October 4, 2014 at 2:27 am

Brendan Rodgers’ Perfect Storm

champions-league-basel-v-liverpool_3211295Just six games into the Premier League season Brendan Rodgers must find his way through a perfect footballing storm. Already facing a confluence of issues in goal, defence, midfield and attack, Liverpool’s manager must now contend with a growing rumble of discontent from within the fanbase, as well as dwindling squad moral.

During the Northern Irishman’s first six months in charge the team struggled for results despite playing some good football. Then, Rodgers was given the benefit of the doubt by many fans who could see the transformation he was overseeing and understood that the manager needed time to impose his ideas.

Now, nearly two and a half years into his spell in charge those same fans are becoming restless, particularly with Rodgers’ apparent inability to firm up Liverpool’s defence. At the end of last season only a few defensive reinforcements seemed required to take a whirlwind attacking side to the next level should they hang on to Luis Suarez.

With Suarez gone, Sturridge on the sidelines and defensive reinforcements failing to have the desired impact, what was a team requiring only a simple upgrade now looks like one in need of a complete overhaul.

The myriad of problems begin in goal, where Simon Mignolet’s shot-stopping exploits have given way to comical evacuations of his goal line when a cool head is needed. Mignolet was only ever really a shot-stopper, but rather than improving his ability to collect crosses and organise the defence, pressure to adapt his game seems to be having a negative effect: leaving him panicked and low on confidence.

Ahead of Mignolet, Dejan Lovren flatters to deceive. The Croatian defender has been part of a charm offensive by the club, giving numerous interviews making clear how happy he is to be at Anfield and how much he loves the club’s fans, who would rather he just did the business on the pitch. Bought for his leadership skills, so far Lovren has looked nothing like the icecold centreback Liverpool so badly need. Instead he has reinforced the organisational disarray of Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel.

Further forward, question marks remain over Steven Gerrard’s suitability to a holding midfield role. Like Lovren, Liverpool’s captain is another who is expected to offer a guiding presence to an otherwise youthful side, but who increasingly goes missing when most needed. Gerrard’s role in the team is so crucial that it acts as a kind of keystone holding all the other parts in place. Replacing Gerrard with a genuine defensive midfielder could go some way to resolving issues elsewhere. A ‘Makelele’ type midfielder would offer the centre backs better cover and provide increased control of the game in the middle from which to launch attacks, but Rodgers has so far shown no desire to leave the captain out. Gerrard’s creative contribution has lent cover to his defensive frailties in the past, but so far this season his passing has underwhelmed as much as his off the ball game.

The burden of creating chances seems to be taking a heavy toll on the players expected to coordinate attacks. Philippe Coutinho looks a shadow of himself, Sterling’s sparkling form has waned under the pressure of carrying the team and Lazar Markovic is clearly still acclimatising to Premier League football. Coutinho would benefit from playing deeper in midfield where he can exploit space ahead of him, while Sterling could do with a few of his teammates stepping up so that he can have a rest. Markovic is very young and undoubtedly talented, but still very raw and not ready for a regular starting role. Adam Lallana has quietly impressed more with each game and could be the player to drag the team back into form, but for now the fluid movement between the lines that became the team’s signature last season is nowhere to be seen.

The loss of Suarez has clearly had an impact, although its worth remembering that he would have been suspended up until now anyway and was largely overshadowed by Raheem Sterling during the title run in last year. Liverpool have scored the same number of goals (8) after 6 games this season as they did last, despite the prolonged absence of Daniel Sturridge.

Mario Balotelli is a very different player to Suarez and may ultimately become the ‘Plan B’ in place of Rickie Lambert, who looks well out of his depth, but Balotelli has also had to battle up front on his own in a team struggling to click. With Sturridge and Sterling flooding opposition defences either side of him in the same way they did last year Balotelli would be less isolated and more effective, providing the physical thunder to complement their lightning pace. Internet rumours suggest that Lambert will start against WBA today in place of the big Italian, in turn leading to more rumours that Balotelli has joined Sakho in Rodgers’ bad books, but having played a lot of football since joining it may just be that Rodgers thinks he needs a rest.

It’s easy to maintain squad harmony when the team is winning. A manager can point to results to fend off individuals’ arguments that they should be playing and players are happier to be on the fringes of a successful side than one that is struggling. While many fans feel Sakho has been unlucky to find himself behind Lovren and Skrtel in the pecking order and blamed Rodgers for the Frenchman’s tantrum, perhaps his reaction serves as an indication as to why the manager doesn’t fancy him.

While there are clearly a lot of issues for Rodgers to resolve, some of the reactions from supporters with short memories have been embarrassingly myopic. Just six months ago Liverpool fans lined the streets to welcome the team bus to Anfield while singing “we’re going to win the league”. Now many are questioning Rodgers fundamental ability as a coach and his once lauded man-management while some have even called for him to be replaced. Finishing second with such a young, thin squad ought to buy a manager more trust. This, after all, is still a team that has only lost four league games in ten months, even if three of those four have come already this season. The climate in football can change very quickly, with meteoric highs giving way to gloom and doom, but the factors holding Rodgers’ team back aren’t all of his own making.

Liverpool have had a tricky opening set of fixtures with trips to Man City and Spurs as well as the home derby with Everton. Southampton, who were beaten at Anfield on the opening day currently sit second in the league, while Villa are joint fourth on ten points. Clearly results so far this season have not been good enough but it isn’t all that unusual for good sides to stutter early on in a league campaign before finding their rhythm. With injuries to key players like Daniel Sturridge and Joe Allen as well as several others, Rodgers has had to throw new recruits into the eye of the storm when he would have preferred to ease them in slowly, and he is still working with what is a very young squad by Premier League standards.

And that should be the shining light for Liverpool fans. Even if we are going through a painful period in the short term, Rodgers and FSG have assembled a talented squad of young players who will only improve. Key to that is keeping faith with a young manager who has already achieved remarkable things and shown a great ability to develop talent.

The next four fixtures against WBA and Hull at home and QPR and Newcastle away represent an opportunity for Rodgers and his team to get their season back on track. Nine points from those four games would help to part the dark storm clouds and bring back some of the confidence and swagger that has evaporated away.

Brendan Rodgers must walk through this storm, but he deserves for fans who were calling him a genius only months ago to be patient, keep perspective and walk on through it with him.

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