No happy return for Gerrard

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station www.flickr.com

Steven Gerrard. Photo by: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station
http://www.flickr.com

The FA Cup final will be played on 30th May 2015. Steven Gerrard celebrates his 35th birthday the same day. It will not be a cup winning party. Aston Villa’s thoroughly deserved victory over Liverpool was built on a performance of vigorous drive and aggression, the sort of drive that has defined Gerrard’s career but was sadly lacking in his and his side’s display yesterday.

The game seemed to pass Gerrard by; he was more peripheral than central to the action. All the energy and swagger was in claret and blue. Liverpool turned up in yellow strips with white towels. Afterwards, Rodgers admitted that his team had been “too passive” and that the occasion had got to them.

Ahead of the game, the Liverpool manager had spoken of a return to ‘Anfield South’ referring to a time when the club used to be very frequent visitors to Wembley. Not so much passivity in those days. Liverpool are already lacking in the leadership department and Gerrard’s departure will leave a gaping hole.

Filling it will be very difficult, especially if, as seems likely, Liverpool do not qualify for next season’s Champions League. The team needs a significant overhaul despite the number of players brought in last summer at considerable expense. As a minimum, a new goalkeeper, at least one centre half, a central midfielder, a wide right player, and a centre forward need to be added.

Rodgers started with Sterling playing at centre forward and three recognised centre forwards on the bench: Balotelli, Lambert, and Borini. Sterling is no false nine and selecting him in that position usually signifies a false start. So it was yesterday with Balotelli brought on at half time.

The Italian’s dismal season continued as he missed a header (in a very literal sense – he failed to make contact with the ball), and was caught offside with such regularity that I began to genuinely wonder if he understands how the rule works.

It would be a big surprise if Mario is still at Liverpool next season. Initially I thought that he was probably worth a £16 million gamble but I was wrong. It’s not a good combination for a centre forward to be high maintenance and low scoring.  At the other end of the pitch, Benteke offered everything that Balotelli appears capable of but so frequently delivers.

The Villa forward scored a well taken goal, constantly troubled the Liverpool defence with his power and pace, and selflessly led the defensive line from the front. Unlike Balotelli though, he was ably supported by willing runners alongside and often beyond him.

Sherwood’s side surged while Liverpool looked as though they had suffered a power cut. Gerrard, so often the repairman, appeared powerless to fix things. Coutinho, by far Liverpool’s best player this campaign, provided a small spark but it burned only briefly before being smothered by Villa’s pressing intensity.

The game was a reflection of Liverpool’s season: not performing on the big occasions, giving away soft goals, and not carrying a sufficiently sustained threat in attack. Rectifying these issues will not be easy and is unlikely to be cheap.

Rodgers must invest much more wisely than he’s done so far. Rumours today suggest that Falcao might be a part of the rebuilding work but his travails at Old Trafford this season have been such that he must now be considered a rather risky investment.

Still, he’s a player of genuine Champions League pedigree and those are in short supply at Anfield at the moment. The excitement of this time last year now seems like a long, long time ago for Liverpool fans. As those fans returned north from ‘Anfield South’ yesterday, they must have been wondering what will happen next, after Gerrard heads west.

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Counting up the Liverpool misses

Photo by: Calcio Mercato www.flickr.com

Photo by: Calcio Mercato
http://www.flickr.com

It’s a little late to be reviewing last weekend’s action (Manchester City v Crystal Palace is just about to kick-off now to start this weekend’s round of fixtures) but the only excuse I can offer is that it’s been a busy week including travelling to Europe for Christmas and New Year. I’m looking forward to watching some games at regular times (whatever such times are these days – I remain a Saturday 3pm traditionalist) and to going to the Dundee derby on New Year’s Day (which kicks off at 12.15).

I was still in Malaysia for the Manchester United v Liverpool game last Sunday and Liverpool are still in their present malaise. If a week is a long time in politics, nine months is an age in football. That’s how long it’s been since the two sides last clashed at Old Trafford. On that occasion Liverpool won 3-0 and the score line didn’t flatter them in the least. This time the score line was reversed and while Liverpool could take some comfort in De Gea being man of the match, they were still thoroughly deservedly beaten.

The most worrying aspect of the defeat was the fact that Manchester United didn’t even have to play superbly well to come away with such a comfortable win. Van Gaal said in midweek that he expects performances to improve despite his team’s recent winning run. Rodgers certainly needs performances to improve as Liverpool’s season stutters further into mediocrity.

Liverpool started the game without a recognised striker on the pitch and Sterling was tasked with leading the line. He played quite well but missed a couple of excellent chances. Balotelli missed considerably more after he came on but to be fair, he was somewhat unlucky to find De Gea in such brilliant form.

Mario is presumably now composing a letter to Santa, asking if he can have a goal for Christmas. There may be some debate in the grotto as to whether the Italian has been a good boy or not this year. There’s less debate that he’s been a bad buy for Rodgers and I wonder if he will still be at Anfield in February. I don’t imagine he’s currently on too many managers’ Christmas shopping lists.

I saw an interesting piece on the BBC website today in which Robbie Savage reviewed all 24 of the signings that Brendan Rodgers has made since becoming Liverpool manager. In total he’s spent £206.5m. Savage identifies just four hits out of the 24 signings – Sturridge, Coutinho, Toure, and Moreno – and I don’t disagree although he’s possibly being a little generous with Toure.

It’s a very poor return on the investment made and I’m increasingly convinced that it’s in the transfer market that managers are made or broken. Rodgers is an excellent coach but much of his current difficulties stem from the failings that he’s made in signing players. The same could be said of Wenger over the past decade or so.

By contrast, if Chelsea win the league this year, the most significant decisions that Mourinho made came before the season started with his signings of Fabregas and Costa. Of course the more money you have the easier such decisions become in theory but you still have to identify the right player at the right time for your team. Ferguson was a master at this until almost the end. His signing of Van Persie was practically a title winning decision on its own but he subsequently failed to perform the surgery that was necessary on that squad, a task that Van Gaal is now pursuing with relish.

The other big talking point from last weekend was diving following Chelsea’s rather theatrical performance against Hull. Diving is the thing that I’d most like to see stamped out of the game and the authorities should simply get tougher with it. Personally I’d like to see dives result in a straight red card and a three game suspension. It would be controversial for sure and there would be a few mistakes made along the way (although these could be reviewed afterwards) but it would definitely bring about a huge reduction in this ugly blight upon the beautiful game.

The Monday Post

newcastle

Newcastle. Photo by Nigel Taylor, http://www.flickr.com

Today we’ll take a quick look back at a few things that happened in the world of football this weekend. This may become a more regular feature (part of the purpose of this Blogvember challenge is to try out some different kinds of post) so if you like it, don’t hesitate to say so.

All (kind) comments shall be gratefully received.

I watched two and a bit games this weekend – Newcastle v Liverpool, the Manchester derby, and a bit of Napoli v Roma (see yesterday’s post for why I love Italian football).

As a Liverpool fan, Saturday’s game was painful viewing. Suarez was always going to be tough to replace, and Sturridge being injured has hugely compounded that problem, but the current issues at Anfield seem to run a bit deeper.

I have written elsewhere on this blog in praise of Rodgers but I think his summer transfer policy raises serious questions. Most of the attention is understandably focused on Balotelli (when has that ever not been the case in his career?) but I actually think he was a gamble worth taking at £16 million.

The early signs have not been great but he’s still adjusting to Liverpool’s style of play, he’s hardly played in partnership with Sturridge, and the team as a whole is struggling. His performances have been mixed to say the least but he’s been working hard and has largely avoided controversy (one overly-eager jersey swapping incident aside).

I’m much more concerned by a defence that appears shakier than last season despite some considerable investment in it and a midfield that is nowhere near as commanding as it was last season. The sparing use of Coutinho baffles me.

Rodgers spent some big money in the summer and the side appears stronger as a result. Southampton’s side that is. We took three of their best players and we now sit seventh in the table, behind Swansea and West Ham. Southampton are second.

Lambert, Lallana and Lovren are all decent players. Lambert has not yet had much of a chance (wrongly in my view), Lovren is quite elegant on the ball but lacks authority as a centre half (authority is in short supply across our whole back four and our goalkeeper Mignolet has never had a deep or lasting relationship with the concept), and Lallana looks a little overawed and a lot overpriced.

The Real Madrid – Liverpool game starts at 3.45 am on Wednesday morning in Malaysia. I don’t think I’ll get up for that one.

The Manchester derby was an intriguing game that sparked on several occasions without fully igniting. I predicted in Saturday’s post that City would win and they deserved to. Smalling proved once again that he’ll soon be playing on a smaller stage and van Gaal described him as “stupid.” It’s certainly true that the next club he joins is not likely to be Mensa.

Manchester United actually performed very creditably with ten men and Blind showed that he’s a truly class act. It’s been a very bad start to the season for the red devils but I still expect them to comfortably finish in the top four. There’s so much talent in that squad and despite the desperate start, van Gaal is the real deal.

Roma lost 2-0 in Naples and face a Champions League trip to Bayern Munich in midweek. Bayern beat them 7-1 in Rome a few weeks ago so they’ll probably travel with all the confidence of Mignolet coming off his line at a corner.

The happiest sight of the weekend for me was that of my beloved Dundee United at the top of the table in Scotland. Well played boys.

We also have a league cup semi final against Aberdeen to look forward to. The other semi final will see the reuniting of some firm old friends in Glasgow. Ally McCoist has sensibly appealed for calm ahead of the return of Celtic v Rangers for the first time in almost three years. He might get his wish and I hope he does but I suspect it’s about as likely as Liverpool winning at the Bernabeu this week.

The Rodgers revolution

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Brendan Rodgers. Photo by Geoffrey Hammersley, http://www.flickr.com

Last week Liverpool returned to the Champions League after a five year absence so this feels like a reasonable point at which to assess the impact that Brendan Rodgers has had on the club. It’s been just over two years since Rodgers was appointed manager at Anfield and he’s used that time to instil his playing philosophy and construct a squad that is comfortable with it.

Liverpool last won the league title in 1990. Thatcher was still in Downing Street, the Soviet Union was still intact, and Madonna was atop the charts with Vogue. Later that summer the number one slot would be held by New Order and the England squad with their Italia 90 anthem World in Motion featuring a rapping John Barnes. That’s right, Liverpool last won the league before Italia 90 (my formative World Cup at the age of 9).

Shortly after his appointment Rodgers said: “I find it all very inspiring, from the minute I drive through and walk through the door. You see the little bust of Bill Shankly, you walk in every day and walk past the European Cup.” Here was a man respectful of the traditions of the club and comfortable with its ambitions.

Rodgers was a young British manager given a shot at one of the country’s big clubs. A year later the same chance was afforded to David Moyes at Manchester United. The comparison is an interesting one. Both replaced club legends in Dalglish and Ferguson although there’s no doubt that the task facing Moyes was the more daunting.

Rodgers, inspired by Shankly and the sight of the European Cup, grew into the role, looked at ease, and as if he felt confident that he belonged at the level at which he’d arrived. Moyes however seemed to shrink before the sheer enormity of Manchester United. He looked uncomfortable and hesitant. In fact he looked a bit like Ed Miliband does now.

Miliband is intelligent, passionate (albeit in a slightly geeky sort of a way), and was politically savvy enough to win a leadership contest in which he was regarded by many as an outsider. One of the biggest challenges that he faces is that people really struggle to see him as Prime Minister. There’s something in the way that he carries himself that just doesn’t seem very prime ministerial. Similarly, there was something in the way that Moyes carried himself that just didn’t seem like the manager of Manchester United.

Rodgers does not appear to lack self belief which perhaps comes from serving part of his apprenticeship under Mourinho. The self-proclaimed ‘special one’ walks as though he believes not only that he could manage Manchester United or anyone else but that he should probably be Prime Minister as well.

Both Rodgers and Moyes made a mistake that is quite common with managers that move to bigger clubs, that of taking a player from their former club who’s not good enough to improve the 1st team at their new club. For Rodgers it was Joe Allen, for Moyes it was Marouane Fellaini. Neither has made much impact.

In fact, I must admit to being somewhat sceptical of Rodgers and his vision in the early days of his Liverpool reign. The signing of Allen made me wonder if he could really judge the quality of footballer that Liverpool would need to compete back at the top of the Premier League and while I greatly admired his passing principles there was a spell when his Liverpool side seemed to pass for the sake of making a pass rather than for any more adventurous purpose.

The first time that Rodgers took Liverpool to Old Trafford (in January 2013) was a case in point. Manchester United won the game 2-1 but were far more comfortable winners than the score line suggested. Allen had a nightmare, frequently giving away possession and he was not alone. Almost every time that Liverpool tried to play the ball out from the back – and that was pretty much every time they had the ball at the back – they put themselves under huge pressure.

It looked as though Rodgers was trying to recreate Barcelona but seemed not to have noticed that he lacked ball playing centre halves and Messi. Since then though, my admiration for his work has only grown. He has proved himself to be more tactically flexible than he first appeared, he has been lauded for his man management skills and under his direction youngsters such as Henderson and Sterling have been utterly transformed.

Last season he took Liverpool as close as they have come to winning the title since 1990. The fact that they came so close actually says more about shortcomings elsewhere than it does about the undoubted progress being made at Anfield but it was still a remarkable achievement.

Until very recently Rodgers also had to deal with the circus that is Luiz Suarez and mostly did a reasonable job of it. Perhaps he could have hired a lion tamer as well as a sports psychologist for dealing with the Uruguayan.

The Liverpool boss obviously likes a challenge, how else to explain the signing of Balotelli to replace Suarez. If Mario is the answer then it may be worth re-examining the question. To be fair, his debut at Spurs was impressive and if Rodgers can influence him in the way that he has been able to do with Sterling then it’s a gamble that could pay off spectacularly.

This season Liverpool have made a very inconsistent start. It’s not altogether surprising given the number of new arrivals over the summer after Suarez was sold. Consolidating a place in the top four will be considered a success given the improvements that have been made by other teams, most notably at Chelsea and belatedly at Manchester United.

It seems unlikely that the long title wait will end this year and the return to the Champions League is already proving to be a learning experience. A domestic cup is a real possibility however as is the prospect of Rodgers continuing to enhance his reputation as a bold and attacking coach. He clearly learned well under Mourinho but I’m glad that he appears to have been absent the day that Jose was delivering the lesson on parking the bus.