Liverpool used to score goals, lots of them. One of the things commonly understood about Brendan Rodgers during his first two seasons at Merseyside's finest was that he could get Liverpool scoring. Yes, Liverpool have struggled defensively throughout Rodgers' time at the club, but joy in the final third never seemed to be a problem before this underwhelming campaign. Luis Suárez was the biggest difference between the first two seasons and the third, but anyone who watched Liverpool play noticed the contributions of others during Suárez's time at the club under Rodgers. Liverpool wouldn't "do a Tottenham" or fall apart, clearly.
71 league goals in 2011/12 and thirty more the season after. Rodgers' supporters thought they understood the man as one of football's romantics who greatly prioritised attack over defence, and we've seen the lengthy interviews, heard the quotes, and seen many heavy defeats for opposition teams. A goal difference of plus 28 for a side that finished seventh was, in my mind, evidence of progress — something was clearly working. Who remembers a six nil victory away to Newcastle in April 2013? Other sides downed tools and were obliterated once upon a time, not the other way around. It was the biggest Premier League away win of the season by any of the twenty sides in football's most financially bloated league, and such a rousing victory arrived without the suspended Luis Suarez. Even Fabio Borini pocketed a goal for his Liverpool record book. Interestingly, that result occurred in game 35 after a thrilling 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Anfield.
There was the four nil thrashing of Fulham — a signature victory before Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho defined value — that provided a sample of the Rodgers plan in December 2012. Attacks evenly distributed in both flanks with domination of the centre of midfield, high chance creation and shots in the 18-yard area, 4-3-3 with marauding full backs, fluidity in the side's attacking movement, a sweeper keeper, and an advanced defensive line to squeeze the play. Even if Liverpool became more direct after January 2013, the formula in place beforehand simply became more effective and attractive to watch. If Rodgers is set to stay, as transfer bids and links indicate, Liverpool could conceivably return to this system in midfield and attack with Alberto Moreno and possibly Nathaniel Clyne pushing on with the likes of Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Lucas Leiva providing diligent support as well as cover in midfield. More will be be required in the forthcoming transfer window, but many of the players signed last summer can still fit the system that pulverised Newcastle and thrashed Fulham.
What happened to Brendan Rodgers? It's not just that Liverpool have been disappointing this season, but where did the philosophy and identity go? Rodgers has a dossier full of pages upon pages of a formula for death by football, Lucas Leiva scouted for him in preparation to take the mantle of controller, Liverpool's players believed a three nil lead could be extended to six or seven in a quest to significantly bolster goal difference, defensive errors accompanied enterprising play on the pitch, and quotes flowed with abandon. Liverpool had no strikers this season, but should the whole plan have collapsed so drastically to the point where season three was inferior to a first transitional season with more defeats and a vastly inferior goal difference? Surely someone else took charge of the Northern Irishman through trickery or foul beguilement, for if Rodgers was to fail, it wouldn't be like this.
It is true that there were members of Liverpool's fan-base who were not convinced by a manager who garnered 47 points in his first top flight season as manager. Such a feat was never enough for a club of Liverpool's stature even if the club was not as powerful and successful as it once was, and no manager should be allowed to learn without pressure of meeting lofty goals. Liverpool was a place for achievement or failure, not development. Such approaches belong at other clubs, and while this may not seem reasonable or fair, that's how it is at Liverpool Football Club. Not every player or manager can succeed here and that's why the club is what it is. Opposition reached beyond results and style of play for a manager who talked too much and appeared disingenuous, or simply full of shit. He always seemed likeable to me despite his predilection for curious comments and routine hyperbole, but supporters look for different things it seems. Results, however, are extremely difficult to contend with.
Judging by results, the first and third seasons are very different. Perhaps sixth and seventh in the league is what Brendan Rodgers can bring as manager, or whatever a points tally in the early sixties brings you, with the season sandwiched in the middle as the outlier never to be repeated again under his watch. A manager is defined by results as well as style, making the two seasons used to rightly criticise the seeming inadequacy of the manager quite curious indeed. After three years, I'm still not sure if Rodgers as a manager cannot function effectively without good strikers to score goals. One can say that every manager needs that, but that's not entirely true.
The absence of Strurridge and Suárez shouldn't result in an entire plan unravelling so quickly. Building a good side is more than just an exercise in feeding strikers quickly and effectively according to their various styles, and although the great Bill Shankly was correct in appraising the simplicity in football, Liverpool's footballing structure seems fundamentally flawed. Even when a dizzying and unexpected title challenge was made, Liverpool were unable to defend like a mid-table side and ceded midfield control too frequently. A commitment to outscoring the opposition now appears to be a reckless gambit designed to obscure a lack of a coherent philosophy or plan. Watching players positioned here, there, and everywhere with frequent alterations in formation at a club with no footballing identity was exhausting to watch. Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert may not fit a plan based on quick attacks, speed, movement, and fluidity, but the rest of the players were different. They were "Rodgers players" in terms of style and approach to the game even if requisite percentages and relationships with barbed wires may have been beyond them. Even footballers with a lack of attacking prowess such as Javier Manquillo or a dearth of defensive sense in the form of Dejan Lovren could find some place in a coherent framework, but it seems that one does not exist or it has gone on holiday to exalt the wonders within Kolo Touré through dance and song.
I thought I understood Brendan Rodgers, the manager who could make a nifty in-game change once in a while even if he could be slow to react in the flow of matches and realise necessary pre-game alterations that could benefit results. Under-performing players hinder a manager's cause, and that has always been and will be a managerial hazard. Liverpool's sixth-placed finish, however, is as average as it gets. Everton finished in fifth last season with 72 points and plus 22 goal difference. Tottenham finished in the same position in Rodgers' first season at the on the same points as Everton but two down on goal. Both teams didn't reach into double figures in losses, losing eight games each. 21-9-8 in the win-draw-loss column — that's what par looks like. 18-8-12 is not even close, and plus four is a mid-table goal difference. It seems inconceivable that Liverpool could drop so far under Rodgers, and perhaps this is a season that's an anomaly.
Rodgers' teams score goals and generally outweigh defensive foibles. That's what I understood before this season with an acceptance that this modus operandi was sufficient to legitimately challenge for a top four place, even if winning trophies was beyond the manager and his "way of working" as Rodgers would put it. Maybe Liverpool will show that Rodgers knows how to score goals with the right attacking personnel and that's enough for Liverpool to gain entrance to Europe's land of milk and honey, maybe he'll show it elsewhere if the meeting with Liverpool's hierarchy takes a wrong turn during discussions. What I do know is that I don't know what Rodgers really is about anymore, or at least I'm now uncertain about the way forward under his leadership.