Has Progress Stalled At Anfield?

There are two things that drive me to write about Liverpool, the first is optimism, and the second is frustration. As you can imagine, after limping out of the FA Cup this is a piece very firmly inspired by the latter.

Perhaps I am being a little harsh on Aston Villa by saying that we limped out, because the truth of the matter is that we were never in it to begin with. Even after taking the (undeserved) lead – a lead which lasted just six minutes – we looked a team that was lacking in confidence, imagination, and ability.

Aston Villa were superb today, their fans have every reason to be delighted with the progress into the next round and with their teams performance. Since taking over Tim Sherwood has done an excellent job at the club and survival in the Premier League and an FA Cup Final appearance is no more than he deserves.

I am a Liverpool fan however, so I will be focusing more on the failings of the men in yellow than I will the achievements of the men in claret and blue.

After almost three years in the job Brendan Rodgers still appears to be an enigma to me. He does not know his best formation, he does not know who to sign to improve the team, and he does not know how to get the best out of his star players. At the start of the season my blind faith led me to believe a top four finish and some silverware was possible, in truth we are not worthy nor capable of either.

From the millions of pounds that Rodgers spent in the summer there are very few success stories. Neither Alberto Moreno nor Adam Lallana have shown the class that they did last season, Lazar Markovic seems naive, Ricky Lambert and Mario Balotelli have been failures, Dejan Lovren is unconvincing at best, and it is only really Emre Can that looks to be a good signing, and even he is being played out of position.

Many of the signings did surprise me, but I put faith in Rodgers to get the best out of the players he had recruited. He has failed to do that. Not only is he failing to get the best out of the latest Liverpool signings, but he is also failing with the large majority of the Anfield roster.

Much has been made of Raheem Sterling’s outspoken desire to progress in his career, either through financial gain or through the collecting of winners medals, and I must admit that lately I am beginning to see where he is coming from.

Any managers first season in charge is written off as an audition. They are yet to stamp their authority on the team, yet to buy the personnel they desire, you to mould the club to their liking. The second season things start to become a little more serious, and the third season there should be the clear signs of progress. If we are to apply this formula to Rodgers at Anfield it seems questionable as to whether he is performing up to the standard required.

Bar an untimely slip by Steven Gerrard and a woeful self-destruction against Crystal Palace, Liverpool would have won the Premier League last season. That was the quality of the team, and though Luis Suarez would still have left for the Nou Camp, you would have expected Liverpool to defend their title stoically this season.

As it is Liverpool find themselves in fifth some 19 points behind the leaders Chelsea and unlikely to gain a top four place. This is despite investing over one hundred million pounds in the summer. Progress under Rodgers seems to be stalling with not only the results suffering, but the performances as well.

For the last six or seven matches I have seen Raheem Sterling, one of the best young players in Europe, pushed out to a left wing or left wingback position. A man that can turn on a sixpence and drives fear into the hearts of defenders as he runs at them, is now more frequently found hugging the touchline and tracking the runs of the opposition full back. Is it any wonder that he is starting to think his footballing career may lie elsewhere?

This was the case in the second half today against Aston Villa where Sterling was positioned on the flank to accommodate Balotelli.  This is the same Balotelli who has scored just four goals in all competitions, the same Balotelli who has had no assists all season, and the same Balotelli who is caught offside so often you would be forgiven for thinking it was his position.

If my time on Football Manager has taught me anything it is that in order to succeed you must play to your strengths. Moulding the team around your best players is the easiest way of doing this. Even Barcelona and Real Madrid, teams overflowing with talent, realise this, and it is why Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the focal points. (Incidentally that is why Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s career at the Nou Camp never worked out, Zlatan does not play second fiddle to anyone).

Arguably Liverpool’s best players are Daniel Sturridge, Phillipe Coutinho, Jordan Henderson, and Raheem Sterling. Though Sturridge was missing today the trio of Coutinho, Henderson, and Sterling should have been enough to see off Aston Villa, but it was not.

As I mentioned, Sterling’s placement at left wing failed to get the best out of him, Coutinho only showed flashes in the first half of what he is capable of, and I don’t recall Henderson doing anything of note throughout the entire 94 minutes. Whether it was Gerrard being wedged into midfield, or Balotelli’s introduction as a striker, the star players were forced to make way.

Injuries to Lucas and Sturridge, meant that Rodgers was unable to field a full strength side, but even so Liverpool should be beating Aston Villa on any given Sunday.

I think Rodgers is a good manager, if not a little confused currently, but I do fear for his future at the club. In these times of merry-go-round managers four seasons at a club with nothing to show for it is a precarious place to be. I believe the next 12 months are make or break for Rodgers and Liverpool, a repeat of the summer and start of this season may see him gone even before the January transfer window.

Liverpool By Numbers

2 – The number of shots Liverpool had on target against Aston Villa in the FA Cup Semi Final.
39% – The amount of games Liverpool have won when Steven Gerrard has started.
1950s – The last time a Liverpool manager did not win a trophy inside three seasons.
£211,550,000 – The amount of money Brendan Rodgers has spent on players since July 2012.

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This article was originally published on Proven Quality.

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