As Liverpool ensures its future, Brendan Rodgers struggles in present
Fenway Sports Group has had two main priorities since it bought Liverpool in 2010 from Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The first has been to overhaul the club’s famed stadium, Anfield. By upping its capacity to nearly 60,000 and adding plenty of new corporate seats, ownership is aiming to allow the venue to maintain its established glory while also providing the necessary support in the modern game that is highly ruled by revenue. Liverpool needs to up its gameday takes to compete with the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and the two Manchester clubs, City and United.
The other aim was to stabilize a club that was close to bankruptcy and struggling to find the identity that made it global soccer’s most dominant force for nearly 30 years in the middle of last century. To do that, the owners needed to hire a modern manager who could lead the team for years down the road and build something special again.
That man was supposed to be Brendan Rodgers.
Now, though, in his fourth season in charge of Liverpool, that part of the plan appears to be unraveling, and Rodgers looks like a shell of the man who swaggered into his job interview with a binder containing plans for long-term sustainability. After Sunday’s dire 1–1 home draw with Norwich, the manager who once spoke of “death by football,” whereby Liverpool’s opponents would buckle under the Reds’ relentless possession of the ball, seems to be running out of ideas, even if it isn’t wholly his fault.
Rodgers’ rise was meteoric. He had spent just one season middling season at Watford in the League Championship, and just half of one at league foe Reading before being dismissed and langing at Championship club Swansea City in the summer of 2010. Building on the groundwork laid there by current Everton manager Roberto Martinez, Rodgers got the Swans promoted via the playoff in his first season there, making them the first Welsh club ever to make the Premier League.
On Nov. 5, 2011, Swansea was applauded by the Anfield faithful for its play in a scoreless draw with Liverpool. It was like watching an amateur version of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona teams that ran riot over Europe by outplaying and outpassing their opponents. After guiding the Swans to an 11th-place finish in their debut Premier League season, Rodgers would walk back into Anfield with much bigger goals in mind.
After Liverpool relieved club legend Kenny Dalglish of his duties as the team’s manager—despite his having led the team to FA Cup Final and winning the League Cup—Rodgers entered his meeting with club management with detailed blueprints in hand, a vision for not only for the upcoming season, but also the future of the club. He wanted to look ahead and build a new legacy, returning the Liverpool back to its place in soccer’s pantheon by focusing on the core values the club once touted: pass-and-move, attacking soccer that involved the entire team, not just individual players. The owners bought Rodgers' plan and he was appointed on May 30, 2012.
The club’s fans, for the most part, bought it, too, and gave Rodgers some time. After an initial eighth-place finish in his first season, Rodgers gave them a great season in 2013–14, with the club nearly winning its first league title since 1990. Since then, though, the team has stagnated, and the Rodgers remains searching for answers.
Last season’s sixth-place finish was a disappointment, and this season, Liverpool has again started slowly. The club is largely to blame for selling star striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona after that 2013–14 campaign (and this past summer’s big-money sale of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City), but Rodgers had ample cash with which to reload the roster. So far, his plan of buying up nearly everything in Southampton hasn't seemed successful. The rebuild also has been hindered by the a nagging hip injury for striker Daniel Sturridge.
When the 26-year-old joined Liverpool from Chelsea in January 2013, the Reds were stagnating in the middle of the table and in search of an identity. Suarez was magical one week, and then went missing the next. When Sturridge arrived, that changed. In his 14 appearances in that second half of the season, Sturridge scored 10 goals; Liverpool won seven times, drew six and only lost once, hinting at what was to come.
The next season — the title challenge season — Liverpool was without the suspended Suarez for its first five matches, but started strong behind Sturridge’s lead. And even after Suarez returned, Sturridge retained his importance. That season, he made his most appearances for the club, and Liverpool went 20-6-3 (W-D-L) in the Premier League with him on the field against versus 3–3–3 in his absence. Overall at Liverpool, Rodgers is 34-14-8 with Sturridge in the Prem, and only 28-15-21 without him.
While it’s hard to overstate the impact of losing Suarez, and Rodgers and Co. deserve some criticism for the effectiveness of their Suarez Cash overhaul, Sturridge’s lack of availability definitely has hindered the Reds (and drove the club’s expensive swoop for Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke this past summer). Liverpool scored 101 goals in 2013-14, but dropped to just 52 last season and only had three in its first five matches of this campaign. Sturridge finally made his 2015–16 debut on the weekend, playing 62 minutes in the home draw against Norwich, even though Rodgers admitted the striker was far from full match fitness. Was it a panic move? We’ll see.
Sturridge also is representative of Liverpool’s conflicted lot at the top of the league. The Reds certainly have money to spend, and the stadium overhaul is suggestive of ownership’s understanding that the club needs more of it, but as evidenced by Sterling’s sale within the league, Liverpool is not currently in the same financial strata as the other annual contenders. And while no fan of most of Europe’s clubs will feel for Liverpool “only” buying the Phillipe Coutinhos and Divock Origis of the world for eight-figure U.S. dollar fees, the majority of its purchases have been with one eye on the future rather than injecting ready-made world-class talent. This season, Liverpool is youngish and not nearly as costly as some would like to believe.
Rodgers came in with grand ideas to fix Liverpool, but now there is increasing concern that the magic of 2013–14 cannot be replicated. It’s still early this season, but the results are worrying, as is Rodgers’ insistence that his team has played well even when the scoreboard suggests otherwise. Liverpool isn’t an easy job, as the pressure to regain elite status may be beyond its current capabilities, but that’s never stopped big clubs from searching for a new savior. Rodgers is 62–29–29 in the league over his three-plus seasons at Anfield, a record that is decent but not yet good enough.
So, while the club certainly is on better footing than it was five years ago, there’s still a long way to go before it can realistically challenge for the league title consistently. That may be no matter who the manager is. But results do matter, and as the new Main Stand goes up and Liverpool gets closer to its rivals' financial might, there’s an increasing sense that Rodgers might not be the one to reap those apparent benefits.