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On Past Glories and Tactical Dysfunction

Brendan Rodgers had two weeks to begin to fix his dysfunctional side; to at least find the beginnings of a plan. Having instead stuck to the same impenetrable approach, he may not get another chance.

Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Two weeks. Liverpool had two weeks to get things right and an opponent level on points with Leicester City in the final relegation place to do it against. Brendan Rodgers had two weeks to figure out how to get a very talented group of players—the fifth most valuable in the league on wages—to start to look as though they belonged in the top four fight and not as though they looked as though they belonged in a scrap to stay away from the bottom three.

For many it seems an issue of tactics. In his first year, Liverpool had a tangible plan. Even when the results weren't there, from the outside you could see what Rodgers was trying to get his players to do as he looked to port his style of possession football over from Swansea with a few minor tweaks. Last season, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge forced him to reevaluate, and he did, narrowing the pitch, putting two up top, and abandoning possession for the counter.

This season, nobody's quite sure what the plan is meant to be. With Steven Gerrard and Dejan Lovren pinging crossfield balls from their own half—and to opponents or out of bounds half the time—there doesn't appear much intent to possess the football. Yet when the ball does get into the final third, it's often to an isolated striker or winger facing up to five or six opponents with, if he's lucky, one other Liverpool player in support. The result has, unsurprisingly, been toothless.

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When Steven Gerrard looks to send quick, counter-attacking balls fizzing down the pitch despite that both the opposition and his own teammates aren't set up to make it a worthwhile strategy it might, for some, be easy to write it off as Steven Gerrard being Steven Gerrard. For all his talents, patience and consideration have never been his strong points. If he is the midfield general some continue to believ, he's the sort needing to prove a point by leading from the front.

Of all his managers, both at the club and international level, only Rafa Benitez really understood this, pushing Gerrard first out to the right and then into a second striker role even while Gerrard grumbled about being removed from what he and many others felt was his best position in the heart of midfield. It gave him his best seasons of his career, pushing him forward, keeping him in areas he and many in the English game felt limited his overall influence on the game.

Eventually, after Benitez was gone and other had managers tried—and failed—to get the most out of him in a more central role, people revised history to accept that his best years also represented his best use. Just how grudging that acceptance that Steven Gerrard wasn't a proper central midfielder was, though, became clear when Brendan Rodgers moved him back into a holding role for the final four months of last season and Liverpool couldn't stop winning.

Suddenly he was the English Andrea Pirlo, the engine room, the midfield general he was always supposed to have been. And certainly it can't be argued that things didn't mostly work out. Yet it was a rickety, unsustainable kind of working out, because even while his instinctive driving of the ball forward as quickly as possible was helping to add to Liverpool's goal tally, he was leaving a shaky defence exposed. Even with Suarez and Sturridge firing, there were some very worrying moments.

Narrow victories due to defensive breakdowns were common. Against Stoke, against Fulham, against Swansea and Cardiff. There was the defensive collapse against Crystal Palace. And there was Gerrard, focused more on what he might do next to drive them forward than what he was doing just then, losing control as he looked to turn upfield and gifting Chelsea the goal that undid Liverpool's title challenge. He the same attacking player he always had been, even at the base of midfield.

This season, too, he's still that player. Only whether by age or due to mental exhaustion following last season's disappointment and his role in it, he's a step slower. He might be tired or he might be jaded or he might be disinterested as Liverpool struggle along, mid-table and seemingly sinking deeper by the week. In the end it doesn't really matter, though. In the end it adds up to a player who's worse at the job he's being asked to do than last season.

And last season, that he looked at all capable of making a positive impact while doing that job was down to the players ahead of him scoring lots and lots and lots of goals. This season, the things that he does well—the things he seems to have to do—are mostly resulting in nothing much with Liverpool's attack not set up to break quickly and in numbers and few opponents gifting them the room to do so into even if they were. Too often they're handing the ball straight to the opposition.

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It's a situation made more convoluted and, from the outside at least, potentially problematic by Gerrard's continued status and Rodgers' apparent inability to see beyond that status. It doesn't help perception that Rodgers is now living in a house of Gerrard's, making the Liverpool captain his manager's landlord. Yet suggestions that Liverpool's problems are as simple as an inability to deal objectively—and maybe even ruthlessly—with his aging captain ignore the dysfunction elsewhere.

They also ignore that it isn't only Steven Gerrard sending ambitious crossfield balls towards isolated teammates, turning it over far too often and not doing all that much good even when they come off. The captain's efforts are at least being matched by new signing Dejan Lovren, who Rodgers insists on starting regardless of his largely disappointing play. That he's a defender who cannot seem to defend and a supposed leader who doesn't lead is, for many, the glaring issue.

Just as problematic has been his insistence on gifting the ball to the opposition with needlessly ambitious long-balls the rest of his teammates aren't set up to capitalise on. The problem with Liverpool this season, the root of their dysfunction, cannot be just Steven Gerrard being ill-suited to play the holding role in any side that isn't scoring a hundred goals. It cannot be Gerrard because he isn't the only player whose approach embodies this side's dysfunctional approach.

Yet Lovren, as Gerrard, starts every week. His manager appears content with his attempts to play a counter attacking game by himself against opposition that sits deep. And that makes it look like, far from being an issue with one legendary player, this is a systemic dysfunction. After appearing to have a plan in his first season and to willingly embrace attacking chaos last year thanks to having the league's two best strikers, this year Brendan Rodgers appears as lost as his players.

He has also now passed up what could turn out to have been his best chance to get answers, to make changes, and to settle on something resembling a plan. He had two weeks to sort out a dysfunctional mess of a side, yet all Liverpool fans saw on Sunday was the same dysfunctional mess that has marred the past three months. If the poor results and performances continue, he may not get another opportunity like it before his position starts to become untenable.

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