The Manager’s Got His Swagger Back
At times last season, particularly as it drew to a close, Brendan Rodgers looked like a broken man. Brendan Rodgers is a man with extraordinary self-belief. He’s suffered setbacks – such as being sacked as the manager of Reading – and heartbreak – he lost his mum and dad to cancer a year apart – but has bounced back from every problem he’s faced with renewed energy, optimism and determination. For some Rodgers’ faith in his own abilities is a stick with which to beat him: he’s arrogant, they say; he loves the sound of his own voice and talks even when he’s got nothing to say.
Yet whatever your thoughts on the manager as a person there can be no question that Liverpool are at their best when the manager has his mojo firing on all cylinders. Against Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium last April Rodgers was questioning himself so much that the Reds tried three different formations in the same half. The Northern Irishman looked like a shell of his former self when he emerged for his post match press conference, devoid of joy and feeling the weight of the club on his shoulders.
When Liverpool lost 6-1 away to Stoke on the final game of the season it looked as though it was going to be curtains for the former Swansea boss. The Mario Balotelli experiment had failed, the defensive frailties that it appeared the gaffer had fixed earlier in the season had resurfaced, and the travelling Kop had turned on the man who had nearly won them that elusive Premier League title the season before. The spectre of Jurgen Klopp lurked worryingly in the background and rumours swirled around Merseyside that John W Henry and FSG had had enough.
Instead of throwing Rodgers under the bus, however, the Anfield paymasters had decided to let him build his own. Out went Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh from the backroom staff, in came Sean O’Driscoll and Gary McAllister to replace them. Balotelli was made persona non grata at Melwood and other characters that Rodgers felt weren’t offering much to the squad were ostracised. It became clear that Fenway Sports Group were going to back Rodgers to the hilt. Liverpool’s pursuit of Christian Benteke was reportedly driven solely by the manager, convinced that the big Belgian striker could offer the Reds the differential they needed in certain games.
If Rodgers was going to fail, went the thinking, let him fail on his own terms.
It has given the man in the Anfield hot seat a renewed sense of belief and determination to succeed. He’s seen his managerial life flash before his eyes and he’s determined to have no regrets. For better or worse, Brendan Rodgers believes that he’s the man to bring the glory years back to Liverpool Football Club.
What that has meant in real terms is not only a Liverpool team that appears to be full of people all pulling in the same direction, but also a manager that is not afraid to have a little fun and come out swinging. When the FA released a statement confirming that Christian Benteke’s strike against Bournemouth should have been ruled out for offside, the manager simply said, “the linesman has made an excellent decision in terms of assessing very quickly there might have been an intent but there is no way Philippe Coutinho is going to get the ball”. In other words, “P*ss off and take your complaints somewhere else”.
The Reds were then involved in another dodgy offside call against Arsenal last night when Aaron Ramsey’s goal was ruled out, perhaps incorrectly. Rodgers’ response to the incident? “His shirt looks offside. Great decision by the linesman”.
Rodgers isn’t in any mood to kowtow to the press in the same way as previous managers who may or may not have gone on to manage England would have. He’s gearing up for a season of seeing the positives rather than the negatives; of going balls out with regards to his decisions and knowing that he’ll live or die by them, but either way he’ll have gone out fighting. He’s ready for a battle, and it’s great to see.
The Kids Are Alright
Most people still think of Arsenal as quite a young team and with fresh faced players like Theo Walcott and Alex-Oxlade Chamerberlain it’s easy to understand why. Yet in reality the age of the team last night was 26.7, as opposed to Liverpool’s 25.3. The Gunners had 5 players over the age of 30 in their team; Liverpool only had 1 – Skrtel. The average age of Liverpool’s 3 substitutions, meanwhile, was 20.4. Jordan Rossiter is 18, Jordan Ibe is 19 and Alberto Moreno is 23. The latter is the oldest of the group, yet 23 is still a very young age for a top flight footballer.
The thing that is more important than their age, however, is that none of the players that came on for Liverpool – no Joe Gomez at right back who is only 18 – did themselves any harm at all. In fact it would be fair to say that the opposite is true.
Joe Gomez arrived at Liverpool from Charlton thoroughly expecting to head back out on loan somewhere to further his development. Yet he impressed so much in pre-season that Rodgers made a decision to keep him in the group moving forward this season. Not only that, but the Northern Irishman has made Gomez his first choice left back – despite the fact that he’s a right footed central defender. The English teenager was excellent against Arsenal, dealing with players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez without any issues. He picked up a booking, yes, but it wasn’t deserved and came from a referee who lacked any real control of the match throughout.
Jordan Rossiter looked every inch like a young Steven Gerrard when he came on to the pitch to replace Lucas Leiva with 15 minutes of the game to go. He settled quickly into the middle of the park in a game that was moving at a ferocious pace, not disgracing himself and making some important tackles as well as pressing and harassing an intelligent Arsenal team.
Jordan Ibe was perhaps the least impressive of Liverpool’s young guns, but he certainly didn’t make a show of himself. He struggled to make an impact in the game and gave the ball away too often when what the Reds really needed him to do was to keep hold of it and relieve some of the pressure on the defence. His performance was a reminder that he’s still a very raw player when compared to the talented teenager he’s been pencilled in to replace, Raheem Sterling.
Part of the business of Brendan Rodgers backing himself includes his decision to give chances to young players in big games. He’s not afraid to take a chance on a youngster if he thinks it’s the right decision and Liverpool’s academy players should be trying doubly hard on the training pitch today as a result.
Plenty of players, from Steven Gerrard through to Luis Suarez, have commented publicly about Brendan Rodgers’ man management skills. Now we’re seeing them in full swing, with players like Rossiter and Ibe determined to repay the manager’s faith in them. The kids at the academy know that if they are good enough then Rodgers will give them a chance, whilst the ones he has already given a chance to are ready to run through brick walls for him. There’s no depending on the old guard at Anfield; the kids are alright.
Liverpool Sign Dejan Lovren From Southampton
In the summer of 2014 Liverpool signed a player from Southampton that was meant to solve all of their defensive woes and make them solid at the back. He was supposed to come in as a defensive leader and take the Liverpool defense by the scruff of the neck and lead them forward.
Sadly it didn’t work out for that player and they’ve been moved on. In their place has come the Dejan Lovren thought they were getting last year. Whisper it, but it seems as though the Croatian international has not only re-found his voice but he’s also re-discovered his defensive intelligence.
Liverpool are now 3 games into the new season and have yet to concede a goal. 270 minutes versus a Stoke team they conceded 6 against last time out, a Bournemouth team who scored for fun in the Championship and an Arsenal team who put 4 past them when last they visited The Emirates. They conceded 10 goals against 2 of those teams alone last season and this time around they’ve not conceded once so far.
A lot of that comes down to Lovren’s up turn in form, but also his willingness to take command of the Liverpool defence. You can actively seem him talking to Skrtel and Gomez, communicating with his midfield and pushing the defence up the pitch whenever he can. No longer is he the confused, nervous defender we saw every time he took to the pitch last season. He’s made a couple of mistakes or errors in judgement, of course, but even the world’s best defenders do that from time to time. His smart tackle when the ball evaded Martin Skrtel inside the Liverpool area last night was just one example of his improvement.
Most Liverpool fans feel that Mamadou Sakho is the better option in the left centre back spot and spent the first two games of the season wondering why the Frenchman wasn’t in the team in place of the previously hapless Croat. Last night was probably Lovren’s best game for Liverpool, though, and it now seems as if he’s winning over most of his doubters. Long may that continue.
The Attack Will Be Potent When It Can Sturr Things UpChristian Benteke has surely won over most if not all of his doubters by now. He is strong, powerful, quick and intelligent moving forward. He is learning how he fits into this Liverpool team and works with his team mates not only game by game, but minute by minute. No one is questioning how he could possibly fit into a Brendan Rodgers Liverpool team any more.
The only criticism of the way the Reds are currently set up is that the big Belgian doesn’t have enough support around when Liverpool move quickly up the pitch. Benteke is doing his job virtually every single time the ball is pumped up to him, winning it so regularly that the Arsenal team stopped bothering to even compete with him towards the end of the game last night. Instead they chose to focus on the ball after the ball to Benteke: who did he try to knock it down to? Which player would be the recipient of the striker’s lovely control and touch? Arsenal let the forward take the ball and concentrated their efforts on the next player.
Last night it paid off for them, as the player Benteke found next was likely to be either a half fit Firmino, a young and inexperienced Ibe or a Philippe Coutinho who was knackered after running the game for 60 minutes.
But what will teams do when the player that Benteke is winning the ball for is Daniel Sturridge? The forward has suffered his fair share of injury problems, with the worst one ruling him out of virtually all of last season. Yet reports emerging from America suggest that not only have his physical issues been taken care of but also some mental ones, too. No longer will the player query the medical staff when they say he hasn’t got a muscle tear, the reports say. He’ll be physically fit and mentally prepared – and that must be a scary prospect for Liverpool’s future opposition.
Philippe Coutinho has already proven in the past that he’s got a good working relationship with Sturridge, and he’s shown in the last 3 games that he’s getting to know Christian Benteke quickly enough too. The latter showed at Aston Villa that, in Gabby Agbonlahor, he works well with a speedy striker who can latch on to his knock downs. What will the Belgian winning knock downs for Sturridge and the Brazilian playing through balls do for defences that will also have to think about the intelligence of Roberto Firmino and the relentless press of Jordan Henderson and James Milner?
Arsenal got away with it last night despite their new look defence, but other teams won’t be so confident when one of the most clinical finishers in the league returns to the Liverpool line up. In 2013-2014 Liverpool were dogged and determined for their first four games, doing what was necessary in order to pick up the points before a certain Luis Suarez returned from a suspension. They then went on to become the most exciting and potent attack in the league. Is there not a similarity with the likely return of Sturridge after the international break?
Sturridge wants to be the main man and the person that his team depends on; something plenty of people expected him to do last season only for his opportunity to succumb to injury. Now he can be the main man but without the pressure of being the only striker Liverpool have on their books, meaning he can be more relaxed in goal. A Daniel Sturridge who is fit, relaxed and raring to go after a year on the sidelines? All the best.
Milner’s The Signing Of The Season
We’ve made no secret here in the And Could He Play offices about the fact that we think James Milner could be one of the signings of the summer, and our conviction of that fact has been furthered by his display at The Emirates.
Milner is not only a one man pressing machine, rushing and harrying opposition players to the point that they look around exasperated, wondering when it will ever stop. He is also a brilliant leader on the pitch, talking players through the game, letting them know where they’re supposed to be and what they should be doing. He plays everyone else’s game as well as his own, chatting and communicating with those around him throughout the match.
Combining Milner’s talkative nature in the middle of the park with Dejan Lovren’s new found vocal ability at the back has reminded us of that age old adage: it’s good to talk.
The other key thing about Milner is that he’s been there and done that. He has won the Premier League twice, the FA Cup and the League Cup as well as the Community Shield. Though Manchester City have been less than impressive on the European stage, domestically they have won everything there is to win and Milner has been a crucial part of that.
When players like Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke look around the Liverpool dressing room it’s important that they see winners, reminding them that they haven’t joined a club in the hope of getting a better move in the future, but rather they’ve come to Liverpool Football Club to win more.
If Liverpool should be involved in a title challenge at the business end of the season – and there’s no reason to believe they won’t be after their first three performances – then how vital could it be that their vice captain knows exactly what it takes to win things at the crucial moment?
Brendan Rodgers has admitted, with hindsight, that Liverpool were perhaps a little naïve in the run in the to the 2013-2014 title challenge. They went gung-ho against Chelsea in a match where a draw would have been more than sufficient – and promptly lost. Could things have been different if Milner had been in the dressing room and on the pitch, telling those around him to keep cool heads and simply see the game through? Would he have been able to have a chat with the manager and say that a bore draw would be enough to win the title? Maybe, maybe not; but he’s there now and the reality is that he adds a whole heap of experience and a winning mentality to a team that needs to learn what it takes to be the victors when the race is won.
There’s also something to be said for this Liverpool team being built in Milner’s image. He’s a grafter, giving his all to help the team in whatever capacity he can. But he’s also not afraid to do the dirty work; chucking in a foul if it will stop a critical counter attack or taking a booking if it means stopping an almost certain goal. Liverpool Mark IV under Brendan Rodgers seems to have all of those qualities, too.
He’s also not a show off. He does the running, covers the ground, makes the tackles, but doesn’t get back up and make a song and dance about it, demanding the plaudits. This Liverpool team seems like it’s ready to graft out results, push opposition teams to the limit and do what needs to be done to win.
The Liverpool team of 2013-2014 was full of energy, excitement and attacking intent, but they lacked the necessary roughness to keep clean sheets and defend as if their lives depended on it when it came to the crunch. Can a Liverpool team with Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge up front, Philippe Coutinho pulling the strings and James Milner offering them guts, guile and experience go one step further? Watch this space.