Brendan Rodgers lamented his side’s misfortune in encountering a goalkeeper at the peak of his powers during yesterday’s chastening defeat to rivals Manchester United – but creating enough chances to win will have come as little consolation to the Liverpool boss.
Evolution as a football manager can be slow, and regression unforgiving. How distant must the 3-0 reverse scoreline in the midst of a nine-match winning streak nine months ago now feel for the Northern Irishman.
Rodgers was rightly celebrated by his peers for his achievements last season, voted their Manager of the Year, but barely 25 games have passed in all competitions since, and he now finds himself under increasing pressure from his own supporters.
Unceremoniously dumped out of the Europe’s elite competition last week by Swiss champions Basel, Rodgers departed back down the East Lancs Road yesterday evening – his side ninth and 18 points adrift of league leaders Chelsea – having reached something approaching his nadir in the Anfield hot-seat.
Admittedly, David de Gea’s brilliance in the 3-0 victory at Old Trafford spoke volumes of a distorted result which concealed the 22 touches Liverpool managed inside United’s own penalty area and the nine shots fired on target – many from point-blank range.
Rodgers spoke of the need to “recapture the team ethos” from the wreckage of another damaging loss, but rediscovering a killer instinct in front of goal would account for much of the derision being poured on the five-time European champions.
Mario Balotelli – whose search for a Premier League goal for his new club shall continue into an 11th game – has continued to attract criticism despite a busy substitute appearance in which the Italian had three efforts snuffed out by the unconquerable de Gea, and there is little evidence of a regular goal source emerging from the club’s other auxiliary strikers.
Raheem Sterling – his future still in doubt – will endure a few sleepless nights ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Merseyside next Sunday having lost his own duel with de Gea, while Rickie Lambert will still be smarting from being withdrawn at half-time against Basel. Fabio Borini plainly has no future at the club.
While replacing Luis Suarez through a swollen transfer kitty was instantly compared to the travails of Tottenham following Gareth Bale’s sale to Real Madrid, few would have predicted the acute state of flux that has left Liverpool – last year’s runaway runners-up – brutally exposed as a mid-table side, back to where they were 18 months ago.
The inquest that began upon confirmation of the club’s Champions League exit on Tuesday will have continued in the early hours of this morning, the day after a seventh league defeat – one more than in the whole of last campaign.
The absent Daniel Sturridge has seen his stock rise with every passing setback, but viewing the striker as the returning knight in shining armour clearly smacks of desperation. Without exception, Rodgers’ men have performed below the standards set last year.
While the Reds have scored 20 fewer goals after 16 games than at this stage last season, they have been every bit as suspect defensively this term as they have been profligate in front of goal.
The growing assurance of de Gea in filling the gloves vacated by Edwin van der Sar and worn previously by Peter Schmeichel at United is in stark contrast to the shredded spirit seeping out the palms of the deposed Simon Mignolet.
Bruce Grobbelaar denounced Mignolet as ‘worse than Dracula’ last month, placing the blame firmly in the fallible hands of the former Sunderland keeper for Liverpool’s loss of identity.
But as Brad Jones’ subsequent attempt to make the No1 jersey his own testified, the decision to break Mignolet’s league-high sequence of 93 consecutive outings spanning his time on Merseyside and Wearside was not the solution to a disease which penetrates the corridors of Melwood and has now resulted in two wins from ten matches in all competitions.
Granted, Jones seized a rare opportunity in April 2012, taking advantage of a temporary keeper crisis at Liverpool to excel most notably in an FA Cup semi-final appearance against Everton. The Australian was manager Kenny Dalglish’s third choice stopper, whom he called upon as a result of suspensions to Jose Reina and Alexander Doni.
Wembley was the venue then for Jones’ first start since December 2010, but as Gary Neville forewarned, Old Trafford has a history of swallowing up goalkeepers – and this was Jones’ ‘Theatre of Nightmares’. In truth, the 32-year-old journeyman wasn’t good enough for Middleborough ten years ago, while Mignolet arrived at Anfield in the summer of 2013 for £9million to the surprise of many who had followed his progress at the Stadium of Light.
Pinpointing the root cause of such an illness will have left the club’s psychiatrist Steve Peters working overtime, and taking the error-prone Mignolet out of the firing line only scratches at the surface of a scab that is struggling to heal.
It all means that Liverpool have made their worst every start in half a century. Indeed, the Reds are on course to register 50 points this campaign, 34 points fewer than last term. It would be the biggest negative swing for any side in the top flight since the introduction of three points for a win in 1981-82.
Rodgers has now been installed as the second favourite behind Leicester’s Nigel Pearson to become the first Premier League manager to be sacked this season. His decision not to bring ready-made enhancements to the club in the summer, courtesy of a much-maligned transfer committee, would not have been tolerated at Manchester City or Chelsea.
The Fenway Sports Group sacked Roy Hodgson for less four years ago, but the club’s owners appear willing to grant Rodgers credit for overachieving last season, at a time when their £110m investment in a enlarged Main Stand demands Champions League football.
In the short-term, Rodgers needs to find his best eleven for the right opponents. Liverpool fans were apoplectic at the manager’s decision to drop Steven Gerrard for a recent match against Real Madrid, and his flawed selection policy has improved very little since.
Attacking players Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic all started on the bench in that must-win game in Europe, when a midfield of Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Gerrard would have been far more suited to a difficult fixture away to United.
Another perplexity was the withdrawal of Leiva and Kolo Toure from the side on Sunday, despite the pair helping to recoup seven points from in the previous three games. Allen is too lightweight in midfield, and the Welshman’s defensive deficiencies were brutally exposed by Antonio Valencia on the first of United’s three goals.
Rodgers is not immune from the axe. He parted company with Reading by mutual consent in 2009, and the 41-year-old can’t afford to rest players in Wednesday night’s Capital One Cup quarter-final against Bournemouth.
The Cherries are blazing a trail at the top of the Championship under manager Eddie Howe and, having lost to Liverpool in a Fourth Round FA Cup tie in January, they will sense a far more claimable scalp when wounded reputations take to the field at the Goldsands Stadium.
With the Sky cameras beaming down on him on the south coast, Rodgers could be swept out to sea. Now is the time for the man who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro through illness to again call upon his steely determination to grind out a few results and walk on through the storm.