Brendan Rodgers should not be judged until May, but failure in the next three games could cost him his Liverpool job early, writes Mark Holmes.
Liverpool made it through to the last 16 of the Capital One Cup on Wednesday evening, but needing penalties to progress past League Two Carlisle United has hardly discouraged the vultures from circling the Reds’ manager, Brendan Rodgers.
A 1-1 draw in normal time made it six games without a win for the Merseysiders; only Dick Advocaat of the 20 Premier League managers is deemed by the bookmakers to be more under threat of losing his job than Rodgers. That anyone should fear the sack six games into a 38-game season is slightly ridiculous, but that’s a debate for another day.
The odds certainly will not concern Rodgers – even modest wagers in that market can cause a shift – and neither will the claims from the media that he is ‘under pressure’ at Anfield. After all, talk of pressure within the media is generally nothing but a lot of hot air, something of a cliché to use whenever a team is going through a sticky patch.
In reality, there is no more pressure on Rodgers than there is on Jose Mourinho to turn around Chelsea’s fortunes or even Manuel Pellegrini to keep Manchester City ahead of Manchester United after last week’s defeat to West Ham. Every manager is only two or three games away from a crisis as far as the media is concerned.
“It’s the same pressure as it’s ever been,” Rodgers said ahead of the Norwich game last weekend. “I don’t think it’s increased at all but just comes with managing a great club.
“It says everything that you lose a couple of games and that pressure comes, but I’ve always embraced and enjoyed that.
“Nothing has changed in that way. Pressure is something which is part and parcel of being manager of this club.”
Transition a legitimate excuse
It was reported by the Daily Mail on Wednesday that Liverpool’s owners, FSG, had ‘sounded out’ Carlo Ancelotti about the possibility of replacing Rodgers at Anfield. The claims were subsequently denied by the club as you would expect, but it all adds to the media narrative that Rodgers is edging towards the sack. The Mail’s story was not corroborated by any other source, but expect mentions of the Ancelotti link to be included in the vast majority of articles about Liverpool until – if ever – the manager’s job is deemed by outside observers to be safe again.
Only positive results can achieve that, of course, and Rodgers will undoubtedly feel under added pressure to lead Liverpool to a win over Aston Villa at Anfield on Saturday. Even if he does not fear losing his job immediately, the Northern Irishman will know that every dropped point only increases the likelihood of him losing it sooner or later. Now into his fourth season in charge at Anfield, any talk of transition is unlikely to wash with FSG come May.
However, at this early stage of the current season, it’s a legitimate excuse. With Raheem Sterling gone, Daniel Sturridge only just making his way back from injury, and several new signings made over the summer, it would be frankly ridiculous if FSG were to sack Rodgers now having stood by him after a poor 2014-15 campaign and given him the financial backing to turn things around.
Although the past must be taken into account somewhere down the line when assessing Rodgers’ overall performance at Anfield, the slate was effectively wiped clean as soon as FSG decided to stick with him for another season. And September is far too early to be making any judgements on the 2015-16 campaign.
“Things can turn around in two or three games,” former Liverpool manager Roy Evans told talkSPORT on Thursday. “They’ve got to give him a little bit more time, it’s still very early in the season.
“You’ve let him spend an awful lot of money, you’ve got to give him a bit more time to see if it will work.”
However, while Rodgers can probably rest easy for now that FSG are clever and experienced enough to ignore much of the criticism currently being aimed in his direction, he will almost certainly face a problem if the supporters turn against him. “Once everyone gets into this stigma that the manager is to blame for everything, people tend to run away with that,” Evans added.
Even the most patient of owners can be swayed by mass fan discontent. After Villa this weekend Liverpool are at Anfield again next Thursday against FC Sion in the Europa League before going to Everton for the Merseyside derby the following weekend. A failure to win at least two of those games could quite feasibly lose Rodgers the last of his points in the bank as far as the Reds’ faithful are concerned.
New signings’ success the key
Assuming, as this particular writer does, that Rodgers finds a way over and beyond those next three obstacles, his long-term future at Anfield is likely to rest on the success of his latest signings.
The departures of Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini over the summer were a reminder of the mistakes Rodgers has made previously in the transfer market, but he changed tack somewhat in buying Danny Ings, James Milner, Nathaniel Clyne and Christian Benteke, players already proven in the Premier League. Roberto Firmino was a big-money capture from overseas, of course, while the sight of young centre-back Joe Gomez plying his trade at left-back for the Reds this season perhaps raises some questions about the overall success of the summer, but Milner and Clyne in particular were widely acknowledged as sensible signings that would improve the team.
Rodgers himself has acknowledged that the addition of Benteke has contributed to Liverpool playing in a way that he does not like, but it is hard not to believe the 42-year-old when he says they can again produce the sort of fluid attacking performances they have put in during the best times of Rodgers’ reign.
“I, along with the staff, am working very hard to reinforce the principles of how we have worked here,” Rodgers said earlier this month.
“It’s clear how we want to work. I’m not one who chops and changes the philosophy – that’s something inherent in you. The idea and the philosophy is very clear on how we play. We want to be really creative – create opportunities to score goals while having a strong defensive organisation.”
Performances are of secondary importance to results over these next three games for Liverpool, but at least playing with style will be Rodgers’ best chance of holding on to his job beyond the end of the season if Champions League football proves beyond the team for the second year in succession.
In the meantime, however, Rodgers’ critics would do well to remember the words of Arsene Wenger, who has regularly stated that signing more than three players for the first team in one season is a risk.
“Cohesion is a very important factor but it is just neglected at the moment,” he said over the summer. “And most of the time, the teams who stay for a long period together are successful.”
The Frenchman’s own transfer policy is regularly criticised, of course, but it is hard to disagree with his general idea. The teams that stand the most chance of success keep their best players and only look to buy players that are better than those currently occupying first-team positions. It’s what every manager hopes to do. Arsenal’s success in relation to teams that have bought far more players over the years suggests Wenger is as sensible as he perhaps is stubborn.
Rodgers, however, has lost Sterling, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez over the past two years and has also had to make do for a lot of that time without Sturridge. The fact that Liverpool can still claim to be in transition in his fourth season in charge is not altogether his fault.
He must hope that on this occasion he got his summer transfer business right so that yet another overhaul is not required next summer. If there is, he will not remain at Anfield to oversee it.
For now, however, he is merely six games into a new season and, barring a disaster in the coming fortnight, still some time off judgement day.