FOOTBALL is, as the old saying goes, “a funny old game”. Virtually nothing is certain in the so called “beautiful game” and even less so, it seems, in the Barclays Premier League where unpredictability is rapidly becoming a by-word.
Take Liverpool for example. Who would have predicted in 2008/09, when the Reds finished runners-up to Manchester United after going the whole season unbeaten at Anfield, that just one year on we’d finish the season languishing in 7th place?
Who would’ve said that we’d still be in the process of attempting to re-dress the balance three seasons on? And, who would’ve predicted when Kenny Dalglish was offered the job of manager on a permanent basis, that one season later, the job would be given to a relatively inexperienced, young manager from Northern Ireland, who very few had ever paid any real attention to? Not many I venture to say.
That’s the truth of it though, that’s where Liverpool are as a football club. As to where we’re going, well, funnily enough, that’s difficult to predict with any degree of surety, however, it would appear that the club are on the right track and with Brendan Rodgers now firmly at the helm, it’s fair to say that slow, steady progress is being made.
Rodgers was, to many, a surprise appointment as LFC boss. As mentioned above, his relative inexperience at the top level of the game left many, fans and pundits alike, scratching their heads when the announcement was made. Since taking the job, however, he has shown some very impressive qualities, the introduction of which have served to highlight their absence at Anfield over recent seasons; things such as media awareness/friendliness, in-game management and an organised, progressive footballing philosophy.
One of Rodgers’s accepted strengths upon joining LFC was in the area of man-management. This is an oft mentioned yet vastly under-appreciated aspect of managing a football team and, for me, is what separates average/good managers from the successful/great managers. Its one thing to have the best players but it is another thing entirely to be able to get those players to play to the absolute best of their abilities; Rodgers is beginning to do that.
The best way to exemplify Rodgers’s abilities as a man manager is to look at the cases of three individual players, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique. All three came to Liverpool in the summer of 2011 when the transfer dealings were infamously under the influence of Damien Comolli, the least thrifty man ever to hold a set of purse strings. Consequently, with the exception of Enrique who cost around £6 million, they were purchased at massively inflated prices, thus making the pressure to attain instant success in a Reds’ shirt all the more intense.
Jose Enrique began his first season as a Liverpool player in fine style. Assured early season performances from the left-back seemed to justify his capture from Newcastle United and, before long, many LFC fans were wondering why Spain had never thought to give him a chance for Los Rojas. However as the season wore on and Liverpool began to shake, crack and eventually crumble, so too did Enrique.
High profile errors, particularly against Manchester United, highlighted the defender’s loss of form and, as his confidence waned in front of our eyes, Enrique displayed an alarming fragility in the back four, so much so that by the end of the season many fans were unhappy to see him in the first XI.
Stewart Downing, the most expensive of the trio weighing in at an eye-watering, mind-boggling £20 million, began the season as he would continue it. Against Sunderland on his debut, Downing didn’t have a bad game, in fact he almost scored a wonder-goal but the crossbar denied him. That would be the story of Stewart Downing’s first season at Liverpool – decent in patches but no end product. His lack of goals or assists was overlooked by many in the early stages of the campaign as his general play was promising and the team itself wasn’t doing too badly.
In the second half of the season however, when as a team Liverpool appeared to be running in quicksand, the focus very much switched to Downing’s lack of telling contributions, the crowd got on his back and his confidence drained. He would end the Premier League season on zero goals and zero assists, simply unacceptable for a winger.
Jordan Henderson arrived from Sunderland for yet another exorbitantly high transfer fee. £16 million it cost the club to prize the England U-21 Captain from his hometown club and for much of the season many Liverpool fans where left asking why? Henderson started 37 Premier League games for the Reds last season, making him the most regularly used member of the squad.
He got off to a half-decent start, netting his first goal in the early season sacking of eventually relegated Bolton. Unfortunately, this would prove to be a false dawn for the young lad as he regularly found himself being played out of position (often deployed on the right of midfield) and struggled to make a real impact during the season, despite his appearance record.
Stewart Downing has started 12 of the last 13 games for Liverpool in one position or another. Having spent the vast majority of his career at left-midfield, Downing has been asked by Rodgers to play at left-back and right-midfield, as well as in his natural position, and it’s paying dividends. Although not a natural defender, Downing is positionally aware and his pace helps him get out of trouble if needs be.
Playing from the right is probably where he’s at his most effective, cutting in on his left foot he has a decent strike on him and has an eye for a pass; attributes he showed against Fulham when he scored his first league goal for Liverpool, assisted Gerrard and, but for wasteful finishing, could’ve had two more assists. Downing is very much a confidence player and the faith that Rodgers has shown in him in making him an important member of the squad has seen the England man produce by far the best form of his LFC career to date.
Jose Enrique is another one that has come on leaps and bounds under Rodgers in recent times. After being unable to make the starting line-up earlier in the season in his preferred role of left-back, Rodgers experimented with Enrique by playing him further forward. This unshackling from defensive responsibilities seemed to invigorate the Spaniard who, in three or four games, went from looking a bit dodgy at the back to being one of the team’s most potent attacking weapon, developing a wonderful understanding with Suarez in the process. Playing further forward has also helped Enrique defensively, strange as it may seem.
His pace and ability to tackle back and provide cover for Downing or Johnson behind him, earned him high praise both from the manager and the fans and that’s done his confidence the world of good. Having made the switch back to left-back, he now looks much more comfortable defensively as well as having the belief in his ability to make things happen when he does get forward. A tribute to how far he’s progressed in recent times is the extent to which his hamstring tear has come as a blow to the side.
After almost leaving the club in the summer as mentioned above, Jordan Henderson has redoubled his efforts to prove his worth as a Liverpool player and it’s beginning to have a marked affect. Having been deployed primarily as cover for Lucas since the Brazilian’s return from injury, Henderson’s energy and industry in the midfield have seen him given a starting role in a number of recent games.
Playing at the apex of the midfield trio may not strike you as Jordan Henderson’s natural position, however he has been quietly effective in the role when asked to fulfil it and against Sunderland on January 2nd Henderson badgered his former club relentlessly and was certainly a candidate for man of the match. Henderson has gone from a bit part player to somebody that I want to start every game at the moment. Off the ball I feel that his pressing and persistence, stamina and fitness are key ingredients to Liverpool being able to play the style of football that we desire. On the ball, I’m of the opinion that Jordan Henderson has a lot in his locker that as yet hasn’t been on show in Liverpool red. A consistent run of games should help to bring that to the fore.
That these three players have become bona-fide options, more than that even is a testament not only to the unpredictability of football and the players’ own efforts, but also to the man-management of Brendan Rodgers. Whether it’s been tough love, carrot and stick, an arm around the shoulder or something completely different, the manager has taken three fringe players on the verge of being total flops at Anfield and, for the moment at least, is getting the absolute best out of them.
Those players aside, the squad as a whole seems to very positive and a close, tight-knit unit; players are gee-ing each other up on the pitch, celebrating together and playing with smiles on their faces – even Luis Suarez. Team spirit and togetherness is massively important, all the top teams possess it and it’s something you can’t buy; let’s hope under Brendan Rodgers, it can help take us back up where we belong.
You can catch up with Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/