under Paul Lambert yet when Sherwood took over suddenly he was scoring goals.  The difference?  Sherwood identified Benteke needed support from the wings and now with Sterling disappearing to Manchester City we seem devoid of width.  So many Premier League sides play a compact system that any team with attacking wide players are bound to find some success.  Why Milner has not been used in this role is a mystery, but perhaps Jordan Henderson’s absence through injury has forced Rodgers to use Milner’s experience in the centre.

After a tentative start we were torn apart by West Ham at Anfield.  Fortunately the international break gave time to prepare for the trip to Old Trafford, which is why the manner of the performance is what is most galling.  There was no passion, no spirit and no obvious idea of what was expected from a team playing against the fiercest of rivals.  It was said long ago that buying in too many ‘foreign’ players would dilute the passion of a big clash as those players would little understand the history and rivalry as the fans do.  But many of these players have played for clubs who have ‘big clashes’ each year and must surely have realised, unless they’d been playing in the moon, that Liverpool v Manchester United is one of the biggest games in English football, no matter where the teams are in the table.  Watching the performance at Old Trafford you could be forgiven for thinking these players believed they were up against FC United of Manchester.

Rodgers has been methodical about dealing with past hurdles before and generally his instinct has worked but we’re back in a ‘rebuilding’ situation as we were a few months ago and how long must we put up with this?

It was barely seventeen months ago we were one of the most exciting teams around and even neutrals were saying to me how much they were enjoying our football.  Yet here we are now, almost dreading the next game, concentrating more on where we’re weak rather than where we can hurt the opposition.  Perhaps that’s because the performances this season give little evidence of where we can hurt anyone, Coutinho aside.  The return of Sturridge and Henderson to the side could well see a turn in fortunes and again it could be argued with so many teams beating each other this season, that a club can afford a few poor games yet still finish in a position to compete for a top four place.  Rodgers’ teams have generally performed better after Christmas than before and so another good run in the New Year could wipe out these current emotions, but, and it is a big but, what if he cannot reproduce that?

Of course another of my criticisms of supporters calling for a change of manager is their lack of the ability to suggest a suitable replacement.  You could argue I’m in the same position as it would appear the only credible alternative is Jurgen Klopp.  It has recently been rumoured he is holding out to replace Guardiola at Bayern and so Liverpool’s search may continue.

Any replacement will have to deal with the same group of players but at least they won’t feel they need to be loyal to some they’ve purchased, or determined to prove another player can make it.  Where a replacement could make a difference is in defence.  Lovren and Skrtel seem to be given more leeway than previous players who transgressed, so much so one begins to believe they are immovable.

One aspect which seems to have emerged this season is teams’ desire and ability to play a counter-attacking game.  Evidence of this can be seen in how many away wins there have been so far.  The irony is we used to be one of the most exciting, fastest attacking sides around and yet we’re back to a ponderous build up with only Gomez and Clyne keen to push on.

There is a school of thought that maintains FSG will manage Liverpool in a similar way they have with Boston Red Socks and so Rodgers may well be comfortable in his job for a while yet.  But we simply cannot afford to sit out another Champions League season and fall further and further behind our rivals on a financial footing.

It gives me no pleasure to say this but I think it is now time for a change at Anfield.