Liverpool – A year of confusion

This was first published at Empire of the Kop on June 1, 2015.


 

It is difficult to understand what Liverpool were trying to do last season. Strange transfers, tactics, team selection, formations, and dire performances led to unhappy fans and a general atmosphere of negativity.

Transfers

FSG have been accused of adopting a ‘moneyball’ strategy despite no evidence that it works in contact fluid sports like ice-hockey or even the MLS. While young players have been bought, others like Lallana, Lovren, Balotelli and Lambert are 27, 25, 24 and 33 respectively. With the exception of Balotelli, their resale value won’t be high. When considering that Agger and Reina went for a pittance, this is not a moneyball strategy but a blend of youth and experience. Experimenting with moneyball by spending over £100 million is also illogical.

It’s too early to judge players like Can, Markovic and Manquillo but were the experienced players an upgrade on the existing players? Is Lovren really better than Agger? Why was a world class striker not prioritised? Were these the players the fans expected to see join this famous club?

Tactics

Our tactics rely on movement but Balotelli and Lambert do not provide that. Lambert was bought as a Plan B but the problem was this meant sacrificing Plan A and a lack of natural crossers in the team made this even worse. When they were dropped, the team still did not adopt the aggressive pressing of the previous season and when they did, it was infrequently and too late.

Team selection

Markovic at right wing-back, Sterling as the central striker, Can at right-back; all that was missing was Mignolet as the false 9. When it didn’t work, Rogers was too slow to change and gradually their form and confidence declined. Can was a success as the third centre-back but it’s not that unusual to play a midfielder there. Bielsa frequently played a midfielder in the back three when managing Chile and Guardiola went one step further with Mascherano as one of the two centre-backs at Barcelona.

Formation

With four at the back you can afford to have a wing-back who attacks like Moreno as long as there is balance on the other side. An ageing Glen Johnson, who is poor defensively, was not the answer. This led to 3-4-2-1 which worked initially but failed for two reasons: there was only one genuine wing-back and Gerrard was playing in a midfield two at the age of 34. This led to the midfield being frequently over-run, left the defence exposed, and a lot of goals were conceded as a result.

Xavi and Pirlo do not play in a midfield two and there is a good reason for this, they no longer have the legs. Rogers seemed unwilling to change and instead of using Gerrard’s strengths his weaknesses were exposed.

Performances

The games against Man City, Crystal Palace and Stoke summed up the seasons performances. Moments of brilliance followed by shocking ineptitude. The manner of the loss against Stoke was particularly galling and it was a shameful send-off for Gerrard.

The less said about the Champions League games, the better.

A season to forget

What were Liverpool’s objectives at the beginning of the season? It was meant to be Champions League qualification but the players brought in did not reflect the quality required. It’s hard to believe that FSG were willing the accept that the season was going to be ‘about par’, not after spending over £100 million.

What does all this mean for next season? That is the question many fans are asking.

Liverpool – The season so far

The spending spree

The sale of Suarez was inevitable the moment he sank his teeth into Chiellini during the World Cup. It was an incident too far for the club and £75 million for a 27-year-old was a good deal. It increased the size of the transfer kitty which was spent improving the depth of the squad to cope with the demands of the Champions League.

The following players joined: Adam Lallana; Divock Origi; Alberto Moreno; Emre Can; Rickie Lambert; Dejan Lovren; Lazar Markovic and Mario Balotelli.

Money well spent?

Most of the signings have shown their worth with three notable exceptions. Lovren was expensive and has so far failed to justify his price tag and is now lucky to make the bench. He is a seasoned international recruited to provide leadership at the back but has struggled. With the emergence of Sakho, and recently Can, it is difficult to see him making much of an impact for the rest of the season.

Rogers decided he needed a plan B when chasing games and recruited Rickie Lambert. The tactic of crossing to a big target man requires two up front and could have worked had Sturridge not picked up so many muscle injuries. Unfortunately for Lambert, he does not have enough in his game to contribute to plan A. He also provides very little in the way of movement.

Balotelli represented the biggest gamble because of the drama he introduces on and off the pitch. There is no doubt that he has talent but is he able to learn how to function in a team? There is hope that bench time will force him to rethink his approach but he has cost the team with insipid performances. He has shown himself incapable of leading the line on his own. However, in the last two games against Spurs and Palace he has shown some positive improvement.

The manager

In 2013/2014 Rogers was the LMA’s Manager of the Year and this season was always going to be a stern test after losing Suarez. The absence of Sturridge for so long has not helped but this is a player with a history of injuries. A forward that was ready to lead the line should have been a priority on the shopping list.

The 4-4-2 diamond formation worked well last year, but it required a lot of movement. For much of this season this has been lacking and it took too long for Rogers to find a formation that worked, 3-4-2-1. This cost a lot of points and while the recent unbeaten run of 8 league games is impressive, they are in 7th place.

He has given players the opportunity to show what they can do but often took too long to drop those who under-performed. The performances in the Champions League highlighted this and were a low point for the club given the easy group. After many years outside Europe’s elite competition, this did nothing for Roger’s reputation.

The reluctance to change the system and personnel has exposed a stubbornness that Rogers must learn from. Expectations for this season were to qualify for the Champions League. If a title challenge is realistic next year, Fenway might not be so patient and understanding.

On track?

Last season raised expectations but this season is about realism and as such Liverpool are on track. The club is challenging for a Champions League place, is in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and remains in the Europa League. They currently cannot compete with Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United in the transfer market. Do they need to? In La Liga, Athletico Madrid proved that they do not need to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Additionally, the long awaited improvements to Anfield are finally underway. One hopes that the club also helps regenerate the local area since they do share some responsibility for its demise.

Considering the loss of one of the best player’s in the world, the club is doing well in meeting realistic expectations.