Wilson: Shambolic Reds must tighten up

ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson examines Liverpool's slow start to the season.

Football News: Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool

By Jonathan Wilson

The worst start to a league season in over a century, coming straight after the worst league finish in over half a century. While there is relief and vindication that the report into the Hillsborough disaster has - at last - confirmed not merely that Liverpool fans were not to blame but that the authorities acted despicably in seeking to disguise their own culpability, from a purely football point of view there would at first sight be little reason for anything other than pessimism at Anfield. With Manchester United to visit Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool could easily find themselves in the relegation zone by the end of the weekend.

Appointing Brendan Rodgers was an almighty gamble, particularly given he replaced Kenny Dalglish, probably the greatest legend in the club's history having won five league titles there as a player, one as a player-manager and two as a manager. Given he won the League Cup and reached the FA Cup final and that many believe Liverpool were astonishing unlucky last season - they hit the woodwork 33 times and missed five penalties; they had more shots than the opposition in 33 of 38 league games - his departure seems to have been accepted with remarkable calm by Liverpool fans and there does seem to a general acceptance that Rodgers needs to be given time.

Yet Rodgers's record is sketchy. He gained an impressive reputation as a youth coach at Reading and Chelsea, and in his first job in management saved Watford from relegation, lifting them from fourth bottom of the Championship to thirteenth in half a season, despite the fact they had been used to a direct style of football antithetical to Rodgers's principles. That summer he returned to Reading, but he was sacked by Christmas having won just two of his first 14 games in charge. 

There was talk of Rodgers going to Manchester City to be part of the backroom staff but when Paulo Sousa was lured to QPR from Swansea he moved to south Wales. There he inherited a side used to playing a passing, possession-based game who had finished seventh in the Championship and so just missed out on the play-offs. He took them to sixth, won the play-offs and then had an extraordinary first season in the Premier League, finishing eleventh. That's a reasonable CV, but it's not an outstanding one and the sense is that Rodgers was approached to be Liverpool manager on the back of potential and the style of football he players rather than on achievement.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course; in fact it's heartening that a major club is prepared to give a young and promising British manager a chance rather than turning to a foreign coach who has had success abroad. But it is a risk. And the fact is that Rodgers has to oversee a change of style, something he has done successfully only to a limited extent over half a season at Watford.

Not surprisingly that is taking time. It is a process that will happen - if it happens at all - in fits and starts, particularly given Rodgers is clearly not entirely happy with the squad he inherited. He sold Charlie Adam; loaned out Andy Carroll; tried to swap Jordan Henderson for Clint Dempsey only for Henderson to refuse a move to Fulham; and has told Stewart Downing he may have to reinvent himself as a left back, something that presumably didn't overly impress in the incumbent left-back Jose Enrique. That's five of Dalglish's signings either offloaded or effectively told they're unwelcome - which is to an extent understandable given they were brought in to play a high-tempo style based on crossing rather than the more patient approach Rodgers favours. 

And that, of course, is the problem for clubs that lack a coherent philosophy: each managerial change brings a new approach, an overhaul of the squad and - almost certainly - players sold at a loss. For Liverpool, whose fabled boot-room ensured 32 hugely successful years of continuity, from Bill Shankly to Bob Paisley to Joe Fagan to Dalglish, that lack of tactical identity must a particular frustration. An awareness of that creates an extra level of complication for Liverpool's board; if they were to have doubts about Rodgers, at what stage do they act upon them given stability and consistency are so clearly lacking?

At this stage it's hard to know what to make of Liverpool's start. They were doing fine against West Brom on the opening day when Zoltan Gera suddenly lashed in a volley that prompted a collapse, Martin Skrtel in particular looking uncomfortable trying to pass the ball out from the back. They were excellent against Manchester City and drew only because of two awful defensive errors. Even against Arsenal they enjoyed long spells of possession but were undone on the break. And they were much better than a passive Sunderland, but more defensive dithering - not helped by Pepe Reina going through a patch of poor form - gave away a goal and they hit the woodwork twice more in the second half.

The 5-3 Europa League win in Bern on Thursday, when Rodgers, resting players ahead of the United game, fielded a youthful side, followed a similar pattern as the game collapsed into a carnival of defensive errors. All three of Young Boys' goals were avoidable. Either Jose Enrique or Sebastian Coates could have cleared before their hesitation with Brad Jones allowed Raphael Nuzzolo to score into an empty net. Juhani Ojala got between Andre Wisdom and Coates to head the second. And the third, superb though Gonzalo Zarate's finish was, came after Jamie Carragher had been outmuscled by Raul Bobadilla and Nuri Sahin had faked to pick up Zarate's run.

Liverpool were just fortunate that Young Boys were even more shambolic at the back, conjuring an own goal from a cross into an empty box, twice failing to deal with corners (the first of them conceded from a cross into an empty box), giving possession away cheaply and then allowing Jonjo Shelvey to run unchallenged to thump in the fifth. Henderson impressed - his lay-off for the fourth goal in particularly suggested a technical ability his detractors deny - and the power of Shelvey was decisive from the bench but in a game of eight goals, all of them from defensive errors, drawing any firm conclusions is impossible.

What is sure is that no matter how well Rodgers gets his side holding possession, no matter how comfortable they are on the ball or how good their movement, the basic defensive errors have to be stamped out. It's understandable that defenders used to taking the safe option rather than passing the ball out, will take time to adapt; what's inexplicable, though, is the way that seems to have coincided with a total loss of defensive shape.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid, Behind the Curtain, Sunderland: A Club Transformed, The Anatomy of England and the Brian Clough epic Nobody Ever Says Thank You. He is also Editor of The Blizzard.

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