It was well documented that last summer, whilst the world’s media and most of the football fraternity were lapping up the sun on the beaches of Brazil, Jose Mourinho was busy putting the finishing touches to his new Chelsea recruits. Beautifully feeding into the unstoppable myth of Mourinho’s oeuvre, his summer spending whirlwind was widely acknowledged to be yet another example of how he had outsmarted his rivals, and was the key behind Chelsea lifting the league title barely ten months later. No matter that they probably would have won the title anyway regardless of whether the Portuguese plotter had splashed the cash two months or two days before the start of the campaign.
How interesting that Brendan Rodgers, a one-time Mourinho disciple, seems to be following the same path as his peerless colleague by embarking on a Liverpool spending spree akin to a teenager desperate to blow his first ever pay packet whilst many other managers are away topping up their sun tans. Not for one minute is this to suggest that Rodgers’ profligate approach to the summer will end up in the famous red of Anfield achieving a feat denied to them for over a quarter of a century; Liverpool will not be winning the title in 2016. But for Rodgers, the recruitment of a sextet of players undoubtedly represents his last throw of the dice in the Liverpool hot seat.
The Northern Irishman has been hampered by the weight of expectation, the legacy of Liverpool’s gloriously successful past and the one factor all managers live or die by – the ability to keep players producing their best and get results. Rodgers is not a bad coach by any means – he came within a Gerrard-slip of a title in 2014, and also saw his side go on a very long unbeaten run at the turn of the year before his side’s failings were cruelly exposed. Yet two of the biggest names in world football were nearly his undoing. Try as he might, the considerable void of the loss of Luis Suarez to Barcelona was unsurprisingly impossible to fill and the legend of Stevie G – Liverpool’s favourite son after Kenny Dalglish – also caused him untold headaches.
Restricting the game time of a clearly past his best Gerrard cast Rodgers in a villainous light in many quarters, but as shown at Manchester United with the exit of Roy Keane and then Paul Scholes, players of the calibre of established internationals in a pivotal area of the pitch are terrifyingly difficult to replace. The persistent injuries of Daniel Sturridge – seemingly as fragile as a box of unprotected crockery – also meant that Liverpool’s strike force was considerably blunted.
At the business end of the season, the lack of depth in the team was plain for all to see. Liverpool’s midfield was surprisingly outfought by Aston Villa’s in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, while their defence melted like an ice cube in summer following their shocking 3-1 final home defeat to Crystal Palace and their astonishing 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Stoke City.
Many did not expect to see Rodgers re-emerge from the shipwreck of those final games, but the pressure is now on. He has clearly been given the backing of the club’s owners – a fate not shared by his backroom staff who were ruthlessly culled – and has set about rebuilding the very core of his side. What of his summer signings? James Milner is arguably the most eye-catching. A tried and tested international with Premier League title credentials, he will certainly not detract from a new-look Liverpool. Yet there remains an agonising doubt about his departure from Manchester City. What do they know that we don’t that allowed him to walk out of the City squad for free? Nathaniel Clyne will boost the defensive strength for the Reds – as should Joe Gomez – but are these youngsters ready to make the step up from smaller clubs to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of playing in front of the Kop?
Roberto Firmino is another eye-catching arrival, and the precocious Brazilian will need to settle quickly if he is to make his mark in the cauldron of the Premier League. Yet some critics see his signing as a possible stop-gap for what seems like the inevitable departure of Raheem Sterling. Danny Ings is another definite attempt from Rodgers to boost the forward line, and represents a decent gamble for a player who could well prove himself. But again, the vultures are circling, and some fans have suggested that some of the new faces are designed to prop up undeniable chinks in the Merseyside armour – Adam Bogdan as goalkeeping competition for Simon Mignolet for example. Some cite these players as acquisitions to paper over the cracks or indeed to keep Rodgers safely in the trenches when the muck and bullets of a demanding season are whizzing around.
Rodgers’ cool exterior and reputation as one of the best coaches around looked shot to pieces during the climax of last season. His numerous tactical switches in the FA Cup semi-final looked as desperate and clumsy as a naive newcomer working towards his first coaching badge, and there is no doubt he could easily already be on the slippery slope as the pressure is certainly on. Rodgers as a coach is bright and intelligent, yet he is unquestionably drinking in the last chance saloon and has played what could be his final hand.
He probably needs a trophy of any description to keep his job. Any less and this summer could be seen as a rash, unchecked wasting of funds. It will be a great shame if it comes to that. Let’s hope for his and his club’s sake that the returns are favourable and the jigsaw once again fits together.