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Ritesh Gogineni
Editor/Founder of The False 9.

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The Liverpool Conundrum

Brendan Rodgers
Brendan Rodgers

Liverpool have lately been on the radar of the millions across the globe who follow English Premier League. From the Luis Suarez sagas of the past seasons to the Mario Balotelli show, the presence of certain mavericks has got the team more than always due attention. Amid the massive hue and cries though there footballing fortunes went through a distinct upswing over the last couple of years. Dalglish managed a team which was fast on the ball, passed and moved in keeping with Dalglish’s own times. True, they were hugely underwhelming in the 2011-12 season. Some epic goalkeeping performances, notably Vorm et al, and some atrocious forward play let them down. That had been the season of the Luis Suarez with just 13 league goals and the worst shot-to-goal ratio. The two full seasons under Rodgers led to more goals from Suarez and Co., a reinvention of Steven Gerrard and a failed title charge which witnessed some of the boldest football seen in the Premier League in the recent years.

One thing that remained constant through it all though was a team which seemed to be fluidic in midfield, had incisive passing and was expansive in terms of width usage. Not anymore. This season the Liverpool story isn’t about their lowly table position. It’s DEFINITELY not about Mario Balotelli who for all the negativity seems to be one of the most beneficial signings ever made by Brendan Rodgers, if only because he’s absorbing all the criticism and vitriol. Criticism and vitriol which have surprisingly left the Liverpool manager almost untouched. The fact that most tabloids seems to have missed thus far though is that this has been Liverpool’s worst performing side since Roy Hodgson’s atrocious tenure at Anfield. They might have garnered more points than after this stage 2 seasons back, but that’s only due to a significantly easier run of fixtures.

LUIS SUAREZ: quite simply, Liverpool are missing him. Brendan Rodgers based his play around the mercurial striker from the very outset and his absence has come back to bite him. It’s not just the goals, though just the sheer magnitude of those fired in by the Uruguayan over the last two seasons easily makes the prospect daunting. Fact remains, Suarez’s movement is unmatched in the Premier League and for all his cannibalistic tendencies, Premier League and especially Liverpool are poorer. Last year’s Liverpool especially when playing with the diamond were breathtaking and overwhelmed teams with attack after attack. Luis Suarez was a crucial component of that team with his awareness,movement and most importantly his ability to create space for others to exploit. Add his bag of tricks and you have a player denied a Ballon d’Or shortlist only by his non-footballing transgressions.

DANIEL STURRIDGE: it’s no secret that Brendan Rodgers was counting on Sturridge to step up following Suarez’s departure. But his absence owing to his injury woes makes the frontline as guileless as that witnessed when a certain Andrew Carroll stomped the Anfield turf. Sturridge’s control, his explosive acceleration and ever-improving finishing made him one of the vital cogs of the Red juggernaut last season. He too provides that special something which can unlock defences even when he leaves his scoring boots home. Liverpool need him. Now. Badly.

BALOTELLI+LAMBERT+BORINI: the unholy trinity has floundered. Hardly anyone is surprised. With the possible exception of Lambert, none of the three are what can be called natural goalscorers. Balotelli is an amateur’s delight not a 30-goal forward at the best of times. His absolute absence of confidence means this is NOT the best of his times anyway. Rodgers was expected to work a man-management charm on ‘Super’ Mario when he joined, a la El Pistolero. It’s failed miserably, quite possible because Balotelli is NOT someone to be tamed. From the Cantonas to the Gazzas of this world, the showmen like to do it their own way. Balotelli loves to be loved, and be the focus. If Rodgers wanted the quintessential team forward, he dialled the wrong number. Borini is a study in himself. He seems to hate being loved. Else it’s difficult to explain his decision to snub Poyet’s impressive offer to take him back to Wearside specifically when Rodgers didn’t promise him even the stadium ticket. Lambert was the sentimental signing of the year. The boyhood fan returning to rule the roost. The story was too good. Except the sunset he seems to be riding into looks abysmally undistinguished.

115 MILLION: true, about 20million of this has already been accounted for. But even the rest of Rodgers’ signings have been either listless or disasters thus far. 15 matches is too soon to pass a judgement but alarmingly, the graph hasn’t been upwards. Dusan Tadic must be wondering what Koeman meant when he spoke of Lallana’s big boots given their contrasting fortunes. Dejan Lovren’s best performance at Anfield remains the one on 21st September 2013. At the same time, Lazar Markovic’s step-overs and nutmegs have remained at Estadio da Luz. There is no clear demarcation of roles. Lallana actually seems to be Coutinho’s substitute and vice-versa. Plan-B never came along. The only change made by the introduction of Markovic in a match is changing Sterling’s position. Can’s too undisciplined yet to play as a holding midfielder against top teams.

EVERYTHING ELSE: this was all regarding the personnel. It’s not at all restricted to that. The passing is as slow as it was during Roy the Boy’s reign. Fitness is low. Ergo movement is slow. Steven Gerrard almost epitomises this. He can no longer shield the backline given that he can’t track the runners from deep. Every team, from West Ham to Aston Villa are exploiting it to the hilt. His passing range remains impressive but with barely any impressive runs to find, it’s not helping much.

Defence had been identified as the problem area well before the start of the season. Lovren was drafted in as the solution and even touted as the future captain. Playing on the left, he’s looked badly out of sorts. He remains solid with people cutting in as he plays on the left of the defence. But all along he’s struggled to close down attempts from that very side when forwards have opted to do that. Sakho and Jovetic exploited it. Moreno is pacy and tenacious but defensively he has disastrous lapses of concentration as against the Toons. It’s saying something that even with this state of affairs, the worst performers till date have been two other players, Simon Mignolet and Glen Johnson. Mignolet remains suspect against crosses and from dead balls he seems to have a seizure. Against Newcastle he was the only positive though, seeming to grow in confidence in a tepid second half. Johnson’s performances have been even worse. In Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-1-2, he needs rampaging fullbacks. With Liverpool lacking natural wide-men, the need is even more blatant. Moreno has provided an outlet at times, but Johnson has been slow, one-paced and poor in terms of his distribution or retention.

In short pretty much everything is wrong with Liverpool at the moment. Sterling has been the brightest player thus far and even he seems to have tailed off over the last few weeks. His pace remains underutilised with the setup. Coutinho appears to be the only one capable of unlocking any defence but his inconsistency remains pronounced. In Liverpool’s best match of the season till now, Liverpool showed their effectivity with the high-energetic pressing and breaking game of last year against Spurs. Perhaps the demands of Champions’ League has prevented its replication. Whatever be the case, for Rodgers’ side to climb up the table, Liverpool need to remember how they played last season. First up though, they need to handle Ronaldo and C., a team which has scored three times what the Reds have managed. Barring a miracle, Liverpool could exit Bernabeu red-faced.

-Jayeek Chatterjee

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