September 21, 2014 at 8:25 pm

A Case of Dejan Vu

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Two years into his reign as Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers is facing pressure for the first time. It took some of the fanbase six months to embrace the Northern Irishman after a slow start but having taken over a shambles of a team and operating with a woefully weak and inexperienced squad, there was never any doubt that FSG and more discerning fans were going to give him time. Now, though, having had time and money to shape the side in his image, there is a legitimate degree of expectation born not only out of the side’s overachievement last season.

As usual, ‘experts’ in the mainstream media jump to obvious narratives to explain the early season slump. Liverpool have ‘done a Spurs’, (Spurs chalked up only three points fewer after selling Gareth Bale) or ‘failed to replace Suarez’, when in truth, the issues now are the same ones that have hindered Liverpool since Rodgers first came in.

Of course losing a player of Suarez’s goal-scoring ability is a blow, but when the rest of your side bagged 71 goals between them it’s not an insurmountable setback. In Sterling, Sturridge, Coutinho and the newly acquired Balotelli, Lallana and Markovic, Liverpool still have plenty of good attacking players capable of scoring. Despite losing Suarez Liverpool have still scored in all but one game this season, including two in which Daniel Sturridge has been absent through injury. At the other end of the pitch, however, the defensive cracks papered over by last season’s attacking exploits have widened into gaping holes. Liverpool could afford to lose Suarez, but only if the defence improved to compensate. Instead, it has gotten worse.

Despite the obvious problems, claims that Rodgers is out of his depth and was only made to look good last year by Suarez are nonsensical. Kenny Dalglish failed to deliver anything like the results of last season with the Uruguayan at his disposal, and the improvement in Suarez’ game during his time at Liverpool was at least in part due to Rodgers’ excellent coaching. A more pertinent query is whether Rodgers has the ability to improve defensive players in the same way he has midfielders and attackers like Sterling, Henderson, Sturridge and the now departed Suarez. There isn’t a single defensive player Rodgers has noticeably improved during his time at the club, but that isn’t a terrible problem as long as you buy in quality defenders and are able to keep them at the same level. The real worry is that this has not happened.

Sometimes managers have a blind spot that holds back their overall blueprint. For Rafa Benitez it was an inability to sign creative, attacking players. Mark Gonzalez, Jermaine Pennant and Albert Riera came and went without providing the extra attacking spark the team needed to complement the attacking thrust inherited in the form of Steven Gerrard. Dirk Kuyt personified Benitez’ team. Hardworking and with a brilliant attitude, the tactically astute Dutchman encapsulated everything that made Benitez’ team two times Champions League finalists, but his lack of pace, technique and flair in a position that ought to provide such qualities also pointed to the team’s glass ceiling. Rafa only ever signed one attacking player of true quality in Fernando Torres, and his blistering form together with Gerrard in his pomp was enough to keep Liverpool competitive, but never enough to land the title ahead of Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea teams with more in the armoury.

Benitez was a master at building a disciplined, defensively robust team, but his Liverpool side was hampered by a lack of attacking ingenuity. Rodgers is his opposite: a manager who can spot and improve attacking players with potential and accommodate them into a fluid, clinical system but who seems unable to do the same for their defensive counterparts.

Instead of replacing the paradoxically frantic-yet-dopey Martin Skrtel with the consistent and solid centre back Liverpool obviously needed in the summer, Rodgers paid £20m for Dejan Lovren, who appears to be a clone of Skrtel with added hair. Many Liverpool fans expected any new central defensive signing to partner the promising Mamadou Sakho in defence, but even he has looked suspect when called upon so far this season. The general consensus is that none of Liverpool’s centre backs are quite good enough, but even the most ardent Steven Gerrard loyalists are now beginning to question his role in the team ahead of them.

Even in his pomp Gerrard was never a defensively adept midfielder. Strong running and sliding tackles might give you a physical presence, but they are not what a quality holding player needs. In fact, a tactically aware defensive midfielder should never need to go to ground or make many tackles at all. The role is about reading the game, positioning and acting to snuff out danger before spectacular interventions are required.

Benitez moved Gerrard out from the centre of midfield into positions where his power and thrust could have an impact without making the side flaky through the middle. That was when Gerrard’s physical attributes were at their peak. The Gerrard of today is no more defensively intelligent or disciplined than he was then, and now the sliding tackles after powerful sprints are gone.

During the scintillating second half of last season Gerrard’s defensive aptitude went largely untested. Liverpool were often one, two or three goals ahead before their opponents put two passes together, meaning the reds could sit back and keep possession for most of the game. Now, without those blistering starts the lack of protection Gerrard provides the back four is being exposed, possibly making Lovren, Skrtel and Sakho look worse than they really are.

They aren’t helped by Simon Mignolet behind them either. Mignolet is an excellent shot stopper but offers little else and has gone from not leaving his goal line to evacuating it at the slightest sniff of danger; a sure sign of a keeper being ordered to do something that isn’t instinctive to him. Lovren, Skrtel and Sakho also appear to be overtrying in response to Rodgers’ appeals for them to be more assertive. The result is a dodgy defensive diamond of Mignolet, Skrtel-Lovren, Gerrard at the base of Liverpool’s panicked defence.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In Moreno and Manquillo Liverpool have a quality full-back on either side of the pitch for the first time in years. Against West Ham both Lallana and Balotelli started to show why Rodgers put his faith in them, and compared to the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool have played relatively difficult fixtures against teams who are currently doing well. The new signings will continue to improve and the injured absentees Allen, Can and Sturridge will return some zest to the attack and cohesion to the midfield.

None of that will solve the defensive issues, though, which can only be overcome by Rodgers making some big decisions. Can he drop a club legend and the side’s captain for the good of the team? If Lovren continues to struggle, will he drop him despite having made him Liverpool’s most expensive defender ever just months ago? When January comes, will he finally acquire the quality defensive midfielder the club has lacked since Javier Mascherano left for Barcelona?

The answers to those questions will define whether Rodgers returns Liverpool to the top end of competitive football for the long term, or if last year’s success proves to be a blip for a flawed manager with a blind-spot. Rafa Benitez was never able to go against his preferences to compliment his robust team with a player offering the creativity it lacked. To ensure he doesn’t make the same mistake (a mistake Arsene Wenger seems to make year after year) Rodgers must introduce a genuinely competent defensive player or two to his squad of skillful ‘technicians’.

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