2014/15 will be a season many Liverpool fans will want to forget. What was meant to be a fond farewell for departing legend Steven Gerrard became a horror show, with uninspired performances in the club’s most important matches followed by an embarrassing 6-1 defeat to Stoke on the final day and, ultimately, a 6th-placed finish. Brendan Rodgers’ job now hangs in the balance as Thomas Stelzer assesses the Ulsterman’s season.
It seems a funny thing to say in football, where every victory great and small is fought for and savoured, but Brendan Rodgers may very well be a victim of his own success.
After guiding Liverpool to an unexpected, and ultimately unfortunate, tilt at the Premier League title in his second season in charge, Rodgers’ great expectations for the season just gone have been nothing short of ruinous.
With the departure of Luis Suarez and the much-vaunted windfall that brought in, Rodgers began the season promising the world. Talk of league challenges and the promise Liverpool would not ‘do a Spurs’ and squander the money from selling their best player was music to the ears of many Reds fans still riding the high from the previous season.
The arrival of European starlets like Emre Can and Lazar Markovic, the Southampton trio and walking headline-generator Mario Balotelli signalled Liverpool’s intent – a £117m splurge on both the present and future.
Early injury to Daniel Sturridge, arguably Liverpool’s best player, was a major setback and it soon appeared Rodgers was struggling to incorporate the various new cogs into what, last season, had been a particularly well-oiled machine.
By November, Liverpool were 12th in the league, out of form and out of ideas. Defeat at Old Trafford in December left the Top 4 and Champions League qualification a distant dream and Rodgers took most of the blame. To his credit, he held himself accountable and, after trialing the formation against Manchester United, led Liverpool on a 13-game unbeaten run using an innovative 3-4-2-1.
With Top 4 back on the cards and two cup semi-finals on the calendar, Rodgers’ worm had turned, before defeat at home to United, a thrashing at Arsenal and an insipid surrender to Aston Villa in the FA Cup put the club back at square one.
In Steven Gerrard’s last home game against Crystal Palace, Rodgers and Liverpool capitulated, though the result was overshadowed by the emotion of the occasion. It was not until the final round, in Gerrard’s last ever game for the club he had served for 17 years, that Liverpool’s season and Rodgers’ future was dealt a pivotal blow.
Away at Stoke, against a team who had solidified a mid-table finish, the Reds found themselves 5-0 down by halftime. A fitting consolation Gerrard goal and a Peter Crouch header saw the match end 6-1, Liverpool’s biggest defeat since 1963 and a final indignity for Gerrard, whose last 12 months at the club were perhaps the most miserable of his entire career.
Liverpool finished the season in 6th, leapfrogged by Tottenham on the final day, a far cry from Rodger’s pre-season promise of challenging for the league. He became the first Liverpool manager to not win a trophy in his first three seasons at the club in over half a century and finished with a +4 goal difference, the lowest since Graeme Souness’ dour 1993-94 side achieved the same.
The team’s performance has rightfully put a question mark over Rodgers’ future, but it’s difficult to assess if he was more victim of circumstance or master of his own downfall.
Much has been made of the fact Liverpool missed the genius of Luis Suarez, but Rodgers also had to do without the services of Sturridge for a vast majority of the season. Despite a large expenditure on attacking players, Liverpool’s goalscoring exploits suffered, though it’s hard to determine whether this was due to Rodgers’ tactics, the performances of the players, or even the club’s overall transfer policy.
Despite spending impressively, Liverpool’s new signings have underperformed. Can and Moreno showed youthful promise, but the purchase of Dejan Lovren and Mario Balotelli have been notable failures. The executive structure at Liverpool means Rodgers works in collaboration with a much-publicised transfer committee, a convoluted setup that muddies the waters – and the accountability when it doesn’t work out.
Rodgers, and the club, are in the unenviable position of having to compete with the teams above him on a smaller budget and with effectively no room for error. The other big clubs can afford expensive mistakes, as evidenced by Chelsea’s Juan Cuadrado, Manchester City’s Eliaquim Mangala, and Manchester United’s Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria. Liverpool are not afforded the same luxury.
He also had to contend with the impending departure of captain Steven Gerrard, arguably the club’s greatest ever player and certainly its most loyal servant. Gerrard’s waning star became a veritable albatross around the neck of Brendan Rodgers – a player whose best days were behind him, but whose commitment to the club and the circus-like narrative around him demanded playing time; perhaps more so than any other player in world football.
Rodgers faces a trans-atlantic trip to meet with Liverpool’s Boston-based owners FSG, an eerily-similar situation to that which saw Kenny Dalglish released of his services in 2012. When Rodgers took the job, he requested Liverpool fans judge him after three years. Those words have certainly come back to haunt him, but whether the owners have seen enough in the interim to give him another chance remains to be seen.