The dismal first half of this season has seen many people begin questioning Brendan Rodgers' managerial decisions. The particularly poor results of the last few weeks, which culminated with Liverpool dropping out of the Champion's League and then losing 3-0 away to rivals Manchester United, have many fans and even some pundits calling for Rodgers to be sacked. Arguments have been made on both sides of this issue, and I've decided to take a look at the most recurring ones and play a bit of devil's advocate, oftentimes with myself, in an attempt to provide a fair look at this debate.
Argument #1: Rodgers insists on playing under-performing or out of form players to the detriment of the team, despite clear indications that those players aren't working.
Two players get brought up a lot with this argument: Dejan Lovren and Glen Johnson. It's no coincidence that with our defense a shambles, that two defenders get the brunt of the fan backlash. Do they deserve it? Well, Dejan Lovren couldn't stay in position if it was marked with a magnet and he was wearing metal boots, and Glen Johnson appears, for all intents and purposes, to be out for a leisurely, ninety-minute stroll through the park during most games. I want to offer him a nice cup of tea and a biscuit while he watches attackers bomb past him. Are they ideal options? No. Categorically, no. But do Liverpool have better options? Over the course of this season, that answer is less certain.
But - Sakho! you might cry, voice tinged with betrayal. Ah yes, would that be the same mighty Mamadou who has been out injured since September? Sakho has finally begun working his way back to full fitness, but even before that he seemed out of favor with Brendan Rodgers. The last time Sakho made headlines for Liverpool was on September 27th, when he left Anfield after not being included in the squad for the derby game against Everton. While Lovren hadn't exactly been lighting the place up at that point, I think we could all agree that six weeks into a season was a bit too early for the manager to give up hope on his £20m new signing. But for Sakho to not even be included in the squad? Let me remind you again that upon learning this news, his response was to storm out of the stadium before one of Liverpool's biggest games of the season. Not exactly the reaction you want from a professional football player.
And then there's Kolo Toure, whom fans seem to have forgotten caused his own share of horrifying blunders during last season's campaign. Aston Villa, anyone? Even if he is better, on form, than Lovren, the man is thirty-three years-old and in the twilight of his career. He couldn't possibly start every game. Fans who have simultaneously criticized Rodgers for overplaying Lambert but underplaying Toure are contradicting themselves.
And as for our new fullbacks: after a bright start, Alberto Moreno himself has become a bit of a liability in defense, while Manquillo is still a young and developing talent. It's clear now that Rodgers wanted Manquillo this season as a back-up option and depth, as opposed to a starter. Expecting such a young player to consistently play to a high level every game would be unfair. Furthermore, both Moreno and Manquillo have had their chances on the pitch over the course of these season, though not often together.
Argument #2: Rodgers chooses to set the team up in a way which does not suit his players' skills.
Balotelli as lone striker. Gerrard as defensive midfielder. Mignolet as goalkeeper. The list goes on. All season, Rodgers has been setting up the team to play in frustrating and oftentimes downright bewildering formations that don't seem to embrace the strengths or considerable talents of his available players. It's like the football line up version of wearing plaid and polka dots: it flatters no one.
OK, let's deal with this. Brendan Rodgers is not going to drop Steven Gerrard. If he plays as the deeper lying midfielder, then it allows Rodgers to include more mobile, attacking options up front. Lucas may make our defense more solid, but that's like saying adding lettuce to your double bacon cheeseburger makes it more healthy. If Liverpool are going to leak goals anyway, at least they can have a fighting chance up top to score some of our own. If your argument is that Steven Gerrard shouldn't be playing at all, to make room for another player, I'd only point out the team's disappointing lack of goals and consistent goalscorers this season. Please, name another available player whom you would trust to net a brilliant free kick or coolly score a penalty that could mean the difference between a draw and a lose, or a win and a draw.
As for Balotelli, he creates plenty of chances alone on the top. How many times this season have we dropped our heads in our hands after he's missed a sitter? Furthermore, the only logical partner for Balotelli has been Borini, and it's pretty clear that that bridge has been well and truly burned. I think it's safe to say that Balotelli was brought in with the thought of pairing him with Sturridge up front, and if circumstances weren't what they were, perhaps that would be Rodgers' preferred formation. It seems clear that Rodgers, like all of us, assumed that Sturridge would be back from injury much sooner, and so the initial use of Balotelli as a lone striker may have meant to have been a brief stopgap to give Balotelli experience integrating with the team before Sturridge returned. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen any time soon, Rodgers changed tactics and began experimenting.
And hey, you complained about Simon Mignolet stumbling around in front of his goal like a baby fawn taking its first, tentative steps. Well, congratulations, here's Brad Jones. You reap what you sow, critics.
Argument #1: The loss of Suarez coupled with Sturridge's injury woes this season, mean Rodgers has been unlucky and doing his best to find goals within the squad despite these considerable setbacks.
Losing Luis Suarez would be a considerable setback for even the best of teams. Then less than month into what had started as a pretty bright season (remember back then?), Rodgers then lost his second highest goalscorer for the remainder of the year. He bought Mario Balotelli to, as previously mentioned, partner with Sturridge in Suarez's vacated role. Rickie Lambert was also brought in to be a decent third choice striker.
But Rodgers knew about Suarez leaving since June. Sturridge getting injured couldn't have come as much of a surprise either, considering the sheer number of games he's missed due to injury in his short amount of time with the team. Though fans may only see it in retrospect, for the manager to base a team around such an injury-prone player was shortsighted. While that may be doing Sturridge a disservice, as when he's fit, he's more than capable of leading a team, it doesn't appear that Rodgers even had a Plan B, which is unacceptable.
Argument #2: After the heights the team reached last season, Brendan Rodgers is owed more time to try and fix this season.
"Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, we're on the way to glory. He built the team like Shankly did, now kids will have a story."
What Rodgers did last season with the team was magnificent. Through some alchemy, he created one of the best sides in Europe. He looked at the strengths of the side, in particular the brilliance of Suarez and Sturridge, the bravery of Henderson, the blossoming talent of Sterling, and put together a counterattacking team that used all of that to great affect. He proved himself to be a flexible manager, willing to change his footballing philosophy to fit his players. Last season was ecstasy and tragedy, but it made us love football again.
Now, though, it mainly makes fans wonder where that guy is. Where's that flexible, clever manager who is willing to throw his plans out the window when things aren't exactly as he planned? Has he been replaced with a pod person? Or was last season a case of him flattering to deceive? Did Suarez, Sturridge and Gerrard carry that team, Rodgers included, and we just didn't know it? So many questions, and with each passing game, the answers become more dire.
How much time can be given to a manager who doesn't seem willing or able to learn from his mistakes? A reasoned argument could be made that sacking Rodgers may do more harm than good, with the disruption of the team. It could make the team worse. But truly, at this point, Liverpool are out of the Champion's League, were embarrassed at Old Trafford, and are playing dull, uninspiring football. They advanced in the league cup, but drew league leaders Chelsea in the semi-final. Really, what's worse at this point? And furthermore, do you trust Rodgers with another transfer window?
If John Henry could find a promising replacement in January, wouldn't it be better if he or she (ha) had a half-season to get to know the team before making their transfer market moves in the summer and starting over again next season?