‘Being: Brendan’ – Is Rodgers The Right Man To Take Liverpool Forward?

by Mike Kennedy

Brendan Rodgers now has more than a quarter of a league season under his belt as Liverpool manager and while many fans are satisfied with his performance, doubts are creeping into the minds of others. We’re yet to see Benitez-esque levels of polarization, but there are early signs that we’re heading in that direction.

Is Rodgers the right man to take Liverpool forward?

Some see him as a visionary. A dynasty-builder. A natural leader of men who will confidently drive Liverpool forward into a brighter future. (And who better to do this than such a noble paragon of the Passing Game?)

Some see him as nothing more than a plausible chancer; a bullshit artist who stood on the shoulders of Roberto Martinez at Swansea and sold a compelling story to impressionable and naive Americans who just don’t understand football. After all, “what’s Rodgers really changed at Liverpool since replacing Dalglish?”, they ask. (A fair bit, as it happens.)

Some have gone even further and labeled him an egomaniac: a Gervais/Coogan character made real; a self-centred narcissist who decorates his home with indulgent self-portraits, starts the day roaring at himself in the mirror (“I’m a tiger!”), before screeching off to Melwood in his faux-batmobile and returning home in the evening to -more than likely- masturbate over videos of himself masturbating.

To get a flavour for some of the disenchantment, have a read of the comments at the footer of this Echo article. Angry people. Foam spewing out of their angry mouths as they bash angrily away on their Lidl keyboards.

Such is the gamut of fans’ perception.

Initially Rodgers was immune to criticism due to the scale of mistakes made prior to his arrival but now the honeymoon period is beginning to wane. A couple of underwhelming performances have contributed to this but it’s mostly just a natural reflection of Rodgers starting to bear the weight of fans’ expectations in his own right.

So let’s get into it. Eleven games down, twenty seven to go. How’s he done so far?

Rodgers’ critics point to the Premier League table for evidence of his mediocrity and Liverpool’s lack of progress. It certainly doesn’t make pleasant viewing for the Ulsterman:

Rodgers has averaged 1.09 points per game and Liverpool currently lie 13th in the Premier League table.

To add a little context to this let’s quickly review the performance of other Liverpool managers of the modern era during their first eleven games.

Roy Evans’ points per game = 1.64

Gerrard Houllier’s first eleven games (in sole charge). Points per game = 1.73

Rafa Benitez’s first eleven games in charge: Points per game = 1.55

Roy Hodgson. Points per game = 1.36

Kenny Dalglish (second term as Liverpool manager). Points per game = 1.82

POINTS PER GAME FROM FIRST ELEVEN MATCHES IN CHARGE:

1) Dalglish 1.82

2) Houllier 1.73

3) Evans 1.64

4) Benitez 1.55

5) Hodgson 1.36

6) Rodgers 1.09

Rodgers’ 1.09 points per game is a reflection of the fact that Liverpool have had their worst start to a season in 101 years.

It’s easy to see where the naysayers are gathering their ammunition isn’t it?

But the stats, as ever, don’t tell the whole story. There are mitigating factors which mustn’t be ignored: Rodgers arrived at a club struggling for confidence, both on the pitch and in the stands; a team bereft of form and goals which saw significant changes in personnel with senior players departing in the summer (Kuyt, Bellamy, Maxi etc); an onerous opening batch of fixtures (facing last season’s Top 3 in his first 3 home games); an injury to the side’s most structurally important player (Lucas); a transfer window ‘misunderstanding’ causing Carroll to leave with no replacement;  a slew of youngsters finding their feet in the team and all the incumbent upheaval of a new manager and staff bedding in to the working fabric of the club.

‘Transition’ barely scratches the surface. This is a club in convulsion, bewildered and vulnerable, struggling to retain a meaningful foothold in the modern landscape of European football after being eviscerated by Hicks and Gillette.

Liverpool fans used to feel immortal. No longer. Dalglish returned. An old hero fighting to win back old ground. His work prematurely curtailed by owners seeking more dynamism. Cue more change. More new players. More departures. More new backroom staff. More new systems. (Lucas Leiva joined Liverpool five years ago – he’s played under 4 different regimes. How can you build on such a quicksand?)

It’s into this chaotic arena that Brendan Rodgers has arrived. And he’s being chastised, written off even (in some quarters) for not sorting it all out within 10 league games!

Thankfully the doom-mongers are mostly casual and ignorant observers drawing superficial short-term conclusions, but there’s also some savvy fans that frankly should know better.

Like any manager Rodgers should be judged in context. He is facing a more difficult task than any Liverpool manager since Bill Shankly arrived in December 1959 and the reality is that he’s doing a lot right. Could he have done better? Yes, but that could be said about every manager in the game.

Correcting the course of a listing European football giant is a slow process. It’s like turning an oil tanker around – it takes time. The only thing fans can realistically hope to see during any renaissance is green shoots of recovery that augur well for the future.

And thankfully they are plentiful at Liverpool.

Forget the historic data and apocalyptic stats that are being served up each day by a gleeful and ghoulish media – the fairest way to measure Rodgers’ impact is to compare his Liverpool side to the one that immediately preceded his arrival.

Let’s do it.

(All below data is correct as of 12th Nov 2012 and applies to Premier League games only.)

Liverpool enjoy more possession under Rodgers. This season’s match average is 57.5% versus last season’s of 55.4%.

On average during a premier league game the ball is in play for 62.4 minutes. This means that Liverpool have the ball, in play, for 1 minute and 15 seconds more per game this season than they did last season.

And the benefits are twofold of course – our opponents have 1 minute and 15 seconds less to hurt us in each game. (This may not seem a lot, but if there are only 62 minutes in a game up for grabs, I’d rather Liverpool had that minute and a quarter than the opposition, wouldn’t you?)

This is a tangible, measurable benefit that Rodgers has brought to Liverpool’s game.

Liverpool create more chances under Rodgers. In total last season Liverpool created 484 chances, this season they’ve already created 143. This is a 2.1% increase. Not a vast improvement, but undoubtedly a step forward.

Liverpool pass the ball more under Rodgers & complete more passes. Last season Liverpool attempted to pass the ball 495 times per game on average. This season they attempt 515 passes. A 4.1% increase on last year. Because pass completion has increased vs last year by 3.1%, the overall result is that Liverpool successfully pass the ball 9.4% more under Rodgers than they did under Dalglish.

As we discussed in a previous article, whether more passes actually matter if they don’t lead to more goals is another debate entirely. (I’m personally of the opinion that -overall- they do and I like to watch a passing game, so for me this is a big positive though I accept that this ‘improvement’ isn’t as black and white in terms of its benefit to the team as the other points listed here.)

Liverpool are more clinical in front of goal under Rodgers. Last year Liverpool had to shoot an average of 12.3 times to score a goal. Under Rodgers this has improved and Liverpool now have to shoot 11.6 times. (This is almost entirely due to Suarez’s form, but Rodgers must take some credit here too – not only for retaining him at the club, but for keeping him motivated. Suarez is in the form of his career and Rodgers should take at least some credit for that.)

Liverpool pass the ball forward more under Rodgers. A common criticism of Rodgers’ preferred style of play is “What’s the point in having a pretty passing game if all the passes go square, or backwards?”.

This is a myth that’s being widely propagated and is simply not true. Under Rodgers Liverpool successfully pass the ball forward 11.3% more than they did last season under Dalglish. (Due largely to an improvement in forward passing accuracy, and not because of the sheer volume of passes attempted. This implies the players are picking their forward passes more shrewdly and placing them with more care, which aligns with the manager’s purist aims.)

Many observers have commented that Liverpool are controlling games more than they did last year and the above data offers some further insight into why that may be.

Liverpool aren’t winning games because they have the most threadbare forward line in the Premier League and while we’d all love to see a higher number in the ‘W’ column, it doesn’t mean we can’t applaud clear and measurable improvements elsewhere in the team’s play.

With the addition of the 3 players that Rodgers thinks his first team needs (presumably two of whom are forwards) the picture will look very different. And surely we have to wait until he has shaped his own side before we judge/lynch him?

Most Liverpool fans acknowledge that a top 4 spot is probably out of reach this season and would be satisfied with Liverpool improving on last year’s position. That equates to a league position of 5th, 6th or 7th.

What many fans seemingly haven’t been prepared to tolerate is the chain of patchy and inconsistent results that come hand-in-hand with that finishing league position.

And there’s the rub.

No fan wants to be told “things aren’t going to improve soon, so just deal with it” but in many respects that’s the current position at Anfield and it will remain so until January. In the interim Rodgers needs continued patience and support from the fans and he has demonstrated that he merits this support.

Of course, this leads on to another broader issue that we’ll discuss in more detail in the future: FSG need to back their man in January.

Rodgers needs significant and sustained investment in player recruitment and if FSG aren’t seen to fully support Rodgers they will face a ferocious fan backlash. Liverpool fans have heard enough holding statements and nebulous futurism. Hard cash, spent wisely, is the only thing that will propitiate the fans for the rest of the season.

Rodgers may or may not succeed in his Herculean task, but he’s shown promising signs in difficult early days.

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