These are trying times for Brendan Rodgers. In the wake of Liverpool’s loss to a ruthless Chelsea at Anfield on Saturday, Rodgers was reminded, once again, of the Premier League’s equally unforgiving nature.
The Londoners’ win on Merseyside lacked, perhaps, the significance of their victory in April, a devastating, Jose Mourinho-masterminded smash and grab that halted the home team’s previously inevitable march to an overdue league championship some 25 years after the Hillsborough disaster. It was, nevertheless, just as coldly efficient.
Facing the reluctant opprobrium of the public, Rodgers’s tacit admission this week that his squad is not quite up to scratch appears, at this late stage, to be somewhat overdue.
Defensive naivety rarely bears fruit and the careless manner in which Rodgers’s charges frittered away a perfectly obtainable title at the tail end of last season will have rankled long after Manchester City’s ultimate triumph. Losing a shot at such heady, historic glory will have shaken the Ulsterman, representing as it did a gilt-edge chance to establish himself firmly in any conversation concerning the Premier League’s finest managers.
No matter how nobly they expressed simple satisfaction with an automatic place in this year’s Champions League, Liverpool still appear punch drunk from that horrifying failure at the death. It is a torpor which certainly persisted during a pre-season defined less by the amount of transfer activity than by its lack of direction, and one which now characterises a full-blown regression.
Flush with funds from the sale of Luis Suarez – a transaction that moved from potential to definite in the time it took the Uruguayan to sink his teeth into Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder – Rodgers made speculative, if aggressive, forays into the market when the addition of top-level players should have been an immovable priority. Adam Lallana, Emre Can, Dejan Lovren and Lazar Markovic; all are pricey recruits, accomplished professionals in their own right, but hardly the flinty reinforcements required if dual fronts in Europe and the Premier League are to be successfully negotiated.
The loss of Suarez would present a challenge for most clubs. The reigning PFA Player of the Year pillaged 31 league goals in spite of a late, ban-induced start to the campaign and his fearsome, almost vintage, partnership with Daniel Sturridge (scorer of 22 goals) constituted a genuinely irreplaceable spearhead. That Barcelona chose to part with £75m for a footballer who could not don their colors until October speaks to his gilded abilities. A heavyweight signing should have been the only response from Liverpool.
Rodgers cites venerable names when speaking of missed summer targets: Diego Costa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez. Costa, scorer of the winner last Saturday, was always likely to be Chelsea bound; Mkhitaryan and Sanchez, their obvious qualities notwithstanding, hardly equate to positional replacements for Suarez.
It should not have proved so difficult a task. Rodgers won many admirers following his side’s free-wheeling ascent to within touching distance of a trophy in 2013/14. Looking like a great club on the rise, possessed of substantial spending money, Liverpool seemed set to compete, at last, for genuine A-list performers and while the figures certainly tally with ambition – spending hit £117m when the dice were rolled on Mario Balotelli – the faces do not.
Fielded in Madrid to signal their readiness for first-team action, in a match actually requiring a positive result, Markovic and Can point to a potentially lustrous future. The latter in particular lends the midfield a muscular elegance that Steven Gerrard, for all his industry, no longer possesses. Lallana, too, has shown himself capable of a place at the top table, though his £25m fee, incredibly, exceeds the £20m paid by Real Madrid to Bayern Munich for World Cup winner Toni Kroos.
It is arguable, however, that Rodgers should have trained his gaze upon the Kroos end of the talent pool: the same end from which Manchester United, with their battered aura and dearth of European football, scooped up the unsettled, mercurial Ángel Di María. In truth, Suarez was the snarling x-factor in an otherwise largely functional collective and only a fellow difference-maker, expensively engaged of course, could mitigate the effects of his departure.
In spite of the largesse displayed throughout the transfer window, the cut-price arrival of Balotelli smacked of desperation. The enigmatic Italian is not quite a patchwork substitute but his value is steadily decreasing alongside his now tiresome inability to harness the prodigious gifts that have piqued the interest of so many in the game. Robbed of an injured Sturridge for company, his listless presence continues to offer little in the way of an attacking threat. Indeed, as the wait goes on for Liverpool’s next domestic title, relevant questions will be asked of the manager from sources beyond a disgruntled fan base.
Rodgers must figure out the answers, quickly.