Sunday, 24 May 2015

Judgment Day

I was wrong.

I’ve written a ton of stuff about Liverpool over the past few years. And most of it has been during, or has covered, the time of the regime ultimately remembered, characterised and visually embedded into our minds by the face of a Northern Irishman who had me spinning at the idea of death by football.

And I admit. I was sold. I was intrigued. I take on board the foolishness of it, lest these words I write now condemn me more than the many votes of confidence, tactical celebration and rhetoric about the Steve Peters effect. Rodgers isn’t the man for Liverpool, that much is clear.

That is not to say he is a poor coach.  That is not to say he had nothing to do with the most entertaining, exhilarating and engaging Liverpool I’ve ever watched in my near 20 years of supporting the club. On the contrary, he was pivotal to it, for both the best and the worst of its display.  @Brenzie said it best on Twitter:

But make no mistake, there is nothing quixotic about the reply that FSG must take to the future of Rodgers, the committee, coaching staff and whoever else surrounds the true reasons for the capitulation of this season, especially in context of the last.  Because as much as Liverpool over-achieved last season, there are fewer springboards better than the 2013/14 campaign that the club could have asked for from which to make a genuinely strong, stable and profound reply.

And that is why – in my mind – I need to varnish the picture of the following reasons why if the current regime remains, FSG make the wrong choice in retaining a man (and whoever else is involved) who does not lack talent, but simply, has run the last leg of his Anfield race. 

Caught between 4th and some Spurs

Before the emergence of the oil money that funded the Man City bullet train to speed past and entrench themselves financially as a big club, the top 4 in England was largely academic.  There was never a doubt that any of Liverpool, Arsenal, Man United and Chelsea would miss out on the Champions League qualification – the debate was who finished where.

Until 2009/10. When – ironically – the capitulation of a managerial Liverpool legend in the wider harmony of his influence, his squad quality and the senior leadership of the club, all combined to allow Man City and Spurs to contest 4th, the spot going to the latter, even more ironically given City’s spending already to that point.

2010/11, while Liverpool were in mutation, the new top 4 appeared. Apparently to stay.

Yet – in 2011/12, Chelsea finished 6th. Spurs with a relatively modest 69 points in 4th.  In 2012/13, the new top 4 appeared again, although Spurs once again missed out narrowly, a mere point behind Arsenal, landing 5th with 72 points. In 2013/14, Man United collapsed, and while Arsenal recorded a very high 79 points to finish 4th, Liverpool chose this particular season (when it appeared most difficult, ironically) to improve on the minimum requirements to land a top 4 position.

In 2014/15, however, there appeared to be a regression to the mean. 70 points was enough to get Man United – a poor Man United – 4th place. 

Now – while the 2009/10 Man City were still building and the 2011/12 Chelsea were in disarray, there is no doubt that the financial prowess of Man United has hardly compensated for a relative impotence of the quality of their team on the pitch in the past 2 seasons. Man United may not make the same mistakes again. Man City may not have a mid-season football aneurism. Arsenal may well finally make the next steps to become the team the need to compete for a title.

For Liverpool to win the title, they likely need under-performance from just about all 4 clubs above them, but only one needs to fail for Liverpool to get into the Champions League and use that as the springboard (consistently, of course) to develop over the long term to increase its footballing operations to compete for titles. 

For 2 seasons in a row, Man United has obliged.  They took their superior resources. They threw it comically at David Moyes. Then at a man who looks very little like the Louis Van Gaal that mentored people like Jose Mourinho.  They spent the near equivalent of Cristiano Ronaldo on Falcao and Angel Di Maria, with both players leaving little quality on the 10 months’ worth of pitches that they played upon in 2014/15. If not for David De Gea, Man United would be worth far less than the 70 points they accumulated in the season.

The 2 seasons before Man United’s collapse, the 6 year points average for 4th place of 71,5 points was nearly met both times by a club with less resources, less gross transfer spend and the complicated management of Harry Redknapp and Andre Vilas Boas compared to Liverpool. Timmy “Tactics” Sherwood was more remembered for comedic jibes in press conferences, but no-one points out that when he had the task of chasing Champions League qualification, the team finishing 4th achieved 79 points, the highest ever tally in the league’s history that the 4th placed team accumulated in a single campaign.  Spurs’ haul of 69 points in 2013/14 compares well to the previous chases for top 4.

With the understandable exception of their first (half) season in upper management, opportunity to finish top 4 has knocked for Liverpool for the entire tenure of FSG’s ownership. All Liverpool had to do was make sure they obliged in equal measure to achieve the points they needed, and to capitalise on whichever rival was allowing themselves to be overhauled in that season.

It’s not the size, it’s how you use it

One of the most important ways Liverpool were going to achieve top 4, especially under Rodgers, was through the correct player recruitment.  Naturally, this is typically a function of resources.  It’s an issue of interpretation and statistical fact, but without revealing my ignorance for the numbers involved too much, the net spend and gross spend numbers still don’t present much of a defence of the idea that Liverpool were lacking in opportunity when compared to their rivals to reach top 4 the past 3 seasons in the Rodgers regime (all figures from ):

I’ll admit I’m not a fan of net spend – not because I’m not trying to undermine the obvious relationship it has to contextualising a club’s spend relative to its total spending power – but because ultimately, gross spend gives you an indication of the club’s willed spending behaviour relative to the talent it brought in.  When Liverpool purchased Andy Carroll for £35m, it stand to reason that that was the price they were willing to pay for a striker to replace Fernando Torres.  £35m could have bought other strikers who were available who would have been perceived to be more likely successful than Carroll – but instead Liverpool ended up selling him as a tall, unwanted peg in the Rodgers system, and an opportunity lost with £35m.

I don’t cite this example to be crass about the risk of transfers. Every transfer poses a risk of failure; but for a club in Liverpool’s situation, one would usually rather not be over-paying for the big, young Geordie who’s had one good season under a very specific style of play.  There is an opportunity cost with any outlay of cash. If you’re spending £20m on Stewart Downing, you’re not spending it on Juan Mata (who ironically gave Chelsea a profit on their initial £23.5m investment).  The margin for error with Liverpool is smaller than with their richer rivals, who can afford a £60m+ checkmate like Angel Di Maria.

Yet, Liverpool has spent £215m in the Rodgers regime. Most of it came in the summer of 2014, following the sale of Luis Suarez, with Liverpool understandably wanting to cash in to address the loss of quality and squad depth. That £215m is more than Arsenal’s £191m or Spurs’ £193m in the same period. The caveat I’m driving at here is that regardless whether you have less or more cash than your immediate rivals, neither position is an excuse to spend it poorly.

And spend poorly they did.  I’m not questioning the resources – I’m questioning the strategy.  There was no sense behind spending £20m, an above average sum, for a left sided centre back worse than the current incumbent; the obvious player to improve on has always been Martin Skrtel. Regardless of Lallana’s qualities, there was no evidence this season or last that he represented a significant improvement on Coutinho or the Sterling we know before contract issues disturbed his focus. Yet the £25m that Liverpool were prepared to spend on Lallana would typically indicate that you’d expect him to be better than both those young stars.  If he wasn’t – he shouldn’t have been bought at that price.

It’s not like Liverpool weren’t capable of buying the value; Moreno hasn’t been great but even if he was to be sold, most if not all of his fee would be recovered. Emre Can and Javi Manquillo represent superb value for the money invested.  But there are question marks over all the rest. Lambert in tow with Borini presented a recipe for disaster given the context of both players beforehand. Balotelli was a risk taken – but in hindsight, applying him in tactics that don’t suit him anyway speak volumes of all the failures in player and recruitment alike.  Lazar Markovic (whom I still defend and still rate) was ultimately signed one season too early and the £20m invested in him represents an opportunity missed to buy an alternative without the need to wait for a player to develop.  And £20m is hardly a small sum of money that wouldn’t find you a player more fully formed.  Chelsea’s valuation of him should have been an indicator to Liverpool.

This is also the drum to beat about the goals. Many brood over the lack of goals in the team, but in Lambert, Borini and Balotelli, Liverpool possess £30m worth of striking talent based on how much was invested to get them. Graziano Pelle cost Southampton £9m and outscored all 3 of them by 5 league goals.  It’s a superficial comparison, but it is also a simple indicator of getting better return on a lower investment.  If Liverpool aren’t able to discern that their current crop of strikers aren’t good enough to cover for the frail legs of Daniel Sturridge, there’s a serious problem with the recruitment strategy and its execution.

The largest indictment of this is again the performance of Spurs, and to an extent Arsenal as well (who ultimately represent the club Liverpool should have been most to emulate). Both clubs have comparative or lower gross and net spends. Both clubs performed better in the past 3 years, save for the one season when a Uruguayan led Liverpool’s footballing blitzkrieg.

Death by football

But perhaps the football can compensate. After all, doesn’t that tell the real story of what fans hope to see on a pitch?  Sometimes the best part of the story of Istanbul IS the fact that Liverpool had someone like Traore in the lineup; it’s not as romantic if Liverpool had a star studded lineup.

But therein lies the challenge. When Rodgers commenced his regime, even if you considered it cheesy, snake-oil rhetoric, his words about possession and death by football at least communicated a desired identify and style. At the turning point of 2012/13, starting with the acquisition of Coutinho and Sturridge, the style changed to something which moulded by the end of 2013/14 into a powerful engine of fantastic attacking transitional football.

But 2014/15 seems to have occurred in isolation of those 2 previous years, and the damage the campaign does to the overall tenure of Rodgers over his 3 years is that while hearts and minds are tentative and tolerant in a young manager’s 1st season, they cannot be anything remotely similar in the 3rd especially after the 2nd season produces a healthy ascent from which to move.  Fans will cite the loss of Suarez but as many factors went against Liverpool, so did factors move in their favour.  Man United’s heavy investment in Falcao yielded the same number of league goals scored by Lambert, Borini and Balotelli.  Man United’s form in the business end of the season since the victory over Liverpool at Anfield yielded a paltry 11 points from 8 games – Liverpool responded to this opportunity with 8 points in 8 games, falling further behind.

Man United even obliged with a poor return of 1.88 points per game against opponents 8th and lower, but Liverpool only managed 1.73 in reply.  Ironically, Liverpool kept 12 clean sheets in these 26 games, more than the whole of last season’s 10 – but they failed to score at least 1 goal on 7 occasions. And therein lies the issue of HOW this team was used and applied.  Are we really to understand that the squad Liverpool possessed wasn’t capable of scoring at least 1 goal to achieve 3 points vs Hull (H), Sunderland (H), Everton (A) and WBA (A)? Or at least 1 goal to prevent defeat against Villa (H), Newcastle (A) and Hull (A)?

I’ve been mocked before for emphasising these results and their importance – but there aren’t too many arguments against the idea that you shouldn’t be heavily focused on getting the points you’d typically expect.  Arsenal have been doing so for years, and while their spending behaviour divides opinion, their consistency in the top 4 does not.

When Rodgers shifted the system to 3421, the extra body in defence came at the expense of another going forward. Less players to attack with. Already underperforming players. Some playing out of position. Some having too much asked of them. But instead of seeing the warning signs against Swansea and Southampton, the weaknesses of the 3421 were indulged instead of the strengths built upon. Players have been misused, or underused and the man who somehow got 30+ goals out of a want-away Uruguayan superstar seems to have been stranded in our memories instead of the Anfield dressing room.  The team’s creative drive was reduced to a tactic that was visibly “just pass it to Coutinho” so often that Swansea, Southampton, Man United and Arsenal were able to identify and counter it with ease.

The irony is the that the brief 13 game run from Arsenal to Swansea that lifted Liverpool from 10th to 5th was good enough to nearly rescue a season. Before the run, Liverpool accumulated 21 points from 16 games (1.31 points per game); after the run, 8 from 9 (0.88 points per game – relegation form). It is incredible to think that over half of Liverpool’s points came in that period – and they were a mere 9 points away from beating United to 4th having played that badly.

Three Strikes and Out

Much of my lamentations have concentrated on this season – and many would suggest it’s unfair.  That may be the case, except 2014/15 reads like a series of doors opened for Liverpool that they themselves stumbled to avoid walking through.  United collapsed, Liverpool finished 2nd, never mind 4th; but were unable to capitalise in full.  Suarez was sold for a hefty sum – but the strategic logic behind the purchases of Balotelli, Lambert, Lovren, Lallana and Markovic simply create climates of uncertainty under which none of them would ever succeed unless they played beyond their current abilities.  Liverpool got a Champions League group in which a mere 8 points was required to progress, with a draw so favourable that it would have been difficult to better it by choosing the teams. 
Finishing 4th required 71 points, and Man United once again obliged to an extent by being largely poor over the season; but Liverpool lost their ability to be flat track bullies, their ability to be inherently creative and to win the games where they had a superior team.
Why is 2014/15 important? Because for every year that Liverpool lost ground since Man United started their redefinition of the English football landscape in the early 90’s, Liverpool (ironically with a favourable rank in resources then) would lament that the following year would bring improvement, progression. Every year is critical to progress, because this league is unforgiving to teams that stand still. 

There are elements of a certain decorum the club chooses to follow when treating its managers and to that, I understand why it would be out of character to sack Rodgers early on.  But the courtship of this 3 year period has left my tolerance, at least.  His first year could be forgiven. His second divides opinion depending on how you feel about just how far the brilliance of Suarez extended.  But to me, his third represents a avoidable regression.

Many fans around me have had different cycles of this journey. Some weren’t convinced by his first season, others saw little of Rodgers’ in last season. Some gave up when Lovren was signed; some still after the poor start to the season. Some turned by the time Man United and Arsenal had inflicted defeat back to back.  Some condemned the poor show in Wembley. Some were hurt by the captain’s last home game. Some (conceivably most) needed 6 reasons from Stoke.

Whatever your personal journey, 3 seasons is a fair time to judge his regime. Tolerance levels will drop when you’ve had time in the job. They’ll drop more when resources are available.  They’ll drop more when rivals underperform (many would be a lot more forgiving if United had played well, arguably).  They’ll drop more if you didn’t use all the players you had properly.  They’ll drop more when you make comments veiled with sarcasm about defensive coaches.

I did believe in him.  I did want him to succeed. But unfortunately, there comes a time when sticking with something does more damage than starting afresh.  The Rodgers regime came with promise – but ultimately, its judgment comes at the equation of opportunity and resource with results… and the imbalance is no longer in his favour.