Last season saw manager Brendan Rodgers hailed for leading the Reds to an unlikely title challenge and an eventual runners-up finish. His Liverpool side was renowned for being fluent in several formations, seemingly able to switch their tactical shape at any time during the game as well. However, critics were quick to note the brilliance of Luis Suarez, rather than any tactical prowess from Rodgers, defined the Reds as an irresistible attacking force. The stuttering start to the new season has given critics more ammunition in their case against Rodgers and his apparent inexperience. They point to his lack of pedigree at the highest level, with his successful campaigns at Swansea City and initial coaching mentorship under Jose Mourinho tainted by his short, failed stints with Championship sides Watford and Reading.
So how tactically aware is Rodgers? We shall take a look at his tactical switches during games so far this season, to see if Rodgers really is a manager able to influence games, or if last season’s successes were just a flash in the pan.
During the opening day victory over Southampton at Anfield, with the score at 1-1, Rodgers correctly noted that the midfield area was lacking in any fluidity and energy, and promptly sent on Joe Allen in place of the less-agile Lucas Leiva. This helped wrestle control of the game back to the home side, and in turn allowed Rodgers to bring on another striker in search of the winner. On came Rickie Lambert with 15 minutes to go, and his added presence in the box gave the likes of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge more space and less attention, allowing the duo to combine for Sturridge to divert home the winner.
Similarly, in search of a goal to get back into the game after falling two goals behind early at the Boleyn Ground, the Liverpool manager made an early change in the 22nd minute, bringing on centre-back Mamadou Sakho for right-back Javier Manquillo. This meant a switch to a three-men defence, while Raheem Sterling dropped back to right-wingback. Only a few minutes later, this switch seemed to work as Sterling fired home a loose ball after coming in from the right wing position.
The Carling Cup tie against Middlesborough saw the game tied at 1-1 going into extra time. Rodgers decided to bring on Spaniard Suso for the rather ineffective Lazar Markovic, and within 10 minutes of coming on in the first period of extra time, Suso found a good position in the opposing penalty area and slotted home what looked like the winner then.
Rodgers’ best substitution so far is surely the crazy game at Loftus Road. Philipp Coutinho came off the bench in the second half, and scored the second go-ahead goal in what should have been the winner. And even as the Reds were pegged back again in injury time, Coutinho’s drive and opportunism, combined with his vision and sublime passing ability, saw him pick out Raheem Sterling’s lung-bursting run in behind the QPR back line. It was Sterling’s subsequent cross which forced Ranger’s defender Steven Caulker’s own goal.
However, there have been quite a few instances where his substitutions had little effect on the game, and at times his lack of a substitution or the wrong substitution has cost the Reds valuable points.
To be fair, the away defeat at the Etihad was, in essence, lost in his choice of the starting eleven. Left-back Alberto Moreno was making his debut and it was his poor clearance that saw Manchester City go ahead, while Dejan Lovren’s lack of coordination with the rest of the back four gave City two more goals. By the time Rodgers made changes, it was too little too late. Still, sending Lambert on did directly help Liverpool score a consolation goal. Similarly, Liverpool’s late, narrow victory over Champions League debutants Ludogorets Razgrad in the first group stage game was more to do with a right-back’s enthusiasm and Mario Balotelli’s single moment of brilliance for the Reds since signing. While in Liverpool’s best performance of this poor season, the 3-0 away victory at White Hart Lane, the Reds were already three goals ahead, and Rodgers gave his two new signings, Emre Can and Markovic, more Premier League experience, as well as giving Jose Enrique five minutes of match fitness.
In the two 1-0 defeats at home to Aston Villa and away in the Champions League at Basel, Rodgers’ substitutions did nothing to really impact those results. By the time he rectified his initial mistake of leaving Sterling on the bench against Villa, by sending him in the 61st minute, Paul Lambert’s men were well-organised, very compact and comfortable in their defensive positions. Even with the double substitutions of Lambert and Borini on for Balotelli and Markovic, little more chances were created. Likewise at Basel, sending on Lambert and switching to two strikers with 10 minutes to go did little to force the issue, and it could be argued that sending Borini on would have been better, with the Italian’s movement and energy likely to cause Basel’s defence more problems than the static Lambert.
Rodgers’ worst ‘tactical outing’ was definitely the recent Merseyside derby at Anfield, where Liverpool were within minutes of securing a much-needed 1-0 victory against Everton. The Reds were arguably in control of the whole game, with Everton posing little attacking threat. Complacency or the feeling of comfortability might have set in, and Rodgers chose not to use his last substitute option. On hindsight, he could have surely sent on an extra defender in Kolo Toure, or even Jose Enrique, to shore up the defence and give the Reds an extra body around their own box. Alas, there was no defensive change and Phil Jagielka scored the goal of his life. This might be a little harsh on Rodgers, but had an extra defender been on the pitch, might he have managed to get to that loose ball quicker?
In trying to fill the Suarez-shaped gap at Anfield and attempting to settle in the raft of new signings, could those reasons be on the mind of the Liverpool manager to the extent that his choices of substitutions having little influence on proceedings? Rodgers has had some success, as pointed out, but there is much to improve if he is ever to maintain the Reds’ top four credentials.