Have Liverpool progressed under Brendan Rodgers?

A year ago, Liverpool appointed Brendan Rodgers as manager. The reaction to Rodgers appointment at the time was mixed. Some fans, including myself, thought it was an exciting appointment, with Rodgers having impressed at Swansea the previous season. However, many fans were not convinced. Some thought that Kenny Dalglish should’ve been allowed to remain manager, others thought that a bigger name manager should have got the job; many others were angry that Rafa Benitez wasn’t even considered.

That mixed reaction still prevails today. For every Liverpool fan who thinks Rodgers is gradually steering Liverpool on the right path, you’ll find one who still doesn’t know what to make of him, and another who is adamant that Rodgers doesn’t know what he’s doing and should be fired.

This manifests itself in the reaction to Liverpool games. Anything other than a win by a big margin provokes furious criticism from some fans. Should Liverpool fail to win, then the calls for Rodgers’ head come out, irrespective of how the team actually played (my favourite unreasonable criticism of Rodgers that I heard this season came from a fan on a local phone-in who said Rodgers’ failure to win the League Cup with Swansea last season was ‘proof’ that he’s not a good manager; and that was after a Liverpool win!).

The question is, one year on, have Liverpool made progress under Rodgers?

Progress is a difficult thing to determine, as it means something different to everybody. For some, progress is only measured in winning trophies, for others progress would’ve meant a top 4 finish. My personal definition of progress this season would have meant a better league campaign, scoring more goals, playing football to a clear tactical plan and improving the squad.

Liverpool’s final league position again isn’t good, but it is higher than last season. While Liverpool never seriously threatened to finish in the top 4, they did give themselves a chance of doing so until a 0-0 draw with 6 games to go all but ended that challenge. The positives to take from the league campaign for Liverpool fans are that they gained 9 more points than last season, and only Chelsea improved their league points total by more, and they did close the gap to the top 4 from the previous season.

It should also be noted that Liverpool’s second half of the season was pretty good. The team really seemed to adapt to Rodgers philosophy, losing only three games in the last 19 and played with far more consistency than in the first half.

Rodgers appointment seemed to suggest Liverpool would play a more attacking style of football and that’s what happened. Liverpool improved their goals tally by an impressive 24 goals this season, and improved their shooting accuracy, despite having more shots this season. Following last season’s woodwork woes, the woodwork still wasn’t Liverpool’s friend, costing them more league points than any other team. Overall Liverpool created more chances and more clear cut chances, which seems to suggest that the attacking play has improved under Rodgers.

While even the biggest critics of Rodgers accept that Liverpool have improved as an attacking force, they point the finger at Rodgers for Liverpool having a worse defence this season than last. I don’t think that’s the case. Liverpool did concede 3 more goals than last season, but they still ranked fifth in the league in terms of goals against. Liverpool also had the second most number of clean sheets in the league.

Where Liverpool’s defence did suffer was the number of individual errors that were made. That number was 36, which is 20 more than the previous season. That number of errors was the third most in the league, equalling Wigan, and cost the team 10 goals. You could possibly put some of those errors down to the players adjusting to a new system, but that many errors suggests that it was down to individual lapses in concentration rather than anything the manager is responsible for.

One of the biggest criticisms I had about Kenny Dalglish last season was the lack of a clear, defined tactical plan. Liverpool last season played a style of football which seemed to be ‘get the ball to the final third then see what happens’ and, all too often, nothing happened.

Under Rodgers, Liverpool play to a clear plan. They play an attacking style, favour short passing wherever possible and try to press the ball as quickly as they can. Whilst opinion is very much divided about whether or not this is the right plan, and many fans are vocal about their belief it is not; nobody can deny that there is a plan in place and the team play to it. Something else I like about Rodgers is that he’s not afraid to change tactics several times during a game, which has meant that I think Liverpool have been tactically more versatile than they have been in a while.

When Rodgers arrived, he inherited an expensively assembled squad that was badly underachieving. The previous summer, Kenny Dalglish and Damien Commolli spent huge sums of money on British talent such as Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, to go with the British transfer record paid for Andy Carroll. It’s a great understatement to say that those transfers were not a success and Liverpool were stuck with them.

When Rodgers arrived, there was an immediate question mark about the future of Carroll. Andy Carroll does have his strengths as a player, but he was never going to be mobile or skilful enough to fit in with Rodgers preferred style of football. It would’ve been hard to justify leaving such an expensive signing on the bench, and Carroll was allowed to leave on loan (another decision that split the fanbase).

Last summer, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez moved on, which left Liverpool light up in attack. Worse for Rodgers, Craig Bellamy, who’d had a great 2011/12 season asked to return to Cardiff for family reasons just before the season started.

Worse for Rodgers, Liverpool’s backroom set up when it came to player recruitment was below par. Rodgers hired a new chief scout and head of player recruitment from Manchester City, but neither were available to start until November. This meant that Liverpool failed in their bid to bring another forward in, with a public failure to sign Clint Dempsey (who I didn’t believe Liverpool needed anyway), leaving Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini as the only recognised first-team strikers, a situation made worse by Borini sustaining an injury that kept him sidelined for a long period before he’d shown what he could do.

Borini’s injury was one of several that Liverpool sustained in a very short space of time, with Lucas and Martin Kelly being ruled out early on in the season. This meant that Liverpool had to play a lot of untested young players throughout the season. In fact Liverpool started three teenage players on six occasions in the Premier League on six occasions; no other team started three teenagers once.

While some of those young players took to the Premier League a bit quicker than others, none of them disgraced themselves, and all of a sudden Liverpool’s squad has far more depth, with Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling, and Suso all more than capable of slotting into the team when required.

Unlike several other managers, Rodgers didn’t leave himself beholden to his initial opinion about players, allowing himself to change his mind. Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing are good examples of this. Downing started the season as third choice left-back, and was told he could leave. Downing could’ve sulked and waited to go, but instead, when he got an opportunity to play, he took it. While Downing’s still not exactly a world-beater, considering he got as many Premier League goals and assists as I did in 2011/12, his production is much better.

Similarly, according to some reports, Henderson was offered to Fulham as part of a deal for Dempsey. The previous season, Henderson struggled with both the pressures that came from the large transfer fee Liverpool paid for him, and also Kenny Dalglish’s decision to largely use him on the right of midfield. This season, Rodgers moved him to a more central role, which allows Henderson to use his range of passing to much greater effect, and allow him to join in attacks with greater regularity. Henderson went from being unwanted to an important part of the team in a short space of time, and fans no longer groan when they see his name on the teamsheet.

When everything was in place behind the scenes for the January transfer window, Rodgers did a good job of strengthening the squad. The lack of striking options was remedied by signing Daniel Sturridge, and Philippe Coutinho is one of the most exciting players Liverpool have had in years.

All in all, I believe the Liverpool squad is better balanced, younger, has greater depth and is stronger than it was 12 months ago. There’s a lot of work still to be done, not to mention the impending need to replace Luis Suarez, but Liverpool have taken the initiative by already made a few moves to continue the rebuilding process, which makes a change from previous seasons.

While I do believe progress has been made, there are still a lot of improvements that need to be made for next season. While some of the football Liverpool have played this season has been breathtaking at times, most of it has come against teams who have been pretty open. Against teams that play a more physical game, Liverpool badly struggled. Rodgers has to come up with a way to stop teams from bullying his side into submission. There was also a tendency for Liverpool to be a bit too gung-ho at times last season, which left them susceptible for teams to counter attack too often.

Also, while Liverpool’s shooting accuracy, both individually and collectively, was much improved on last season, there’s still a lot of room for further improvement. Once again, Liverpool hit the woodwork too many times, and hitting the woodwork cost Liverpool more points than any other team this season.

Another thing that needs improving is corners. Liverpool had the most corners in the Premier League, but were one of the worst teams at converting those corners into goals. Too often, the delivery of those corners was nowhere near good enough and that needs to change.

Make no mistake about it, Liverpool still have a long way to go to get to where they want to be, but they do seem to be on the right track and there is real optimism for further improvements next season.