Another summer of change leaves Liverpool searching for continuity
This will be Brendan Rodgers’ fourth season in charge of Liverpool but it’s not clear that the club has advanced in the three years since he took over from Kenny Dalglish. With another key player gone after a season that featured a golden mid-period bookended by an indifferent beginning and end, it feels once again as though Rodgers is having to start from scratch.
To an extent that’s not his fault. The sales of Luis Suarez last summer and Raheem Sterling last month are a reflection of the economic reality of football: Liverpool, glorious though its history is, simply does not have the resources to hold off an approach from one of the super-clubs, the likes of Barcelona and Manchester City. The departure of Steven Gerrard, a fixture at the club for 17 years, was result of the passage of time and the way football’s economics these days dictate there can be no sentimental contracts than anything else. Yet this has also added to the sense that foundations need to be laid again.
There are doubts about Rodgers after taking the club to seventh, second and sixth place in the Premier League the last three seasons. A post-season meeting with Fenway Sports, the club’s owners, led to the departures of Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh, the two most prominent members of the backroom staff. Their replacements, former England Under-19s coach Sean O’Driscoll and former Liverpool midfielder Gary McAllister, suggest the need for coaching players in one-on-one situations.
Specially, there are concerns over the club’s transfer policy. Over the three years since Rodgers took over, Liverpool has the third-highest net spend of any club in the Premier League at $180.3 million, behind only the Manchester cubs, and that despite the sales of Suarez and Sterling. Countless players have arrived and made next to no impact. The likes of Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Iago Aspas, Tiago Ilori, Rickie Lambert and Luis Alberto come to mind. The others, most notably Dejan Lovren, are a work in progress.
Liverpool has been active again in the market this summer, but much of the activity seems to have been focused at the front end of the team when the bigger issues are at the back. Picking up James Milner on a free transfer is something of a coup. The 29-year-old is not a player who excites fans, but his solidity, consistency and professionalism are virtues worth having. Milner deserves his chance playing regularly in the middle of midfield at a major team. The pairing of Milner and Jordan Henderson may seem very English — all effort and endeavor and not a huge amount of guile — but if that brings a solid defensive base to the midfield that may be no bad thing. Nathaniel Clyne is a right back of great promise and, after following the well-worn path from Southampton to Liverpool, he is a clear upgrade.
But it’s the two forwards, Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino, bought for a combined fee in excess of $93 million, that have really raised eyebrows. Rodgers lamented last season the lack of a reliable striker with Daniel Sturridge enduring a series of injuries and Balotelli never settling and this is, at least, a step to resolving that issue.
Firmino disappointed in a generally disappointing Brazil performance at the Copa America, where he tended to be used as an out-and-out forward, and the suggestion is he is better deployed as he was at Hoffenheim last season, playing off a front man or swooping in from the left. Benteke is an out-and-out striker, but there has been significant grumbling over his fee.
Yet his goals record has been impressive since he joined Racing Genk from Standard Liege in 2011. He got 16 goals in 22 starts (and 10 sub appearances) that season and had scored three in five when he moved to Aston Villa a year later. There, despite Villa’s dourness under Paul Lambert, he scored 42 goals in 82 league starts — a record that is all the more remarkable given that incudes a spell in which he scored just two league goals in a year as he was out and then recovering from a serious Achilles injury. Benteke also won a staggering 6.5 aerial duels per game last season — 1.7 more than any other player. He’s a target man who scores goals, a rare combination — yet that in itself raises questions.
When Rodgers arrived, he offloaded Andy Carroll because he couldn’t see him fitting into his preferred possession-based style. In his second season, with the pace of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling, Rodgers was persuaded to play a more direct version of the game. Last season was a fusion of the two. But what does Rodgers have planned this year? Benteke seems to fit into no style he’s previously employed.
And that, really, is the worry for Liverpool, that another season feels less like the development of something that it has done before. Three years under the same manager has not brought continuity.