Manchester United 3 – Liverpool 1. Another season, another poor performance at Old Trafford and another 3 goals conceded against the old enemy. There was a scant amount of hope going into the game but after the final whistle was blown Twitter exploded with calls for Rodgers to be sacked from the club forthwith. It appears as though even the more moderate voices are starting to turn against the Northern Irishman, with no discernible plan on display and no real suggestion that the Liverpool team is going in the right direction.
Here we’re looking at why the shouts for his head are growing from lone voices into an overwhelming chorus and whether or not there’s anything that can keep him in his job.
The Reasons He Should Go
Liverpool were preparing to play against Manchester United and Louis Van Gaal, the Red Devils’ manager, was asked how he thought the game might go. He said “…it will be difficult, but I like Liverpool’s players and they more or less play my system, which I started here with United”. In other words, “I know what system they’ll play and I can beat it easily”. That quote wasn’t before the match this weekend, though, it was from March when United travelled to Anfield and beat the Reds by two goals to one.
You would think that nearly six months later Brendan Rodgers might have known not to play straight into the United manager’s hands by sending his team out playing a formation that his rival boss could predict and knew how to beat. Yet it appears that Rodgers has learnt nothing during the last half a year and his tactics at Old Trafford showed as much.
In every game since the start of the new Premier League season the major criticism after the match is that Christian Benteke has looked too isolated. Fans and commentators alike have made the point that the big Belgian needs some support from his fellow players and that the Reds would look far more attacking if Rodgers abandoned his 4-3-3 formation in favour of playing the likes of Ings or Origi alongside Benteke.On top of that, Manchester United took a 1-0 lead against Swansea at The Liberty Stadium recently when Gary Monk’s men were playing with just one striker in the form of Bafetimbi Gomis. They looked in control and Van Gaal’s defenders were comfortable in only having one man to look after, with one man marking him and another sweeping up everything else.
Yet as soon as the Swans pushed Andre Ayew up alongside Gomis United looked immediately uncomfortable and Swansea promptly scored two goals and won the match. Louis Van Gaal likes an organised team and United’s results in the first three games of the season (1-0, 0-1, 0-0) showed that they know how to keep a clean sheet. But whilst they’ve looked solid they haven’t looked convincing and they have looked positively shaky when they’ve been put under any kind of pressure. To pinch a phrase from Dad’s Army, they don’t like it up ‘em.
It’s an entirely valid tactic to go into a big away game and try to keep things tight. There’s nothing wrong with playing defensively against the big teams if you feel as though you can get a result and it can’t be denied that it was a tactic that paid dividends when Liverpool travelled to The Emirates to play Arsenal. The Reds could easily have scored three or four in the first half and despite coming under continuous pressure in the second half would have felt hard done to if they’d lost the game.
So in a sense it’s understandable that Rodgers might have thought a similar tactic would work at Manchester United and for 45 minutes it look as though it would. Unfortunately, though, this is one of the worst Manchester United sides in recent years and Liverpool’s decision to let them control the ball made them look like world beaters. They let their old foe have the running of the match and didn’t put them under any sustained pressure at all. A 4-4-2 diamond formation would have given Benteke the support he so desperately craves and put United on the back foot from the get go, but Rodgers instead opted for a 4-3-3 that left Benteke on his own to be marked by two defenders and allowed the Red Devils to camp out in the Liverpool half.
It’s easy to be critical in hindsight, however plenty of people were suggesting Rodgers needed to abandon his desperate desire to make 4-3-3 work in favour of getting points on the board. Maybe his preferred formation is the philosophical future of the football club, but if Brendan Rodgers can’t find a way to make Liverpool look like an attractive attacking force then he will not be around to witness it.
The Starting XI
For whatever reason Brendan Rodgers decided that 4-3-3 was the right way forward for the game against Manchester United. Had he also decided that the front three should be Christian Benteke with Roberto Firmino and Danny Ings pushed up close to him then it might well have been the right way to go.
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Instead both Ings and Firmino ended up acting as auxiliary wingers, with Can and Milner the closest players to the Belgian front man more often than not. Ings put in a good shift and was one of few players to come out of the match with any credit, but he’s a striker and will offer both Liverpool Football Club and his strike partner more options if he’s deployed as such. A 4-3-3 filled with attacking players became something more akin to a defensive 4-1-4-1.
Clyne Skrtel Lovren Gomez
Firmino Milner Can Ings
If Rodgers knew that was always going to be the formation he was going to play then why wasn’t Jordan Ibe in the starting XI? If he wanted the drive and energy of Emre Can in the team then wouldn’t it have been better to place him in front of the defence instead of Lucas Leiva? The young German midfielder is still a diamond in the rough and continues to search for his best position, yet this looked like a game too far for the Brazilian defensive midfielder. Youthful exuberance over slow legged experience may well have been the better choice.
Had Can been asked to play deep then Rodgers could have opted for a middle four of Ibe, Milner, Rossiter and Moreno – players far more suited to the job of patrolling the park and getting up in support of Benteke than Ings and Firmino. On top of that they are all quick and full of energy, even if Rossiter is still a little young to be depended on in what is traditionally a high tempo game full of strong tackles and robust challenges.
The players put on the pitch didn’t in any way match up to the formation that the manager was trying to get to them to play. It left different members of the squad looking lost and not knowing where they were supposed to be and caused confusion in the ranks. The combination of poor tactics and the wrong players allowed United to completely dominate the game and gave Liverpool no real way back in once the Red Devils had scored the opening goal.
As for the constant debate over Dejan Lovren’s consistent ownership of the starting berth in the left slot of the central defensive pair, it’s a marvel that Rodgers thinks persisting with him will eventually pay off. In the Croatian’s defence he actually didn’t do much wrong against Manchester United. Yet Simon Mignolet is fair from instilling confidence in the rest of the team and Martin Skrtel has looked to be in worrying form since the start of the season. The Slovakian always seems to have a mistake in him and why Rodgers can’t see that having three dodgy players at the back on the pitch at the same time won’t work out in his favour is anyone’s guess.
Here’s a look at the stats of games in which both Skrtel and Lovren start compared to Rodgers’ own average during his Liverpool tenure and all of Liverpool’s Premier League games thanks to Twitter’s Dan Kennett.
|Skrtel & Lovren Both Start||Rodgers’ Average At Liverpool||All LFC Premier League Games|
|Points Per Game||1.33||1.8||1.73|
|Goals Conceded Per Game||1.38||1.24||1|
|Percentage Of Clean Sheets||29%||36%||37%|
That shows that Rodgers’ defensive frailties aren’t actually that bad during his Liverpool tenure when compared with the club’s entire Premier League history. Yet it also proves that when Lovren and Skrtel start together the club concedes more goals, gets less clean sheets and wins considerable fewer matches.
According to Kennett on Twitter that means that if Lovren and Skrtel play the whole season together then Liverpool are currently projected to gain 51 points and concede 52 goals over the course of 38 games. Previous teams that have won 50-52 points and conceded a similar amount of goals includes 10th placed Wigan in the 05/06 season; 10th placed Man city in 08/09; 9th placed Fulham in 11/12 and 9th placed Stoke in 13/14. It’s time for the manager to abandon his desire to play Lovren into form if he wants the Reds to start winning more matches, else a distinctly mid-placed finish beckons.
It would be easy to pretend that this loss is something of an anomaly. When you think about Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool against the big guns your mind naturally slips back to Philippe Coutinho smashing the ball past Joe Hart in 2014 when the title seemed to be heading back to Merseyside. You’d only be kidding yourself, though. In the 26 Premier League matches that Liverpool have played against the “Big Four” of Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea since Brendan Rodgers took over as manager they’ve lost as many games as they’ve been unbeaten in.
Under Brendan Rodgers Liverpool have won just 5 of the 26 games, they’ve drawn 8 of those games and lost 13 of them. That means that when Liverpool come up against a team they’re supposed to be rivalling for one of the top four spots there’s a 50% chance they’ll lose the game.
When you look at the 15 league games Liverpool have played since they lost 2-1 to Manchester United at Anfield at the end of last season inclusive of that game the Reds have gained 14 points. Returning to Dan Kennett the stats guy says that’s the lowest return from any 15 game sequence in his tenure. It doesn’t even compare all that favourably to other managers and their worst runs.
Only worse 14 game runs in the PL era are Souness (13 in 1991/92), Houllier (12 in 2002/03) and Dalglish (12 in 2011/12)
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) September 13, 2015
Whichever way you look at it Rodgers is in a rut. Many hoped that the summer break and the removal of some backroom staff would have given the manager a chance to clean out the house and get himself back on track, yet the reality is that he seems to have completely lost his identity. Gone is the attacking Liverpool of 2013 – 2014, constantly creating chances and making opponents panic whenever the Reds had the ball. In has come a negative mind-set and a desire to try to keep things tight – something the Northern Irishman has proven to be constantly poor at.
The real question is even if Liverpool turned things around and won five out of their next six matches will it be enough to win over the doubters? Even Rodgers’ staunchest allies admit that the goodwill he stored up by taking the club so tantalisingly close to its first Premier League trophy has all but dried up. How much longer can he keep going?
The Mitigating Factors
Are there any reasons the manager might feel he deserves a bit longer? Is there anything to suggest that Fenway Sports Group will be willing to give him a touch more time to get his act together? It’s only fair to try to look at the positives now that we’ve got through the negatives, even if plenty of you might think that we’re trying to make a meal out of a very sparse amount of crumbs.
The Players’ Performance
It’s entirely fair that Brendan Rodgers comes under a huge amount of criticism for Liverpool’s performance in the game against Manchester United. Speaking of the players’ performance doesn’t mean that the manager didn’t do anything wrong, but it is perhaps only fair that he is given a slight defence in the circumstances.
As we’ve already discussed earlier, Rodgers deserves – and is receiving – plenty of criticism for the starting XI and his tactics. Yet he might well ask why no one seems to be willing to ask similar questions of the players and the effort they put in. They might not have been in their preferred positions and they may well have struggled to get their heads around what the manager was asking of them, yet is that a good enough set of reasons for not being able to pass to someone in the same coloured shirt?
Rodgers may also point out that he wasn’t on the pitch when United had the free kick that lead to the opening goal and he might wonder why no one that was there made an effort to close to Daley Blind; the defender having enough time to line up his shot, light a pipe, put his slippers on and then score before the Liverpool defence even noticed he was there.
The Northern Irishman selected the team, for sure, but he didn’t dive in on Ander Herrera when the midfielder was going nowhere inside the Liverpool box. It was a naïve tackle from young Joe Gomez and exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from an inexperienced defender, but how many people wouldn’t have started him given the way his performances have been since his arrival at Anfield? If Rodgers had dropped him in favour of Moreno and the Spaniard had made that tackle then the manager would have been lambasted, so it’s only right that the defender takes his share of the blame.
Finally, Martial may well turn out to be the best player that’s ever graced the Premier League but let’s not pretend that his goal against Liverpool was world class. Most of the defence had simply disappeared and Martin Skrtel thought the best way to stop him from scoring was to run away from him. Was that Rodgers’ decision? Was his tactical plan to run away from a teenager who had never played in the Premier League before? It seems unlikely.
The criticism of Rodgers is, in the most part, fair. But the players should be ashamed of themselves for the way they played against Manchester United. If the plan had been to keep it tight and to hit them on the break then the plan might have been helped by a group of players that could string three or four passes together. Nobody, from the manager through to the playing staff, came of the match with any credit, and that is one of the most alarming things of all.
Jordan Henderson’s mystery heel injury isn’t helping Brendan Rodgers. The Englishman may not be the most talented player in the squad, but he is the physical manifestation of what Brendan Rodgers wants from his Liverpool team. He is gnarly, snarling and constantly moving, inspiring the rest of the players through his work rate and his willingness to help them out in game.
Philippe Coutinho has been the bright spark in Liverpool’s games for the best part of a year now and there’s no question that he was missed at the weekend. He links the midfield to the attack as well as providing the team with an attacking threat of his own. If he’d been in the team on Saturday evening might he have persuaded the manager to opt for a different formation or different tactics?
Daniel Sturridge hasn’t kicked a ball in anger for months, now, let alone done the wriggly arms dance. He scores one goal in two and is one of the best strikers in the league, only just behind Sergio Aguero and with a similar knack of being made of glass. Benteke worked brilliantly with Gabby Agbonlahor at Aston Villa and Sturridge is about five times the player Agbonlahor ever will be. Put the Belgian and the Englishman in the same team together, with Coutinho behind them and Henderson in support and all of a sudden it looks like an entirely different team.
Of course the reality is that Brendan Rodgers has spent over £200 million since taking over at Liverpool and for the Reds to be so dependent on three players to make them competitive is worrying in the extreme. It’s also fair to say that the manager doesn’t seem to know how to deploy the talent he’s got at his disposal to any great effect if his favoured players are missing. Rodgers needs to abandon his stubbornness over who signed the players and use the best people in the best positions soon if he hopes to keep his job.
The final reason Rodgers can feel comfortable in his position is more of a reason Fenway Sports Group might not want to sack him than him telling them he’s the right man for the job.
The owners invested a lot of money in Brendan Rodgers during the summer. If the rumours are to be believed Brendan Rodgers identified all of the targets Liverpool signed this summer. The Northern Irishman believed wholeheartedly that Christian Benteke was the striker for him to build a team around and the club dutifully paid £32.5 million for him.
The manager also believed that it was time to cut ties with Mike Marsh and Colin Pascoe, the latter being owed a settlement as he was still signed up for another year. In came Sean O’Driscoll and Gary McCallister to take their places, both being signed on to contracts that will cost money to cancel.
There’s also the small matter of the nearly £9 million Rodgers himself will be owed if FSG decide to pull the trigger. Removing Rodgers and his backroom staff and hiring a whole new team will not be a cheap enterprise. Given the Americans had the chance to have a clean sweep during the summer will they really be willing to pay what will undoubtedly be a small fortune to replace a man they thought was the right person for the job just a month or so ago?
Whatever happens moving forward Brendan Rodgers has to know he’s on his last life. If he can re-discover his identity and remember what made his Liverpool team not only successful but also fun to watch then maybe, just maybe, he’ll be able to dig himself out of this current hole. If it doesn’t happen soon, though, the fans will be the first ones to let him know his time is up. Liverpool’s fans are extremely loyal but once you lose their faith there’s very rarely time to recover.