Just a year ago, Brendan Rodgers was being hailed as the saviour at Anfield and could do no wrong. Then came the three-goal fightback from Crystal Palace and the unravelling of a season from a seemingly unassailable position.
In the end, Liverpool only just managed to finish the 2013-14 season as runners-up and the rest, as they say, is history. The departure of Luis Suarez and the signing of Mario Balotelli along with a whole host of other new names have, demonstrably, not paid off. Liverpool have struggled all season and failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Now, not only does it look like Champions League qualification for next season is off the agenda, but even Europa League qualification looks in doubt with an ever-stronger Tottenham breathing down Liverpool’s neck along with Southampton.
There are reasons for Liverpool’s relative slump this season. Suarez would be more or less impossible for any team to replace – so unique is his dogged and determined playing style – whilst Daniel Sturridge has been out with injuries for too many games for comfort for Rodgers.
Then, of course, there has been the Steve Gerrard question. Earlier in the season, Gerrard announced his retirement from the international scene. Then, shortly afterwards, announced his intention to leave Anfield at the end of the current season.
Such an announcement by such a pivotal layer was always going to have consequences for the rest of the Liverpool line-up, although the extent of this is more or less impossible to gauge.
So what next at Anfield? Will Liverpool owner John W. Henry have patience with Rodgers in a game where immediate gratification and managerial progress is demanded by almost everyone involved? The short answer is a resounding “maybe”. But one thing is for certain. If Rodgers’ moves in the summer transfer market are not showing tangible results pretty quickly, the owners will be casting round for his successor. And for all we know they may already be doing exactly that. But this would seem grossly unfair. In their heyday in the 1970s and 80s, Liverpool were famous for continuity. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that when the balance of power in the north west shifted 30 miles or so eastwards down the East Lancs Road to Old Trafford in the early 1990s, Manchester United had already shown admirable forbearance with their new man at the helm who got off to a dodgy start, Sir Alex Ferguson.
So, perhaps Liverpool should take their example from history? Then again, quite a few new managerial signings have paid dividends for the biggest clubs in Europe over recent years. Louis van Gaal has got off to a reasonable start after a turbulent few months at Old Trafford, for example. United now look contenders to land the runners-up spot to Chelsea this season and will surely be more of a force to be reckoned with next season. Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho has continued to work his magic at Stamford Bridge as he always does wherever he goes. So, perhaps, in the modern game, immediate change works better? But it’s certainly not the Liverpool way by tradition.
Nevertheless, Rodgers has now become the first new manager at Anfield not to land a major trophy in his first three seasons as boss since the early 1950s, following his side’s 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa in the semi-final of the FA Cup. That’s an ignominious record he’d certainly rather not have.
Liverpool fans, who were seen above celebrating winning the Champions League in 2005, have been starved of silverware under Rodgers and are beginning to get fed up with that diet. The fact that they came so close to winning their first ever Premier League title just 12 months ago does not help the situation in many ways. After all, Rodgers wasn’t able to steady the Anfield ship in the most crucial stage of the season, losing at home to a canny Jose Mourinho managed Chelsea and blowing the aforementioned three-goal lead to Crystal Palace effectively gave the league title to Manchester City.
Then again, the case for the defence of Ulsterman Rodgers would say that the influx of new and mainly young players was always going to see Liverpool be erratic this season and these players will take time to gel and to mature.
And there’s plenty of evidence from the Liverpool training ground (see above) that Anfield is not an unhappy ship. What’s more, Liverpool still managed an enviable 13-game unbeaten league run from December to March. And Rodgers did oversee a huge eight player transformation last summer. And with the departure of Suarez, this season was never going to be an easy one.
But no-one would argue that Rodgers has a carte blanche. Even his most stalwart of supporters would acknowledge that the close season will be crucial, as will the way Liverpool start next season in the run-up to Christmas. It would be no great surprise to see Rodgers out of a job if his side were, say, outside the top five by the turn of the New Year.
So far, Rodgers has been given three years and that’s quite a long tenure in the modern game.
Overall, the, the jury remains out. Either Rodgers is a true visionary in the mould of Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson who is steadily building a great side of the future and learning from his mistakes or he’s a little bit naïve and has demonstrated questionable judgement in his player dealings and in settling players down for the really big occasions when he needs to.
Either way, he’ll surely be given a little more time by the owners to prove his credentials. These days, big clubs like Liverpool are tantamount to political democracies for Boards of Directors who really want to have the fans onside and to avoid the kind of revolts that various clubs such as Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers have become all too familiar with.
And few, if any, clubs in the English Premier League are quite as dependant on the understanding of their fans as Liverpool. This will be all-too apparent to the owners who will surely realise that, should they sack Rodgers before he truly has time to test his mettle as a manager after the wholesale changes of last summer, the fans will be unlikely to accept the change as easily as some other clubs. The future for Rodgers and his young Liverpool side could still yet be a very bright one. But at the same time, he only has a small window of opportunity to prove the efficacy of his approach to the owners and the Liverpool faithful alike. The early months of the 2015-16 Premier League campaign will be telling and will surely be the making or breaking or Rodgers’ tenure at Anfield.