For several years it has appeared as if Liverpool have been going through a ‘transition period’ without actually transitioning into anything in particular.
Instead, this term has been employed as a euphemism for inconsistent performances, an excuse too readily embraced when games have been lost.
But under Brendan Rodgers, there is a real sense that Liverpool are actually undergoing a tangible transition, characterized by modifications to the team’s playing style and the promotion of youth at the expense of older players.
In past years, youth players with real potential were few and far between. Recently Rodgers’ cause has been helped by the emergence of promising young players, with three new inexperienced players becoming important first team members.
Impressive performances from Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom, along with Suso’s good if unspectacular form, mean they are now regulars in Liverpool’s first team. Jonjo Shelvey came into the side last season and has continued to develop under Rodgers, earning some England call-ups along the way. Jack Robinson has the potential to develop into a first team player and the injured Martin Kelly is a young home-grown defender, and was a member of England’s Euro 2012 squad.
This youthful injection has been complemented by the summer exits of older squad members from last year, including Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Fabio Aurelio and Craig Bellamy.
The summer also saw the purchase of four young players in Oussama Assaidi (24), Joe Allen (22), Fabio Borini (21) and Samed Yesil (18) and the loan signing of Nuri Sahin (24). This reduction in the average age of the squad bodes well for the future, providing these players continue to show the positive signs displayed in the early moments of their Liverpool careers. Key players like Lucas and Luis Suarez, who are both only 25, should help them along.
This indicates the majority of this Liverpool team can play together for a long time yet. Seeing the real potential for a bright future separates Rodgers’ project from the transition periods of the previous two Liverpool managers, Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson.
Rodgers has also confronted head-on the problem of the underperforming players signed by Dalglish. Where Dalglish might have felt obliged, to the point of blind loyalty, to support players he signed for big money, Rodgers has not shirked from leaving them out of the side or moving them on if they did not suit his style, as he did with Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam. This has created an environment where in-form players are picked regardless of reputations and big price tags.
Another impressive aspect of Rodgers’ management was his awareness and appreciation of aspects of Liverpool’s history in the summer. The reintroduction of the original ‘This is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel and the red nets in the goals show that Rodgers has tried to form a connection with Liverpool fans who are proud of their history. On occasions this season the fans have chanted ‘There’s only one Brendan Rodgers’, so early indications suggest a bond is forming between manager and fans.
However, this bond will be tested unless results improve in the league. 12 points after 11 games and languishing in 13th place is simply not good enough.
From the same number of games under Roy Hodgson Liverpool racked up 15 points and last year, under Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool managed 22 points from the first 12 games. This puts the performances so far into perspective considering these previous managers were sacked after unsatisfactory league form. But the points tally is only valid come May.
Fans will be more patient with Rodgers, compared with Hodgson, because of his positive philosophy and an awareness of the need for managerial stability. Liverpool’s owners have invested in a real project under Rodgers’ tutelage, which involves reinvigorating the style of play at the club from the Academy upwards. Emphasizing a passing style is nothing new at Liverpool, as the great sides of the 1970s and ’80s perfected this approach, but this standard has not been reached for a long time.
Rodgers differs from Hodgson because the current England manager’s preferred style focuses on defensive rigidity rather than possession football.
This Liverpool have played with attacking intent although they have lacked consistent quality up front, with the obvious exception of Suarez. Suso and Sterling, Suarez’s main attacking support, are young so their form can be erratic but they are still learning at this level. Over the next few seasons, they could blossom into two of the best young players in England.
Joe Allen’s ability to retain possession has been a welcome addition in midfield, even if the former Swansea man was guilty of giving the ball away too often against Chelsea last weekend. In general, he has helped Liverpool control possession in the majority of games this season. Allen and Steven Gerrard are both in the top 10 for the most passes made in the Premier League, with 786 and 716 respectively. Controlling the ball can create an effective attacking platform for Gerrard, Suarez, Suso and Sterling to exploit.
Perhaps the main positive on the field has been Suarez’s excellent goalscoring form.
At Ajax, Suarez scored 81 goals in 110 league games so he was always capable of getting goals but now he is doing so on a regular basis for Liverpool. It must be pointed out though, that it is more than his eleven goals in all competitions that Suarez has brought to the team this season.
His energy is a constant threat to opposition defences and his presence creates space for others in dangerous areas. With the ball at his feet inside the penalty box he ranks with the best in world at beating defenders and creating havoc. The Uruguayan has taken 53 shots in the league this season, 19 more than his nearest rival, which shows just how busy he is in the final third but also that he should be scoring even more goals.
Rodgers has tried to balance the demands of playing league matches so soon after the Europa League by fielding young players and giving fringe players a chance to shine. Wisdom, Shelvey, Sterling and Suso have benefited from Europa League action in particular, while Brad Jones’ extended run in the team has helped improve his confidence and has shown that he can challenge Pepe Reina, if the Spanish stopper’s inconsistent form continues.
Despite playing a second string in the Europa League Liverpool have not yet won a league match following European action. Out of the six league games played after Europa League matches, Liverpool have drawn four and lost two—but these games have included trips to Chelsea and Everton and home ties with Man United, Arsenal, Man City and Stoke.
However, there were signs at Stamford Bridge that Liverpool benefited from resting players away at Anzhi.
From the Europa League team, only Jones, Jamie Carragher and Wisdom started at Stamford Bridge. This meant that as the game wore on, and Rodgers reverted back to the more familiar 4-3-3, Liverpool looked stronger than Chelsea. Once Suarez levelled the match, Liverpool looked the most capable of getting a winner in the last 20 minutes.
It will be interesting to see how Rodgers continues this balancing act in the next two Europa League games as it will show just how much Rodgers wants to progress in this competition.
So there are many positives on the pitch from the early part of Rodgers’ reign at Anfield but the manager’s vision for the future was never going to be fulfilled in the first dozen league games, perhaps not even in the first season.
The most important thing for this term is that the club continues to develop their younger players, progress as much as possible in the league, and that Rodgers is given the time to put his stamp on the style of football played.
Liverpool have a favourable run of fixtures from now until Christmas with a lot of points on offer so it is possible to climb into the top six or seven by January. This would be an ideal position to mount a challenge on the top four, but results will have to improve considerably.
Obviously, the endgame for Liverpool is to get back into the Champions League and to challenge for the league title.
The latter is the ultimate priority but a club progresses in steps and teams do not go from struggling to get into the Europa League to genuine title contenders without time, patience and major changes.
Rodgers has initiated some changes that mean the future of the team looks bright if this young side stays together, but his project is still in its embryonic stage and might not reach full fruition for a couple of years yet.