It had been clear for some time that things weren’t going well for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool Football Club. In the second part of our ongoing roundtable exploring the sacking of one manager and the hiring of a new one, the staff of The Liverpool Offside try to pinpoint just where, why, and how it all went wrong.
Where did it all go wrong for Brendan Rodgers? The easy answer might be when he lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury in the summer of 2014. Maybe in a way that’s even the right answer, at least on one level. Give him a pair of world class strikers and a holding midfielder whose best qualities are on the attacking side of the ledger and maybe Liverpool score their way to a decade of success on the back of one 5-4 after another. Player turnover is inevitable, though, and it became clear something was wrong by Rodgers' reaction to losing them.
He had a pass-and-move identity when he first arrived at the club. Then he discovered he had two of the game’s best attacking talents and landed on a new identity. Then he well and truly lost his way. If 2014-15’s brief mid-season resurgence had been the point at which he found it again—or the point when he found yet another way forward—he might still be Liverpool’s manager.
Instead, it didn't take long for him to revert to the the ineffective grab-bag that had led Liverpool to their worst start in modern history. So. Where did it all go wrong? When did his sacking become inevitable? March 22nd. Against Manchester United. Liverpool had the top four in sight and, if you squinted just right, Brendan Rodgers had found his way again. And then United won while Rodgers fell back on answers everybody knew wouldn't work. The resurgence had been a false dawn; the manager was still lost. From that point on, it was only ever a question of when, even if we didn’t know it at the time.
I thought Rodgers brought a lot to Liverpool and I was a big supporter of his, but in the end he contributed to his own demise. One of the biggest flaws throughout his reign, one which directly contributed to his sacking, was a lack of identity. Pressing and smart attacking football has been labelled as Rodgers' way, one he needed to return last season and this one. However, outside a dizzying 18 month spell with Suárez, Sturridge, Coutinho, Henderson, Sterling, and Gerrard it’s not something we’ve seen much of.
From "death by football," to rapid counters, to a back three, to a back four, to a 433 that never really worked as well as the manager would have liked, and then back to a back three in a short-term measure to save his job. Far from any kind of a lasting identity, mostly what we saw from Rodgers was one tactical trick after another.
Liverpool's in-game management was also a weakness he never overcame. His side had an alarming tendency to look fragile after conceding a goal or an equaliser. Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho never seemed to get the undying support the hapless Dejan Lovren received, something that borders on criminal. Personally, Rodgers' persistence with Lovren along with dismissing even the notion of a defensive midfielder were the kinds of choices that made it hard to trust in his judgement.
Rodgers' appraisal of players since summer 2014 probably shaved a year or two off what should have at least been a five or six-year tenure at the club, and it was his failure to ever learn from his mistakes and grow as a manager that in the end was his undoing. In the end, it was disheartening to see all the fine work of his first two seasons undone, but the speed with which results and performances declined following the 2013-14 season suggested whatever plan Rodgers thought he had wasn't effective at all.
I have to agree with Chuck in that a big part of Rodgers’ problem, in the end, was a lack of identity. I think one of the main reasons he was picked by FSG was that he could state a clear vision for his style of football and the way he wanted to set up the team. However, while you can see that implementation beginning in his first year, it got tossed out of the window by year two. At that time, he rightly recognized that he had two of the best strikers in the world, along with Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, and he figured out a way to make the pieces fit. Once Suarez left and Sturridge got injured, the whole project fell off the rails very quickly.
His transfer business has been another huge cause for concern, dating back all the way to the very beginning. The problem is that, well, he didn’t get much right in that regard, did he? And the things he got wrong, he got comically, tragically wrong. Nearly handing future captain Jordan Henderson to Fulham along with an extra 7m to get Clint Dempsey made for a horrifying start. Nearly selling off Lucas when the midfield was one injury away from total collapse, when he didn’t have another other defensive midfielder in the squad, and when he was seriously short on established senior players after two summers of turnover was farcical. And that’s not even discussing the disappointing players he’s believed to have chosen himself: Borini, Lambert, Allen, and, of course, Dejan Lovren just to name a few.
It all seems to speak to a man who was a little lost and in over his head, whose philosophy of playing didn’t hold up when he took it from the hypothetical to the real world, and who in the end lacked the ability to learn and adapt. Instead he brought in players he couldn’t use for a system that didn’t work, and then had to resort to playing people out of position to paper over the cracks.
I want to say that where it went wrong for Rodgers at Liverpool will likely be a part of what goes right for him over the rest of his managerial career. The guy was not yet 40 years old when he took over, and perhaps in the sobering light of hindsight, it was always a lot too much and a far too soon for him. Liverpool could in the end go down as Rodgers’ growing gig. But this fanbase has enough developmental talent to root for on the playing staff, and in the end they didn’t have the patience to worry about that kind of stuff with their manager, too. Which isn’t to say he didn’t have ambition and a plan on par with what Liverpool demands—on paper it is always a match. It’s just he wasn’t at the point where he could put it into place.
Specifically, his downfall probably started with the legends. The way the Gerrard aituation spun out, or how Carragher seems to have very little warmth for the guy, or even the way he dismissed Agger. It’s probably fair to say those are high notes of the background music that was playing all along. Carra and Stevie are big characters, as they say, but it’s not like Rodgers didn’t have the institutional mandate to manage them. That was literally his job. As a young manager it’s just that he did that job poorly, and I would bet a few duckets he’d have a few of those dramas back.
The rest of the common complaints also hold at least some truth. The transfers, the injuries, the depth and breadth of the project. There’s more than one place you could probably, fairly, point to where things went wrong. But if you start out with cracks in the dressing room chemistry between your veteran legends and yourself, it must be awful hard to establish your way. No wonder the guy ended up a bit lost.
I had to think long and hard about this question, and I’ve come to the conclusion that a better question might have been, "When did it go right?" The answer, in short, is the arrival of Daniel Sturridge. Even with Suarez, Rodgers just couldn’t quite get the performances as consistent as he would have liked. In his first 21 league games as manager, Liverpool accumulated an unimpressive 31 points with a +8 goal differential. That’s 1.48 points per game, almost identical to the 1.5 he’s achieved this season. Sturridge made his debut in the FA Cup against Mansfield Town and scored 7 minutes later. He made his league debut with the Reds against Manchester United and scored in a 2-1 defeat. Including that game, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool accumulated 30 points and a +20 goal differential over the remaining 17 games.
In the roughly season and a half between Sturridge taking the field against United and succumbing to injury early in 2014, Liverpool accumulated 120 points in 58 matches, or 2.07 ppg. Everybody knows Liverpool didn’t fare as well without the dancing English striker, but the contrast in form is unexpectedly stark. Signing Sturridge (and also Philippe Coutinho) in January of 2013 made Rodgers look like a genius, and none of his subsequent attempts to sign attacking talents worked out. There are still hopes the many attacking players acquired under Rodgers—Benteke, Ings, Markovic—will begin threatening the goal, but the lack of clinical finishing beyond Sturridge has plagued Rodgers over his entire tenure, and it’s ultimately what cost him his job.
That one run of success isn’t just down to one player, obviously, but the correlation is hard to ignore. It seems harsh to say, and I feel bad even writing it, but maybe Rodgers was never the right one for the job. Perhaps it’s simply a case of Rodgers having been able to capture lightning in a bottle when the right players came together. Maybe it’s not that things ever went wrong for Rodgers. Maybe it’s that things, for the briefest of moments, went oh so very right.
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