Ken Early: Brendan Rodgers, rocket science and friction
Rodgers at times looks unsure of what sort of Liverpool team he wants to build
Brendan Rodgers’ analytical approach to the game can sometimes get in the way of what he actually wants to build at Liverpool. Photo: Lindsey Parnaby/Getty Images
‘It is not rocket science,” Brendan Rodgers said. “The last time we scored three goals was when [Sturridge] started against Tottenham. If you want to compete at the top you need quality.”
If you didn’t know better, you might have thought that the Liverpool manager was saying: the last time Liverpool scored three goals was also the last time Sturridge started a game.
In fact, Sturridge had played 12 games for Liverpool since that match against Tottenham, starting nine times. The link between his presence in the starting line-up and Liverpool scoring a lot of goals is not really as clear-cut as Rodgers’s “rocket science” comment suggests.
He is right, though, that Sturridge is a quality player. His Premier League goals-per-game ratio for Liverpool is 0.65, better than Fernando Torres (0.64 goals per game) and Luis Suarez (0.63).
Of course, the metric on which Sturridge has always struggled is the crucial games-per-season ratio. A top player will be expected to play 50 club games in a season. Only once, in 2011-12, has Sturridge managed as many as 40.
Even in his last, dismal season at Chelsea, Torres still played more than 40 times. As for Suarez, the legend of his durability is further burnished in Steven Gerrard’s new autobiography. Gerrard says he only saw Suarez visit the Liverpool treatment room on two occasions, and one of those was just to get a bag of ice.
All in the mind
So some injuries can stop you in your tracks. But Gerrard also repeatedly makes the point that ignoring almost constant low-level pain is part of the footballer’s life. If you don’t find a way to deal with that, you will seldom make it out on to the field.
Gerrard writes of the match against Manchester United at the beginning of the 2013-14 season: “I was always desperate to play against them, even if there had been more defeats than victories. It seemed different for Daniel Sturridge.”
Sturridge, it turns out, had been dubious about whether he was fit , and Gerrard spent the pre-match walk begging him to play through the pain. In the event, Sturridge scored in a 1-0 victory that laid the foundation for a successful season.
Everybody can understand the implications of the fact that Sturridge required some heavy-duty moral arm-twisting to persuade him to play against United. Probably not even Sturridge would argue with the conclusion that he seems more talented than dependable. But it’s also significant that the man doing the arm-twisting was a team-mate, and not the manager.
Reading Gerrard’s book you are struck by how activist his role as Liverpool captain had become by the end of his time there. He wasn’t just the Sturridge-whisperer. At least by his own account, he was the chief broker of the truce between Suarez and Rodgers that kept the striker at Liverpool for one more season before he joined Barcelona. Gerrard appears to have been the instigator of his own switch from an attacking to a defensive midfield role midway through the 2013-14 season.
All of which leaves you wondering who Rodgers relies on to do these things now that Gerrard has gone.
The advantage of letting Gerrard leave, along with all his experience and baggage and tortured institutional memory, was presumably the opportunity to construct an entirely new team, unencumbered by any awkward sense of responsibility or deference to the aged captain.
But what sort of team is it going to be? Will the new Liverpool play possession or counter-attack? Do they prefer three at the back, or four? Do they play one striker, or two? Is it three midfielders, or four, or maybe even five? Rodgers has dallied with all of these ideas without ever looking wedded to one.
Gerrard wasn’t the only high-profile figure with a new book out last week. Alex Ferguson published a frequently-tedious compendium of his collected insights under the title Leading.
Ferguson writes: “A crucial ingredient of motivation is consistency. As a leader, you can’t run from one side of the ship to the other. People need to feel that you have unshakeable confidence in a particular approach. If you can’t show this, you’ll lose the team very quickly.”
The manager who waved goodbye to Gerrard finally has the blank slate he must have wanted all along. The question is whether he has any idea what he wants to put there.