Liverpool FC - The Post-Suarez Era
Luis Suarez - The Arrival and Initial Impact
Upon the departure of one of Anfield heroes, Fernando Torres, to Chelsea FC for a then British record-fee of £50m, on the same day Liverpool brought in a talented Uruguayan striker, Luis Suarez from Ajax. Later that same day, they made a club record-breaking signing, in the form of Andy Carroll, a Premier League proven, formidable striker from Newcastle, for £35m.
That was the man in whom everybody at Liverpool probably saw a proper replacement for Torres, the man who managed to score 81 goals in 142 appearances in all competitions for the club, during 4 seasons spent at Anfield.
However, it was not to be. Though he scored some very important goals, the 1.93 m (6 ft 4 in) target-man failed to impress, scoring just 11 times in 58 games played for Liverpool in all competitions.
The replacement of manager Kenny Dalglish by Brendan Rodgers at the end of the 2011/12 season spelled the end of Carroll's Liverpool career. Rodgers wished to establish a faster, more fluid style of football, with the ball on the ground most of the time, and a big strong but not so quick striker like Carroll, that needs crosses from wingers to make a contribution, had no place in that plan. Instead, the skill, speed, football intelligence, perseverance and sheer talent of Luis Suarez started getting more and more attention. Further more, Rodgers brought in Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini, both very quick and technically gifted players. Carroll was loaned out to West Ham, and the move was made permanent a year after. The situation paved the way for Luis Suarez to fully deploy his potential and establish himself as one of the best players in the world.
The 2012/13 season contained only glimpses of his magnificence, and was plagued by incidents resulting in suspensions, first for racially abusive words spoken to Manchester United's Patrice Evra, and then the biting of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanović, making that the second such incident of his career. Still, he did manage to score 30 goals in 44 appearances, raising many eyebrows and getting attention from biggest clubs around Europe. The summer of 2013, he tried to work out an exit from the club, expressing the desire to play in the Champions League, with Premier League rivals Arsenal submitting an offer of just over £40m. However, Liverpool flatly refused to sell their prized asset. He buckled up for what was going to be an extraordinary season.
The Season of Bliss and the Departure
The 2013/14 started with 5 matches of suspension still to be served by the Uruguayan, and in those games, Daniel Sturridge kept bringing the points in for Liverpool by scoring several winners. After the comeback, from matchday 6 to the end of the season, having played 33 matches, Suarez formed a deadly striking partnership with Sturridge, the famous SAS that scored 52 goals in total, 31 of which were by Suarez. Thus he equaled the all-time Premier League record set by Alan Shearer, and equaled just once before by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Liverpool surprised the world of football that season, pushing the eventual winners of the Premier League, Manchester City, right to the last game.
However, the situation where he and the team played some unbelievable football and still failed to win a trophy probably stirred up the old desire to play for a bigger club. This time, it was the Spanish giants Barcelona who came calling, eventually submitting an offer that activated the buy-out clause in the Uruguayan's contract, believed to be around £75m. Meanwhile, Suarez committed his third biting offense by biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini during the 2014 World Cup, and received a 4-month ban from playing football.
But it didn't matter. That summer, Luis Suarez became an expensive Barcelona superstar, and broke the hearts of the Anfield faithful.
The Summer of 2014 - The Struggle Begins
Liverpool were left licking their wounds after the striker that, combined with the legendary captain Steven Gerrard, as well as Daniel Sturridge, and the young prospects Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho, looked set to bring back the glory of the old days to Anfield.
Using about the only positive thing in the situation, the influx of money, the club and Brendan Rodgers tried to diminish the loss by bringing in more quality players, thus expanding the squad, and spent the entire summer looking for a suitable replacement for the hero that was lost to them.
Defenders Dejan Lovren (Southampton), Alberto Moreno (Sevilla), Javier Manquillo (loan from Atletico Madrid), midfielders Adam Lallana (Southampton), Lazar Marković (Benfica) and Emre Can (Bayer Leverkusen), and forward Rickie Lambert (Southampton) were brought in during the summer transfer window, for the purpose of strengthening the squad. But the replacement for Luis Suarez was hard to find.
Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona was identified as the preferred option, since his playing time would be significantly diminished by the arrival of Suarez. However, Sanchez opted to join Arsenal instead, and many believe this to be a sign of Rodgers' weakness. Working with a young inexperienced manager probably seemed much less appealing to a player that had substantial experience at the highest level of football, and every trophy imaginable at club level already won with the Catalan club. Working with Arsen Wenger, at a club that was showing much more ambition at the time, made much more sense. Although some media supported a rather tabloid-smelling theory about "his wife preferring to live in London".
After the failure to land Sanchez, Liverpool went for Loic Remy of Newcastle, and pulled out of the deal. Supposedly, he failed the medical. That, however, didn't stop Chelsea from swooping in and signing him as a backup option for their new star striker Diego Costa. Remy's fitness remained relatively stable throughout the season, and he played his part in what turned out to be a title-winning campaign for the Stamford Bridge Blues. The next target was supposed to be Wilfried Bony who had just had a great season with Swansea, but that never materialized either.
Finally, Liverpool signed the much debated Mario Balotelli from AC Milan, for £16m. 24 years of age, immensely talented, strong, quick, athletic, a title-winner with Manchester City in 2012, with experience in the Champions League and having just played in the World Cup for Italy. Put it like that, and it seems a real bargain. But Mario Balotelli is, well, Mario Balotelli, and the world of football knows what that means.
After the first three league games, the injury woes of Daniel Sturridge began and lasted throughout the season. Twice he was scheduled to return to action during the autumn of 2014, only for reports to surface of him picking up another injury. He finally made his comeback on January 31, coming in as a substitute in the second half. It took him only 12 minutes to score with a fabulous strike, sending the Anfield crowd into ecstasy.
But the comeback wasn't to last. He scored the consolation goal in the 1-2 loss at Anfield to Liverpool fierce arch-rivals Manchester United, and after the game, it was reported he had picked up an injury once more. On May 5th, he underwent hip surgery and remained out of action for the rest of the season, the summer pre-season, and remains out for the first month of the 2015/16. The 2014/15 season finished with just 17 appearances and 5 goals to his name.
But back to September 2014, Rodgers had found himself in a tight spot. No Suarez, and now no Sturridge either. Mario Balotelli was called upon and given his chance to become a star striker in Rodgers' new experimental 4-2-3-1 formation. The experiment turned out a disaster in many aspects, not the least the aspect of Mario Balotelli playing a lone striker role, but Rodgers persisted with it for a long time.
Finally, it had got far enough when Liverpool found themselves in the lower half of the Premier League table. Rodgers had also experimented with Fabio Borini, but to no avail, as the quick-footed Italian showed time and time again that he lacks the quality required at Liverpool. 32-year old Rickie Lambert was also given a shot, and earned his share of criticism from the already frustrated fans. But to be fair to the occasional England international, during that time when he was made starter, he didn't do all that bad. He wasn't very pacey, but what would you expect from a 32-year old who was even at his best a "target man" type, similar to Andy Carroll, and was brought to the club to sit quietly on the bench and wait for his 5 to 15 minutes on the pitch to make a contribution. Though he found the net just 3 times in 36 appearances in all competitions, he still managed to outscore Balotelli in the Premier League, though not in all competitions. Between them, Balotelli (4), Borini (1) and Lambert (3) scored a total of 8 goals across all competitions throughout the entire season, making the injury-plagued Sturridge the top of the list among strikers with 5. That in itself speaks volumes about the woes of Liverpool's 2014/15 striking force.
The best period of the season, the beginning of 2015, saw Rodgers deploy Raheem Sterling, Liverpool's winger star in the making, as the lone striker in a refreshing 3-4-2-1 formation. Sterling displayed awesome talent in his intelligent movement and link-up play, but also made quality of his finishing questionable to say the least. The clear-cut chances he missed made the crowd groan many times. The game at Old Trafford was probably the one he'd want to forget soonest, as United's keeper David De Gea got the better of him in several one-on-one situations. The game ended in a 3-0 defeat. Still, Sterling managed to outscore all the strikers, with 11 goals in 52 games in all competitions. Liverpool's top scorer of the season, however, was the 35-year old iconic captain Steven Gerrard, being the team's designated penalty and free-kick taker, with 13 strikes in 37 games.
Liverpool finished the 2013/14 season in the second place with 84 points, only two less than the title-winning Manchester City. As mentioned before, the SAS partnership with their 52 goals largely contributed to the impressive team total of 101. However, such great attacking output did well in hiding, or pushing away from focus, the fact that Liverpool conceded 50, more than any other team in the top 8. With scoring goals becoming a problem in 2014/15, 52 being the team total this time with 48 conceded, defensive problems came into the spotlight. Last season's 5-3 victories became this season's 3-1 defeats, and points slipped away. Dreams of another top 4 finish and Champions League season were dispersed in a storm of horrible results towards the end of the season, culminating in a 6-1 disaster at the hands of Stoke. Adding to the misery of that day was the fact that this was the last game in a Liverpool shirt for Steven Gerrard. What a way to say goodbye to a legend.
Upon his arrival, Brendan Rodgers was widely perceived as someone with a lot of potential for becoming a truly great manager, having impressed during his two years of managing Swansea. Before that, he had spells at Watford and Reading. The 2013/14 season and the unexpected title charge saw his reputation rise rapidly. He was slowly entering the "big-boys' game" as Liverpool were expected to continually challenge top teams in England and fight with some strength for a Champions League spot.
However, the very next season indicated that this was probably too big a step for the Northern Irishman. The team failed to achieve any of the goals set by the owners of the club, that supposedly being to reach the top 4, to win a cup and to work on developing the young players in the squad. Many players were played out of their natural position, and while one might argue that this probably helped the development of Raheem Sterling, it very much hindered that of Lazar Marković and Emre Can. Also, many people feel that his man-management skills thoroughly failed the test with Mario Balotelli.
Of course, the first question that springs to mind is why the boy was even signed. Balotelli is well known for his lack of social skills, to put it mildly, often previously displayed by disruptive and sometimes aggressive behavior on the pitch, as well as causing problems away from it. More experienced, accomplished managers such as Jose Mourinho, Massimiliano Allegri and Roberto Mancini are, failed to make something of him, and despite the obvious talent, Balotelli is still constantly falling short of his potential, his ability to focus, his football intelligence, work-ethic, discipline and team spirit being under constant bombardment from the critics. Rodgers had previously claimed that Mario Balotelli would NOT be joining Liverpool, and indicated several times after that signing the Italian was NOT his decision.
Many people blame Rodgers for not utilizing players optimally, with again Balotelli and Rickie Lambert being the case. Balotelli is considered widely as a striker that gives most output in a partnership, and the away 0-3 victory against Tottenham was a good example of that. Partnered with Daniel Sturridge, Balotelli was a real handful for the Spurs' defense. But when Sturridge got injured, Balotelli spent most of his time on the pitch as a lone striker. As for Lambert, a tall player with much strength and little speed was expected to feed on skillfully threaded passes, the cunning footwork of Coutinho, instead of sending high crosses into the box. As wrong as it gets.
Lazar Marković is very useful when he plays as a classic winger, an attacking midfielder, or even a second striker, paired up with a classic center-forward. During his first season at Liverpool, he played mostly as a wing-back, sometimes even a full-back, and it's not that hard to fathom the reasons for his failure to impress. The same can be said of Emre Can, who has shown time and time again that as a box-to-box central midfielder, he can be the driveing force of the team. Yet, he played mostly as a center-back, and sometimes as a full-back, in an attempt from Rodgers to make the 11 players on the pitch flexible in terms of formation. To be fair, Can did relatively well as a center-back in a line of 3 at the back, but his energy and creativity was sorely missed in midfield.
As mentioned before, Javier Manquillo was on loan at Liverpool from Atletico Madrid, a two-year loan with an option to buy. The option was believed to be activated by 20 appearances for Liverpool, so Rodgers carefully avoided the boy crossing the magical number 19. The loan was then cut short, and he was sent back to Madrid. Now he has joined Olympic Marseille. On loan, again.
It would seem that having an inexperienced manager without a single trophy in his career, at such a high level, is taking its toll. When the season ended, Rodgers had spent three years as the Liverpool manager, and became the first manager in 50 years of club's history not to have won a single trophy in that time. His long-ago spoken words "judge me after three years" came to mind, as well as "a team that spends over £100m in a single transfer window should be winning the title". The club had spent nearly £120m on new players the previous summer. Many started calling for him to be sacked.
After the nightmare at the Britannia Stadium at Stoke, he had a long meeting with the people from FSG in charge of the club. The season was thoroughly revised. It was decided that he will be given another chance. Probably the last one.
Should Liverpool FC have sacked Brendan Rodgers after the 2014/15 season?
The Summer of 2015 - A New Hope
The owners have decided not only to give Rodgers another chance, but apparently to give him every player he wants, if possible.
Steven Gerrard, the long-serving captain of the team, legend of the club and hero to the fans, has left. Raheem Sterling got his wish for a big-money move and joined Manchester City for £49m after a long and tiring summer-transfer saga. Goalkeeper Brad Jones, full-backs Glen Johnson and Javier Manquillo, center-back Sebastian Coates and striker Rickie Lambert have left the club as well. Full-back Jose Enrique, and strikers Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini have supposedly been told to find new clubs.
Goalkeeper Adam Bogdan (Bolton Wanderers), defenders Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton) and Joe Gomez (Charlton Athletic), midfielders James Milner (Manchester City), Roberto Firmino (1899 Hoffenheim), and strikers Danny Ings (Burnley) and Christian Benteke (Aston Villa) have been brought in, together with striker Divock Origi who's one-year loan spell at Lille expired this summer.
Liverpool's transfer activities this year seem good so far, most notably in the attacking section, where the squad looks impressive at the moment. Perhaps a top class center-back and a defensive midfielder are needed still, but hey, you can't get everything at once, can you.
The most important thing is that these are supposedly the players Rodgers had asked for, so now he should have all the tools required to provide a successful season for the club. There can be no more excuses for the Northern Irishman. In any case, it looks as though 2015/16 is going to be an exciting one.
© 2015 Veselin Trajkovic