Is Brendan Rodgers the man to take Liverpool back to consistent Champions League football?
“Can he take Liverpool back to the Champions League regularly? Of course. Will he take them back? That’s a more difficult question. Liverpool are arguably playing their most attractive football since they finished runners-up in 2009. But that 2009 team knew how to dig out a result, and at present Rodgers’s side just aren’t capable of doing that. Is that because of the system or the players? Probably a bit of both, really. It’s why their results are so inconsistent. And why they won’t qualify for the Champions League this season and are still three or four quality signings away from a realistic tilt next time around.”
Do you think Rodgers’ use of academy players was a forced hand?
“Not really. Rodgers is a renowned advocate of youth, so selecting Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom as one of the first major acts of his tenure was laying down a significant marker, particularly as the trio were ostensibly in the team at the expense of perceived failures Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique. But Liverpool’s improvement in league form since the turn of the year has coincided with the return of the more experienced trio. Maybe it was a kick up the backside Downing, Henderson and Enrique needed. After all, there’s no guarantee Sterling, Suso and Wisdom will become regulars. But at least Liverpool’s youngsters know they will be given a chance.”
Last season, Liverpool had a good defensive record yet this season the defence has looked susceptible at times, how big of loss has Steve Clarke been?
“Steve Clarke is highly regarded as a coach – you only have to look at how well he has done at West Bromwich Albion this season – but the defensive issues are more because of the shift in overall philosophy than any specific changes in backroom staff. Not all the players have been comfortable in the new system – compare and contrast the fortunes of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel – and the loss of Lucas Leiva for much of the first half of the season was as big a blow to the defence as any tactical tweaking.”
Is there space in the midfield for both Joe Allen and Lucas to play together?
“Rodgers clearly thinks so. Lucas is one of the first names on the teamsheet when fit, and having spent £15million on Allen it’s clear Rodgers rates the Welshman highly. The revelation of Allen’s shoulder injury can only partly explain his dramatic dip in form in recent months which, it must be said, began with the return of Lucas to the side. Allen will have to show more next season because the evidence thus far is that, no, he and Lucas can’t play together.”
How do Liverpool compensate for the loss of Jamie Carragher and were you surprised by his announcement of his retirement?
“I wasn’t really surprised by his retirement. And until his recent run in the first team, I don’t think anybody would have been overly surprised Carra decided to call it a day. It would benefit Liverpool enormously if he had a change of heart, but his mind is made up. You can’t compensate for the loss of Carra – he was a one-off in so many ways. But in terms of the defence, it represents the chance for some major surgery. With Carra retired, Martin Skrtel most likely going and Sebastian Coates off, Liverpool could need as many as three new centre-backs. Ashley Williams will be one. The others, though, could prove more problematic.”
Luis Suarez has always been part of the media storm, what do you make of the controversy that seems follows him?
“From a journalistic point of view, you always want a player or two who is going to ensure regular headlines. However, in the case of Suarez, it can at times become a bit wearying to be writing about things that have nothing to do with his on-field talent which, as has been proven this season, is something remarkable. Suarez is simply one of the best players in the world, and it’s a privilege to watch him – and write about him – on a regular basis.”
Do you think Luis Suarez is in a team and a system that allows him to realise his full potential?
“Yes. You only have to look at his statistics this season to see that. Suarez has been phenomenal, whether it has been as a lone striker or, since the arrival of Daniel Sturridge, in a more withdrawn role. But the reality is Suarez would be a great player in any team, in any system. Rodgers and Liverpool just need to surround him with good players, but that takes money and time – things they may not really have.”
Can Brendan Rodgers emulate a successful possession ethos in the Premier League much like Barcelona in La Liga?
“If Brendan Rodgers had Barcelona’s players with Barcelona’s upbringing, then yes, without a doubt. But he hasn’t. It would take years for such a project to come to fruition, by which time Rodgers would probably have moved on to pastures new. And in any case, it’s not like Rodgers invented the passing game. It’s been in England all along, particularly at Liverpool. Indeed, it’s telling that Liverpool aren’t overplaying as much as they did earlier in the season, are mixing it up with more longer balls – the arrival of Sturridge has helped stretch opposing teams – and have been getting better results as a consequence. Sure, everybody wants to see attractive football. But they want to see a team win. The question should be whether or not Rodgers can emulate Barcelona’s winning ethos. Because winning is what it is all about.”
Is renovating Anfield the right move or would a new stadium be more beneficial?
“To be honest, whatever is going to happen, they need to get a move on. It has gone on too long. I’m from St Helens, who have had their own problems building a stadium for the rugby league team. Most locals never thought it would happen, and such has been the inertia with Liverpool’s stadium, Anfield residents have no doubt been left fearing the same thing. But realistically, renovating Anfield is the sensible option. A new stadium does not justify the expense, plus staying at Anfield will maintain its mystique – even though there’d be next to nothing left of the ground that stood during Liverpool’s all-powerful reign in the 1970s and 80s.”
Looking at foreign ownership in the English game, how do FSG differ and are they doing it the right way, in terms of buying for future?
“What is success in football these days for an owner? Is it making a profit? It is winning trophies? Is it managing debt? Is it building a lucrative new stadium? Is it selling on the club for a tidy wedge? In that respect, FSG are no different from any other foreign owner. They want to win, and they preferably want to do that while making money. FSG are learning from their mistakes having had their fingers burned badly by overpaying for certain players, although some of their off-field moves raise an eyebrow or two. And I fear they may discover the hard way that potential doesn’t always result in a finished product, and experience can be the most valuable commodity.”
What are realistic targets for Liverpool for the remainder of the season?
“Champions League qualification has long gone, and even finishing fifth will be a bit of a struggle now. They have the easier fixture list, but could anyone really trust Liverpool to string four or five wins together while avoiding any daft defeats? The very least Rodgers will want is proof the team, under his methods, are heading in the right direction.”