It is not just that Liverpool are failing to win matches, but that there is no energy or excitement to their play. Brendan Rodgers will stay positive, but they have never looked further from fulfilling their potential…
“I think, for some reason, that wee bit of risk has gone out of our game. We need to ensure we take those risks in order to create in the game and bring that intensity to it”- Brendan Rodgers, September 18.
Brendan Rodgers may have spoken of the need for “risks” from his Liverpool team, but the only danger during the miserable first-half fare at Anfield was that supporters would fall asleep. Liverpool’s peaks under Rodgers have been when energy and attacking vivacity have been in abundance, but both now look absent without leave. The old classic may need changing – Liverpool look closer to YAWN than YNWA.
Norwich were meant to be the perfect opponent to give Liverpool’s season the kick-start it needed. Rodgers’ side had scored 20 goals in their last 426 minutes against the Canaries, but that was Old Liverpool; that was Suarezpool. A 1-1 draw on Sunday afternoon leaves Rodgers’ side in 13th position in the Premier League. They have scored four goals.
Even the crowd at Anfield were reserved, as if waiting to see proof of Rodgers’ promised improvements before they applauded his work. During the last 15 minutes it was the chants of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” from the away end that were most audible. One day in the near future, such predictions will be proved correct if this dreary run continues.
As a manager accustomed to the use of abstract nouns, Rodgers will know the value of a footballing ‘identity’. It is Louis van Gaal’s mantra, the insistence that, when his players operate in the style he demands, results will be achieved. That is now Rodgers’ biggest concern; his team have no hallmarks, no patterns and no continuity. No identity, if you will.
To watch Liverpool during 2013/14 was a deeply pleasurable experience for the neutral. The manner in which they attacked with a high-intensity pressing, up-and-at-em style overpowered opponents. The Liverpool of 2015/16 retain none of this – Alex Neil had no reason to be fearful. If that ability left when Luis Suarez walked out of the door, then Rodgers needed to find a new plan. Fifteen months later, any tactical or strategic response still looks to be in the planning stage.
As if to highlight the extraordinary chasm between the Liverpool of then and now, take this alarming statistic. In 2013/14, Liverpool scored three or more goals in a league game on 21 occasions, or 55.3% of games. In their 65 games since in all competitions, they’ve scored three or more times just six times. They’ve only scored more than three goals in a game once since Suarez left.
Last season, Liverpool were undermined by their inability to finish their chances. Rodgers’ side ranked third in the league for number of shots and fourth for number of shots on target, but only scored four more goals than Everton and Stoke. Their shot conversion rate was the seventh worst in the division. The six sides beneath them in that list were also the bottom six in the league table come the end of May.
With strikers, the cliche is that you shouldn’t worry when goals aren’t flowing, but when the chances dry up. Unfortunately, this was the issue Liverpool faced going into the game. A record of three goals (the joint worst in the entire league), and only Aston Villa, Sunderland and Newcastle had had fewer shots on target.
Against Norwich they finally did create chances, but this was evidence that last season’s profligacy has still not been resolved, despite Danny Ings’ excellent finish. Daniel Sturridge faces a long road back to match fitness and match sharpness, while Christian Benteke takes his place in the Melwood medical room.
Even when Liverpool did take the lead, there was no onslaught of pressure to take the game away from their opponents. Rodgers claimed after the match that the goal “released the shackles”, but (again) that’s a highly generous assessment.
Instead it was Norwich who responded and promptly held on for a point. If the issue of sloppy finishing has not been resolved, nor too has Liverpool’s dire defending at set pieces. Simon Mignolet flapped at a corner, and Russell Martin expertly flicked home his third goal of the season. That’s as many as any Liverpool striker has managed since September 2014.
“In terms of numbers it’s not so good but for me it’s all about the performance,” said Rodgers after the match. By “numbers”, I presume he means goals and points. Perhaps Rodgers should take up synchronised swimming or horse-dancing.
“Judge me in three years,” was the manager’s plea to supporters when he arrived at Anfield. Three months after that deadline, plenty have lost patience and faith. Brendan Rodgers is a man who would try and put a positive spin on nuclear apocalypse, but optimism in his ability to lead Liverpool forward is increasingly nearing naivety.