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Fast Track Bullies: Young Managers Stumble

Where have Merseyside's managers gone wrong?

Where have Merseyside’s managers gone wrong?

Just over six months ago, on the evening of April 20th, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool FC had just finished beating a soon-to-be relegated Norwich City, 2-3, in their typical manner that season: scoring more goals than they let in.

“It’s 96 goals we’re on,” said Rodgers in the post-match interview, “and our idea is to get to 100-plus for the season. That would be an incredible effort by this team. You know when I came in here 20 months ago, we scored 47 goals so it shows their attacking mentality and their organization within the game.”

The Reds were sitting top of the league, and had been for the past month. In fact, they had remained in the top two since March 1st. The Norwich win was their 11th league win in a row.

Back on Merseyside, Everton had just ended David Moyes’ Manchester United career by beating their old gaffer’s side 2-0 at Goodison Park.  Roberto Martinez had taken the Toffees to within a point of Arsenal and the elusive fourth Champions League spot.

But the next weekend was the beginning of a decline that would reverberate into the present season.   Liverpool lost THAT match to Chelsea, after Steven Gerrard’s now infamous error (something the rest of the league will never let him forget), and the Reds’ title challenge was over.   Meanwhile, Everton would lose at St. Mary’s and then to the eventual champions, Manchester City, compounding their cross-park rivals woes and dropping out of Champions League contention for good.

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

LFC has yet to recover from Chelsea loss

Fast forward to this past weekend: Liverpool have lost the same match, albeit by a smaller margin.  It was their third league match without a win, and they have only won one game in their last six.   Everton, meanwhile, squeaked a point against Sunderland after converting a penalty.  Everton and Liverpool sit 10th and 11th in the table, respectively, with all the mediocrity of any other mid-table club looming over both outfits.

What has become of the reputations of two of Europe’s most lauded young coaches? Last season, the media fawned over the two Merseyside managers as men who could handle their rapid rise to take charge of the two big English clubs.  But now those reputations, and the idea that one can move quickly with new ideas, is on the ropes.  What has happened?

Much ink has been spilled over the departure of Luis Suárez from LFC to Barcelona, and the repeated injuries to Daniel Sturridge, who has not played for Liverpool since the end of August.  The subtraction of 55 goals has not been replaced in any way, shape or form.  The club has spent £120 million to bring in nine players.  Their goal total so far? Six… and three of those were scored by defensive players (Alberto Moreno, Emre Can and Dejan Lovren).   Only one striker has scored a goal in the league, and that is the injured Sturridge.    It is shocking for a club of Liverpool’s size and reputation.  It is more than shocking: it is a disgrace.

Last season, the Reds scored a massive 101 goals in the league, which meant that it wasn’t just Suárez and Sturridge putting the ball in the back of the net.  Steven Gerrard — supposedly a deep-lying midfielder — contributed 13 of his own.  The emerging Raheem Sterling — so publicly embarrassed by Rodgers in a television documentary series the season before — scored nine; even Martin Skrtel scored seven of his own. (Bizarrely, the sixth-highest scorer on Liverpool was the mysterious player Own Goals).

Liverpool 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 101 — 2nd in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 50 — 8th

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored:21 — 3rd
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 14 — 8th
Goals Conceded: 15 — 11th

By this point last season, Liverpool had already scored 21 goals, the league’s third-best offence.  This season they are down to only 14… a drop of 33% and good for only eighth.  The optimist will say those numbers are decent enough until Sturridge returns.  But Rodgers already knew that Suárez wanted out, and that Sturridge was prone to injury.  Yet no one of their calibre was brought in the summer transfer period.

But what is more worrying is the defensive errors that cost them last season’s title have not been addressed.   Liverpool conceded 50 goals by May, finishing eighth defensively.  At this point last season, they had conceded 10 goals, and were sitting sixth.  This season, they have already conceded 15… a 50% increase and making them 11th in the league defensively.  Skrtel’s skittishness at the back — along with his bizarre coverage decisions on set plays — is still there.  Lovren has not been the back-line general that he was at Southampton.  Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno have struggled to adjust, with both having lapses in concentration that have led to goals.  Glen Johnson, never the most defensive of fullbacks, has not covered himself in glory since his return from injury.

Liverpool have had trouble keeping the ball out of the net, but not so their derby rivals… at least not last season.   Despite the media portraying Martinez’ Everton as shaking off the stodginess of the Moyes era, the Toffees were still solid at the back.

Everton 2013-2014 Final
Goals Scored: 61 — 6th in the BPL
Goals Conceded: 39 — 3rd

Week 11 Cumulative – 2013-2014
Goals Scored: 14 — 10th
Goals Conceded: 10 — 6th

Week 11 Cumulative — 2014-2015
Goals Scored: 19 — 5th
Goals Conceded: 17 — 15th

However, that has been tossed out the window.  Everton is on pace to score more but they were shipping goals right up to their 3-0 win against Aston Villa.  Since then they have outscored their opponents 6-2, and have recorded two of their three clean sheets.   But they are clinging to the last place in the top half of the table, and have given no indication that they will improve on last season.

You get the sense that both clubs overachieved last season, overreaching in years that should have been transition periods.  For Liverpool — and Brendan Rodgers — the acquisition of Daniel Sturridge in January 2013 seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle, taking just seven minutes to score in his debut in the FA Cup tie against Mansfield Town, and eventually sparked several one-sided wins.  Everyone talks about how Liverpool misses Suárez, but Sturridge was a catalyst for the Uruguayan to go even further.

So with that much talent either leaving or on the sidelines, why didn’t Liverpool a) adequately replenish their strikeforce, and b) shore up their defence?  I imagine the club’s selection committee thought they were doing both of those things, but comments by Rodgers about Balotelli as a last-minute acquisition leads you to believe that the trio was trying to get a little too cute (and cheap?) in the transfer market.  Indeed, a list of Ian Ayre’s dealings since he took over in March 2011 do not read like a who’s who of football: so far, only Sturridge, Jordan Henderson, and Philippe Coutinho have made good… and those last two, not so much this season.  But yet the club has basically brought in a new starting XI and disrupted what was essentially a free-flowing team that had some problems at the back.

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The signing of Ross Barkley was supposed to help continuity

The opposite could be said of Martinez’ Everton.  The Spaniard managed to sign contracts with key loan players like Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry, and convinced youngsters Ross Barkley and John Stones to stay at the club.  It seemed like Everton would pick up in August where they left off in May.  While the goals have come — including three in seven games from aging superstar Samuel Eto’o — they were pummeled early and often.  The Toffees gave up 2-2 draws to newly-promoted Leicester and then Arsenal, before a 3-6 shellacking against Chelsea.  A 2-3 loss at home to Crystal Palace and a 3-0 loss at Swansea City compounded the image that Martinez was the manager who led Wigan to relegation, instead of the manager who led Wigan to an FA Cup.

Both men are very smart tacticians who love the wonkiness of football’s minutiae.  They are also men raised in the Spanish tradition; Martinez by birth and performance, Rodgers by coaches’ training.   But they are both trying to lay blueprints of systems that are out-of-vogue at the moment (see Spain’s performance at the World Cup), and that have never fully taken hold in the rough-and-tumble Premier League.   It’s no good to try and pass your way forward with possession, when you are being pushed off the ball at every opportunity.   Both teams also like to press high, with the fullbacks over-running the midfielders in front of them (and why wouldn’t you with Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines?), the two centrebacks spreading out and the defensive midfielder dropping back to act as a third back, with the keeper playing sweeper.   But yet both teams have been caught out this season, time and time and time again.

Both managers also seem to be struggling with squad rotation, as they try to also compete in Europe.  But where Rodgers seems to have prioritized domestic football — look at the side he put out against Real Madrid last week — Martinez seems to putting a real effort into doing well in the Europa League.  It could be because winning that tournament is an easier route to next season’s Champions League than claiming a place in the Premier League’s top four.

Hubris and a political sense is almost necessary to survive in a league that has become as fickle towards its managers as Serie A.  So don’t expect either manager to vary from their game plans… not until they absolutely have to.  But this is not Swansea City (where both managers experienced success, and who sit several places above both Everton and Liverpool in the table) where expectations are marginally lower.  These are two of the Big Four of the Northwest, clubs whose winning traditions run deep, if not recent.

That means the pair must dig deep, and find ways to turn their fortunes around.  Otherwise both men will be used as examples of promoting too far, too fast… and that could be detrimental to the fortunes of young managers for years to come.

Brent Lanthier

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