With just twelve games left to go in the Barclays Premier League, Brendan Rodgers first season in charge of LFC is treading a fine line between relative success and what will be seen by many as abject failure. After a promising spell of performances and results over the last two months , both home and away, Rodgers’s LFC project is under threat of being undermined by a familiar problem; a problem that must be solved if Rodgers is to succeed at Anfield.
The Northern Irishman has certainly made some improvements during his first eight months in charge: Liverpool have upped their final third pass completion, their conversion of clear cut chances, their goals to games ratio and have already surpassed the number of home wins gained in the whole of last season. However, in other areas (particularly in defence), standards have slipped. The Reds are conceding goals at a higher rate than last season and the opposition are requiring even fewer penalty box efforts before registering than they were last season.
These weaknesses have fallen under much closer scrutiny since the Reds went down to Steve Clarke’s West Brom side at Anfield on Monday last, and rightly so. However Monday’s result and performance highlighted a recurring theme that’s plagued Liverpool Football Club over the last few seasons; lack of mental strength.
Since the club’s fall from grace during Rafa’s last season at the helm, successive managers have tried, for the most part in vain, to address the issue. Finally, with the arrival at Anfield of a top sports psychologist, followed by three successive high scoring victories at Anfield and two impressive away performances at Arsenal and Manchester City, many were beginning to believe that LFCs collective mental fragility was on the way to becoming a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the events of Monday night have offered that particular monkey a leg-up right back to the place where it’d rested for so long, the home dressing room at Anfield.
After the relative heroics at the Etihad and the Emirates, Brendan Rodgers’s side should have been filled with confidence for the visit of West Brom., however right from the get-go they looked nervy and off the pace. Don’t get me wrong, LFC were by far the better side, seeing plenty more of the ball and making all the running in terms of creating chances and producing shots on goal, however the belief, which had seen the Reds find the net twelve times without reply in their previous three home games, was simply not there when the chances presented themselves.
Granted, Brendan Rodgers decision to alter the formation and deploy Shelvey (in what was his first Premier League start since Boxing Day) in the number ten role was baffling to say the least, and hardly helpful to the balance of the side with or without the ball, however the Reds created enough chances in the first half to have had the game won by half-time. In fact, if the afore-mentioned Shelvey had made more of an effort to keep himself onside when Glen Johnson fired in an early effort, the story would likely have been very different indeed. That he didn’t however, was indicative of Liverpool’s performance; a performance which was devoid of self-assurance and presence of mind under pressure to get a result.
On far too many occasions players’ touches got away from them or their passes were woefully misplaced. Both fullbacks suffered immensely, as neither Enrique nor Johnson seemed able to get a grip of themselves for long periods of the game (the former not helped by the howls of disappointment and derision from the Anfield crowd which greeted every misplaced pass). In front of goal it was the same story. Chances were snatched at; Luis Suarez looked once again like the downtrodden outcast of last season with everything to prove, as opposed to the confident frontman who’s been lighting up the Premier League since August. Steven Gerrard began to force things from an early point in the second-half, with a couple of long range efforts seemingly born out of desperation rather than expectation.
(There’s no doubt that Gerrard and Suarez have been Liverpool’s best players again this season and I don’t wish to single them out for criticism, however their performances on Monday were much more reminiscent of last year’s Liverpool who struggled so much at home, as opposed to the confident performances that fans have relished in the last two or three months.)
Why? Well, simply put, this was a must win game for Liverpool if the club were to realise Brendan Rodgers’s and Steven Gerrard’s stated aim of making the top four. Away points at City and Arsenal were a good sign, following those results up with a win over West Brom. at Anfield was however, vital. The players were obviously aware of that but, instead of backing themselves to get a result, they buckled under the pressure. Enrique’s indecision, Jonhnson’s rubber feet, Borini going after that rebound with his right foot and Gerrard’s decision to switch corners from the spot, are all examples of the crippling lack of self-belief which ultimately cost Liverpool dearly.
Equally, the performance on Monday throws a different context on the previous two results. Yes, the Reds played well at Arsenal and fantastically at the Etihad, however in both games they held the upper hand well into the second-half and on both occasions they surrendered the advantage. In light of the West Brom game, this highlights a pattern of mental weakness – an inability to see games out – something that Rodgers and his squad of players must conquer if they are to make real progress.
The Reds were totally on top against Steve Clarke’s men, in fact the Baggies didn’t manage a single shot until the 80th minute, moments after Foster had saved Gerrard’s penalty. Liverpool had only ten minutes to hold out for at least a point following the captain’s failure from the spot, they lasted less than two. What’s more, they had ten minutes (including injury time) to come back from Albion’s sucker-punch, but were unable to produce a single shot on goal before the end of the game, succumbing instead to a late Lukaku strike.
So, Liverpool fans find themselves in an oh so familiar situation. They want to believe (at least the vast majority of them do) that the club is moving forwards, they’ve seen evidence that they’re on the right track, however every time they get a little bit of confidence and start to look up the table, they’re cruelly slapped back down. Problems that were thought to have been solved raise their ugly heads for all to see, ghosts which had supposedly been laid to rest delight in coming back to haunt them.
The truth of it is that evolution takes time and that there are always setbacks along the way. However, patience is beginning to wear thin in the face of repeated frustration (certainly amongst a vocal minority) and even those who are less hysterical, are beginning to question whether Rodgers is the right man to take the club forward.
Rodgers has twelve league games left this season, that’s twelve games to prove the doubters wrong and silence the critics, at least for a while. Bearing in mind that sixth place would count as a relatively successful first season in charge, what the side achieves in these twelve games will largely define the difference between Rodgers: the success story and Rodgers: the failure.
Gerrard image by WBUR.