Friday, November 16, 2012

Liverpool Under Rodgers: Signs Of Future Development

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.

Manchester City May Make January Bid For Suárez

Manchester City may be considering a bid for Liverpool's Luis Suárez in the January transfer window. The Uruguayan has enjoyed a standout season having scored 11 goals in 16 appearances for Brendan Rodgers' side and Roberto Mancini is considering whether to sell Mario Balotelli in the winter window to help finance the deal, according to reports.

In the light of Suárez's form and he being Rodgers' only recognized striker, the Liverpool manager and the club's American owners would not wish to sell him should any bid from City be lodged.

The price Suárez would command could prove a major stumbling block. The 25-year-old recently signed a new contract with Liverpool that is worth around £120,000 a week and runs until 2016. This means they are likely to demand a price beyond the club record £50m that Chelsea paid for Fernando Torres.

After disciplinary issues that led to an eight-match ban last season for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra during a Premier League game in October 2011, Suárez has settled into his role as Liverpool's talisman. His departure would be a major setback as the club attempts to build towards regaining a Champions League berth and challenging for the title.

Suárez, who scored in Uruguay's 3-1 win in Poland on Wednesday night, may not wish to leave even if Mancini does bid. Last week Rodgers said: "Luis had the chance to go in the summer. There was probably no better time for him to do that with a new manager coming in. He could have had an excuse to go but having spoken to him at length he committed to staying here. He gave us that opportunity to see how it was going to work. It's up to us as a club to add players that can help support him and move us on."

Mancini may well be frustrated with Balotelli but whether he could raise money from the Italian's sale is debatable. The striker's salary and temperament could dissuade suitors while Milan, who do retain an interest, may not have the funds to finance his purchase so any deal would only be a loan which would not raise the required cash.

Blues Willing To Sacrifice Liverpool Target

Liverpool goalkeeper target Jack Butland will be sold in January if a new takeover of the club does not take place, according to reports.

The Daily Mail claims Birmingham City will be forced to sacrifice the England international stopper amidst financial struggles at St Andrew’s, with Gianni Paladini’s potential takeover the only way to keep the teenager on the books.

Southampton made a £6 million move for the player in the summer, but the Blues swiftly rejected the advances of the Premier League Saints.

However, things have not gone according to plan under manager Lee Clark this season in the Midlands, and with ‘cash reserves dwindling’, Butland could make the club good money given the reported interest of Liverpool.

Brad Jones is currently enjoying his longest spell between the sticks at Anfield in the absence of Pepe Reina, with the injured Spanish international missing the last month of action on Merseyside.

However, Jones is out of contract with Liverpool at the end of the season, and reports in The Daily Mirror at the start of the week claimed discussions were yet to begin over a new deal as manager Brendan Rodgers considers his options.

Butland would be a younger alternative as back-up to Reina if the Reds decide to ditch the Australian international, although competition for his signature could be fierce if Birmingham’s need to sell is public knowledge, a point proved by Manchester City's recent £6 million link to the player in The Sunday People.

Liverpool & Ajax Asked To Pay Big For Belgian Starlet

Liverpool and Ajax have been warned that they will have to be prepared to “dig very deep into their pockets” if they wish to sign Belgian youngster Dennis Praet.

The 18-year-old Anderlecht starlet has impressed during the Belgian side’s Champions League campaign this season, drawing earlier comparisons to current Chelsea star Eden Hazard. Subsequently, it hasn’t taken long for the midfielder to attract suitors from the continent, with Brendan Rodgers reportedly keen to add another youngster to his developing side.

As the number of burgeoning technically gifted Belgian internationals in the Premier League continues to grow, Anderlecht is keen to stop Praet following the trend, for the time being. Herman Van Holsbeeck, the Belgian team’s sporting director, remained coy on the reported interest in the 18-year-old, but the underlining message was clear; any club wanting to take the gifted midfielder must be prepared to pay a considerable fee for the man Anderlecht are looking to build their team around.

“If they want to get him, they will have to dig very deep into their pockets,” Van Holsbeeck told Gazet Van Antwerpen. “We have heard nothing from Ajax and even less than Liverpool.”

The other interested party Ajax, are faced with their troublesome prospect of holding onto Denmark international Christian Eriksen, who has also been linked with a move to Anfield. With Eriksen yet so sign a new deal at the Amsterdam Arena, the Eredivisie champions are eyeing Praet as a possible replacement.

Liverpool Want To Bring Ince Back To Anfield

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers wants to bring Thomas Ince back to Anfield just 18 months after he moved to Blackpool for nothing.

Since his move to Blackpool the 20 year old has set the Championship alight and has managed to do exactly the same with the England U21's and now Liverpool want to snatch the youngster from the grasps of rivals Manchester United.

The Daily Mirror report that Liverpool have sent their chief scout Frank McParland to watch Ince and he has returned with rave reviews which will see Rodgers try and bring him back to Anfield. He believes that the fact he was allowed to leave the Kop will have no influence as it happened before he became manager this summer.

Liverpool believe the can beat United to his signature as they should be able to agree a better price with Blackpool as they are entitled to 35 per cent of his sale price which will give them the upper hand when both teams open negotiations with the Tangerines.

PL Eye Financial Controls

The 20 Premier League chairmen are meeting on Thursday with financial controls and their implementation top of the agenda.

The league's shareholders are getting together for one of their regular meetings and club finances are set to dominate proceedings.

UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules are on the horizon with European football's governing body wanting clubs to balance their books starting 2013-2014, and a number of Premier League teams want to introduce similar guidelines.

There are three proposals on the table at the meeting which the clubs will be asked to vote on. Any motion needs 14 of the 20 chairmen to agree to be passed.

The proposals are Financial Fair Play, Wage Restraint and Contract Guarantees.

Financial Fair Play would be similar to UEFA's own idea and would look to bring in controls to force clubs to break even, a proposal which Wigan chairman Dave Whelan is backing strongly.

"I really think every club in the Premier League has this desire to break even at least," Wigan chairman Dave Whelan told Sky Sports News.

Wage Restraint would be looked at instead of an outright salary cap, which many believe would not be legally viable, but would instead restrict the percentage of how much a club can add to their wage bill each year.

Contract Guarantees is a proposition that a club's owner, should they leave, would still be responsible to cover the wages of any highly-paid players signed during their tenure.

Liverpool Manager Confident Of Sterling Deal

Brendan Rodgers is convinced Raheem Sterling will commit his future to Liverpool, dismissing claims of a dispute regarding a new deal for the teenager.

17-year-old Sterling has developed into an integral part of Rodgers’ side this season, despite only making his first team appearance for the club just last March. The former Queens Park Rangers man further added to his credentials last night, when he earned his first England cap in England's 4-2 defeat to Sweden.

Liverpool have been understandably eager to get the starlet to sign a new deal, but reports have suggested the teenager’s wage demands had caused a moment of friction between club and player. However, Rodgers has moved quickly to quash such suggestions, confident a deal will be agreed upon without fuss.

"I think it will be pretty straightforward," Rodgers told Sky Sports. "That will be resolved. There won't be an issue there.

"I think Raheem himself, his representatives and his family know he is at the best club he could ever be at in terms of his development short and long-term."

Although perhaps forced into it as result of a wafer thin squad, the former Swansea City boss has won his plaudits this season for delving into the club’s youth ranks. Andre Wisdom and Suso have joined Sterling in becoming frequent figures in the first team, with the Jamaican-born winger leading the charge.

Even his manager has been taken aback by the 17-year-old’s rapid progress. "I have been surprised to be honest. You just never know with young players," added Rodgers.

"I think the biggest thing you can do with kids is give them a chance - so long as they are showing on a daily basis they are worthy of that opportunity. That has been the case with Raheem since the day I walked in.

"He has improved and that is a great credit to him because he wants to improve and become a better player.

"Tactically he is doing better all the time and I think everyone connected with Liverpool could be proud of his (England) performance.

Lucas, Shelvey And Reina Injury Latest

Brendan Rodgers has confirmed Lucas Leiva is to take a step closer to a first-team comeback by returning to training at Melwood today – while Pepe Reina and Jonjo Shelvey will both be fit for Saturday's visit of Wigan Athletic.

The Brazil midfielder has been sidelined with a thigh problem since August 26, but is now just a 'couple of weeks' away from returning to action, according to the boss.

Rodgers told journalists at Melwood: "We're in a good moment. Some of the players that have been out are starting to return back to training.

"Lucas Leiva will come back into training, which is great news. He has worked tirelessly in his rehabilitation, so he comes back out onto the field in a good moment.

"He won't be ready to play for the weekend, but certainly over the next couple of weeks he'll be very close."

On Shelvey and Reina, Rodgers added: "Jonjo will be back into training today, so he'll be fine [for the weekend].

"Pepe has been back in training. He was very close to last weekend [at Chelsea].

"He made a great commitment to show he's fighting for his place here in the group. He was called into the Spanish squad, but stayed here to ensure he was fit and strong - and he's been training all week.

"He'll be available for the weekend."

A hamstring problem has meant Reina has not figured for Liverpool since October 7, with Brad Jones deputising for the injured custodian.

Rodgers admits he'll have something of a selection dilemma to make due to Jones' impressive form.

The boss said: "Brad has done terrific. I've said before, and I'll repeat again, Pepe Reina is our No.1 goalkeeper.

"He's been an outstanding goalkeeper for this football club. I know from speaking to him that he's committed and very determined to continue at a very high level for the next nine-10 years.

"He's been a model professional since I came in here, and I talk regularly with him to try and improve his game and help him get back to the level he wants to get to.

"It's good to have two good goalkeepers. Brad has stepped in and has been excellent. Now I have a choice to make for the weekend."

Morgan Out To Create Positive Problem

Adam Morgan is hoping to repay the faith shown in him by Brendan Rodgers by giving the Liverpool manager something to ponder when selecting his attacking options.

The 18-year-old - who struck two goals for the U19s in Tuesday's NextGen Series win over Rosenborg - had made three first-team appearances for the first team so far this season, with the Reds boss eager to provide the club's youngsters with a chance to impress.

And Morgan is hoping to give Rodgers food for thought by making the most of any further opportunities that comes his way.

"I just want to give the manager as many problems as I can in a positive way," said Morgan.

"Brendan Rodgers has been fantastic to me from the minute he came in. He took me to America [in pre-season], and he showed a lot of faith in me, which he didn't have to do. But I think I showed him with my attitude how much I love the club, and how much I love playing football. To be fair, he's just said to me to keep going.

"And obviously if he is playing me with the first team then I must be doing some of the right things. He's told me to keep my attitude right, and hopefully if I do that then I won't go far wrong."