Liverpool: All bark, no bite this season

Liverpool had an unsteady campaign that promised much but delivered little in the end.

Liverpool fans
Suhas Bhat

By Suhas Bhat

Come the start of the season, all those at Anfield were in high spirits following the appointment of Brendan Rodgers who promised the stylish play that had been a hallmark during his tenure at Swansea.

A new striker in Fabio Borini as well as a supposed passing maestro in Joe Allen made the annual hopes of achieving qualification to the Champions League as well a return to the elite of English football seem less fanciful than usual.

However, just one win against a side from the top six and a second successive finish behind Everton - the first time that has happened since 1937 - makes one think that a so-called season of transition ended up bordering into the realm of regression instead.

And as it often happens, everything unravelled from the start. 

The Reds collected just three wins in the first three months, Borini picked up an injury in October (making the decision to send Andy Carroll on loan to West Ham appear silly), the side stumbled to defeats against lowly Stoke, Aston Villa and West Brom (twice) and became overly reliant on the loose cannon that is Luis Suarez.

That the Uruguayan fired more often than in the past and carried the team's goalscoring burden largely on his own cannot be denied. But the forward, who will likely miss the first two months of the coming season after inexplicably biting Branislav Ivanovic's arm during a league fixture, has shown that he's far from the talisman a club of Liverpool's stature needs to fight its way back to the top.

Indeed, the only positives fans can cling onto have been the performances of the clubs' January buys - the dynamic Daniel Sturridge and the precocious Philippe Coutinho.

A lot of the blame can, and should, be placed on Rodgers' shoulders. The Northern Irishman appears ignorant of his managerial deficiencies and lives perennially in the future, dwelling always on the need to bring new players in the upcoming summer transfer window. 

His muddle-headed approach was best exemplified by the infamous envelope trick in October when he highlighted three unrevealed names that he believed would let the squad down over the course of the season. 

It was a leaf out of the Sir Alex Ferguson manual of managerial tactics - the Scot did the same thing two decades ago - but one that increasingly began to resemble a cheap party trick as the season wore on.   

Impressive passing, wrong players

It is heartening to see Liverpool play a possession-based brand of football that makes for pleasant viewing but it's apparent that the system does not suit many players.

Allen was never the chief orchestrator in attack for the Swans and has largely confined himself to recycling possession, taking up the role that previously Steven Gerrard played effectively.

The likes of Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, Jonjo Shelvey lack the quick intelligence required to make a one-touch passing regime work and replacing an entire midfield, as Rodgers seems keen to do, is an expensive, time-consuming affair with no guarantees of actually working. It appears suited to video games than real life football. 

Technically gifted players do not come cheap and Rodgers should have worked with what was available. Shipping out the likes of Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez, the duo being two of the best performers last year, was an unwise call - one that left the Reds with few options in the wide areas. 

Of course, many believe that Liverpool improved on the attacking front with a greater number of shots, chances created and improved possession stats. But while the players are definitely capable of passing the ball around with finesse in the middle, they often lose possession in the final third.

Even though it appears otherwise, there's no doubt that the individual brilliance of Coutinho, Suarez and Gerrard, rather than any tactical masterstrokes, led to most of Liverpool's goals this season.

A failure to build from the back

But individual brilliance or not, Liverpool at least had enough firepower to get the goals this season - only United, Chelsea and Arsenal scored more.

The defence, on the other hand, was clearly in need of attention as Sebastian Coates could not live up to the demands of the Premier League while Pepe Reina committed costly errors on an alarmingly regular basis. 

Rodgers' response was to bench Jamie Carragher, believing the veteran's lack of pace was responsible for the defensive sloppiness, a surprising move that he eventually had to backtrack on. Ever since the 5-0 drubbing of Norwich in January, Carragher has been ever-present in defence, helping Reina double his clean sheets tally over the period. 

Moreover, the attempt to introduce the concept of controlled clearances did not work with Martin Skrtel - exemplified by the faulty backpass that allowed Manchester City a way back into the game in the 2-2 draw at Anfield. The Slovak reportedly fell out with Rodgers back in February as a result. 

Most crucially, the lack of reinforcements available resulted in a static back four of Jose Enrique, Carragher, Daniel Agger (or Skrtel) and Glen Johnson - naturally leading to tired legs and inconsistent performances. 

Thus, a 3-2 defeat of a Tottenham side unbeaten in 16 previous matches was followed by a 3-1 humbling at Southampton with only Carragher rested for the latter game. A bid to promote youngsters such as Martin Kelly, Andre Wisdom and even reposition Downing was also quickly scrapped.

Give Rodgers a chance?

Of course, the constant argument put forth by the 40-year-old manager has been the long-term nature of his project (he apparently gave a 180-page manifesto to owner John W Henry to signal his determination to transform the club).  

Fenway Sports Group have continually stated that the decision to replace club legend Kenny Dalglish with Rodgers was taken with the long term future of the club in mind.

And the early season form of Raheem Sterling as well as the sparking performances of Sturridge (who is four goals shy of Fernando Torres' three-season league tally at Chelsea) and especially Coutinho seems to indicate that Rodgers has a foundation from which to build a successful side. 

The young Brazilian, who has notched seven assists from his first 12 games, is particularly remarkable, demonstrating the perfect combination of creativity and industry required for English football.

It also helps that Liverpool have more of a hunger about them, as evidenced by the fact that they have not lost more than one game in a row this season. 

Suarez's progress has also been astounding while Downing and Henderson have both improved and become decent utility players. The return of Andy Carroll could also offer an altogether different dimension to the Liverpool attack. 

Liverpool still not a top-four side

Regardless, the Reds cannot be expected to vie for a spot in the top four in the coming season.

The club's track record in the transfer market has largely been hit-and-miss - more hits than misses with each passing summer. Damien Comolli's departure might have helped the club become more prudent in their search process but the fact remains that Anfield cannot attract quality names.

Furthermore, serious doubts remain as to Rodgers' tactical nous - he has made the least number of substitutions among managers with the result that the side do not modify their tactical formations during games, thereby having become predictable over the course of the season. 

Couple this with the fact that Liverpool will be without stalwart Jamie Carragher following his retirement as well as the impending absence of Suarez, the Reds might struggle to just maintain their current average standard. 

A tough summer beckons for Rodger; the summer he has apparently been waiting for since last year. Can he deliver? Anfield awaits an answer.

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