After waiting five long years to make it back into the Champions League, after being handed about the best group stage draw they could have realistically hoped for, Liverpool are out. Their final ten minutes against FC Basel aside, to call it a whimper of a European campaign would be generous. Six games played; five goals scored. One win. And now back to the Europa League.
Of course, based on their league form, even the Europa League knockout stages that Liverpool are now being dropped into may be above this side's level of competition. Plenty will throw out easy excuses about having lost half the club's goals from last season, but Liverpool still have the Premier League's fifth most expensive squad. They have spent over £100M net since Brendan Rodgers arrived.
Yet of the 11 players who started the match last night, seven of them pre-dated Rodgers' tenure. Of the four Rodgers buys that did start, an exhausted, 32-year-old Rickie Lambert was only on the pitch at kickoff—for the sixth time in two and a half weeks—because there were no options Rodgers was willing to seriously consider. Including one of his very first signings, the £12M Fabio Borini.
Losing Luis Suarez was always going to be a blow, and Daniel Sturridge having turned from the top English striker in the league last season into a player cannot truly be counted on to be involved at all this season due to his injury struggles has made matters worse. But this isn't a side that should be given a free pass for looking second best to FC Basel at home for 75 minutes in a decisive European match.
This isn't a side that gets to shrug off that four months into the season it continues to look bereft of ideas in attack, defence, and possession as nothing more than a losing Luis Suarez problem. It can't be all thanks to Sturridge's injuries that with the campaign almost half-way through, the players still spend the majority of every match looking disjointed, playing as though they are complete strangers.
There isn't any clear answer as to what comes next, and there rather worryingly appears to be no goal or ideal that this Liverpool side are working towards. In Rodgers' first season at the club there was a clear method, an ideal and goals that were being worked towards even if the results didn't always follow. This year there is only a disjointed collection of strangers lacking in any kind of a common purpose.
With four months gone, there's really nothing that can be pointed to on the pitch to rationally, reasonably suggest that things will—that things even can—get better. What slivers of hope might have been desperately grasped onto in recent weeks have begun to slip away again. Players have been over-played; opportunities to rotate have been refused; promising performances have been ignored.
Emre Can was Liverpool's best performer against Chelsea in November but he hasn't seen the pitch since, and that meant that last night Lucas Leiva played his fifth game in two weeks after having hardly played a minute all season. It was, not entirely surprisingly, his worst performance in that stretch, and one wonders why there couldn't have been a place for Can in his stead against either Leicester or Sunderland.
One wonders why there wasn't a place for Fabio Borini against one of those two, either. Borini might not be a world class striker, but Rodgers' insistence that he has no place even on the bench in recent weeks appears a case of the manager cutting off his nose to spite his face, and that apparent annoyance at Borini having refused a transfer last summer now seems to have played a major role in Liverpool's failures.
There isn't any positive way to spin it, and not even Steven Gerrard's wonder-strike or Liverpool's late push against Basel can cover it over. Rodgers has started the past six matches—six matches in less than three weeks—with a 32-year-old striker who hadn't played regularly before then and no striker option on the bench. In doing so, he may well have cost Liverpool a spot in the knockout rounds.
Meanwhile, despite being Liverpool's best creative player in limited minutes in recent weeks, despite being a hard worker player without the ball, and despite being the Rodgers' big summer signing, Adam Lallana found himself once again on the bench. One has to wonder what's going through the midfielder's mind at this point. It probably has something to do with wishing he was back at Southampton.
Lallana, like Can, hasn't put a foot wrong on the pitch for Liverpool when given the chance. When given the chance he has consistently impressed. And he's shown he's more than just a flashy attacking player; that he's a player more than willing to track back and fight for possession. In a must-win match to keep Liverpool's Champions League dreams alive, it's nearly unforgivable that he was left out entirely.
There are no answers. Just a frustratingly long list of questions and what seems a rudderless, directionless side. A manager who last season had supporters singing his name now, four months into the new season, still doesn't know what his best eleven is. Players have been frozen out to the detriment of the side. And there is little beyond irrational hope to suggest things are going to suddenly get better.
Yet as frustrating and disappointing as the situation is, and as frustrating as some of Rodgers' actions have been, it's worth remembering that Liverpool as a club have been in this position before in recent years. Good managers have been driven out by poor runs of form, and rather than providing some kind of miraculous, instant fix, it has only led to greater struggles and new rebuilding cycles.
No managerial superstar is going to be available to replace Rodgers mid-season, and Liverpool need close to title winning form from here on to have a chance of making the top four. No interim or warmed over, out of work replacement will deliver that. Plus Rodgers remains a hugely promising young manager, one who is still learning—if further from being the finished article than fans had hoped.
Jurgen Klopp isn't walking in the door at Melwood on Christmas morning, and gambling on the likes of Andre Villas Boas would be a lateral move at best. Which should give Rodgers, despite the frustrations of this season and some of the inexplicable decisions that have been made, the chance to get things right. It's not where the club or fans started the season, but it's the reality of where they are now.
Rodgers has made mistakes and barring an absolute miracle run, Liverpool's league season is as over today as their Champions League campaign. Feeling frustrated by that, by how the season has unfolded, is only natural. Acting on that frustration and pushing for Rodgers to be ousted, though, isn't going to suddenly solve Liverpool's ills. At least not in time for it to make much of a difference.
For his youth, for his promise as a manager, and for the success of last season, he deserves at least the rest of the season to find his way. There's a world class manager there somewhere, and cutting him lose mid-term when there's little realistically for the club to gain from it would be nothing more than a foolish, knee-jerk reaction. It's time to stick it out. And to hope he can come good.