Outside the box: Rodgers must learn from Wenger’s survival instinct
EVERY time a marquee Arsenal player was linked with a move away from the club, there was a game that seemed to convince them that the grass might be greener elsewhere.
At the beginning of his final season, Robin Van Persie was part of the Arsenal team which lost 8-2 at Old Trafford and, just in case he was in any doubt, two of his final three home games resulted in a defeat to Wigan and a draw with Norwich.
At the start of February in Cesc Fabregas’ final season, Arsenal were in the hunt for four trophies before – as with Van Persie – they were beaten by the team that would be Fabregas’ next club.
There was no shame in losing to Barcelona but there was plenty in the mortifying 4-4 draw with Newcastle in which Fabregas played as well as the Cup defeats to Birmingham and Manchester United which he watched from the stands. For both players, all they could see in their Arsenal futures was more of the same.
On Saturday, it felt as though every criticism that had been levelled at Arsenal over the years suddenly had their name taken out and replaced by the one they were in the process of hammering, Liverpool.
There was the poor record against the teams around them – just four points from a possible 21 against the top four; there was the lack of defensive strength in depth which meant Kolo Toure replaced the suspended Martin Skrtel and, by leaving Dejan Lovren on the bench, there were questions about the club’s transfer policy.
The club are allowing a legendary figure to leave for nothing at the end of the season, the goalkeeper seems good but not good enough and there’s a suspicion that, when it comes to the crunch, too many of their players go hiding.
The principles of Brendan Rodgers were also questioned – as Arsene Wenger’s have so often been in the past – when he asked his team to play out from defence despite having a player like Toure, who reacts to being in possession in the same way that a baby reacts to a door slamming.
All the while, there was the issue of a star player who hadn’t been offered an improved contract sooner which has created a problem where £100,000-a-week is now not enough. Raheem Sterling hasn’t nearly crashed his car or told his agent that the club are taking the p**s with their contract offer, but like Arsenal with Ashley Cole, there is the sense that the club are trying to do things, relatively speaking, on the cheap.
The defeat, in isolation, shouldn’t be enough to convince Sterling that his future must lie away from Anfield but there are warning signs for Rodgers which, of all people, Wenger should recognise only too well.
Arsenal traded Cole for £8m plus William Gallas, which wasn’t a bad deal but it sent out a message that every Arsenal player was attainable by a bigger team once the offer was right. Combined with not winning trophies, it made for a perfect storm for players justifying their decision to leave.
What it also showed, however, is how much trust the club had in their manager and how much belief he had in his own ability to remain competitive by promoting younger players or signing players that the elite clubs didn’t yet want.
Wenger has drawn plenty of criticism for allowing players to leave but, by keeping Arsenal in the top four, it meant that they could approach potential recruits with the offer of top European football without having to break the bank. They have been mocked for celebrating fourth position in the past but try signing Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez without being in the Champions League and see how far you get.
Manchester United had one bad season, finished seventh, and to get back to the point where finishing fourth represents a good season, they have had to turn their wage bill into the biggest in England.
Liverpool over-achieved last season, lost their best player, and took so long to adapt that they needed a miraculous run to get back into contention. Yet taking 26 points from 30 since the start of the year wasn’t enough to insulate Rodgers from stinging criticism once they lost to Manchester United and Arsenal.
Given the resources available to them, Liverpool and Rodgers are roughly where they should be but, as Wenger would again recognise, that often isn’t enough.
Wenger has survived by gambling that, for example, Gael Clichy might develop into as good a player as Cole or by bringing in Olivier Giroud to either complement Van Persie if he decided to stay or replace him if, as happened, he left. Giroud’s tally of 41 goals in 75 league appearances (15 as sub) for Arsenal compared to Van Persie’s 48 in 77 (six as sub) for United suggests he didn’t get the gamble entirely wrong.
By comparison, Liverpool relied on the notoriously injury-prone Daniel Sturridge, Rickie Lambert and the sweets-at-the-checkout purchase of Mario Balotelli to replace Luis Suarez despite having similarly fair warning that the Uruguayan would leave.
Rodgers has produced plenty of bluster and guff around Sterling’s contract with references to “Liverpool Football Club” never far away and the assertion that “if the club doesn’t want to sell him they won’t sell him, it’s as simple as that”. By that rationale, the club must have “wanted” to sell Suarez.
Rodgers could, for example, take £40m for Sterling and attempt to develop Jordan Ibe into his replacement but with that money he, or the transfer committee, face the task of trying to close the gap on those above them by signing players that the clubs above them don’t want.
It’s a problem that will define Rodgers’ tenure at Anfield to see if he can roll with the punches, survive and occasionally prosper as Wenger has done over the last decade. After Saturday’s defeat, Rodgers felt this season would be “a lot of learning”. As Wenger could tell him, at this level, teams have to learn fast.
The question nobody asked
How many current Championship teams haven't played in the Premier League?
There are a total of 46 teams who have played in the Premier League and, if there is to be a new team next season from the Championship, it is likely to be Bournemouth, who are currently in an automatic promotion spot with six games remaining.
The only other club in with a chance of making the top division for the first time are Brentford, who have fallen away somewhat but are still in the play-off positions.
In all, there are six current Championship sides who haven’t played in the Premier League, although a couple of them will do well to avoid relegation. Brighton and Huddersfield should have enough to survive but Rotherham sit fourth from bottom, one place and four points ahead of Millwall, who complete the six Championship teams who haven’t reached the elite division since it started in 1992.
Bet you should have done
Everton to beat Southampton, 7/4
Roberto Martinez’s team have been disappointing this season but, before the international break, they recorded two victories which suggested they might be getting closer to the level they reached last season.
Southampton have fallen away somewhat from their fine early season form, making nearly 2/1 for the home side tempting.
Tweets of the week
I know it’s a dream for Gibraltar but come on we have to be serious. This is professional football. You have to earn the right to be there.
The QPR midfielder upsets and entire nation. Albeit a smaller one than he usually upsets.
Not bad for a player that should be ‘nowhere near the squad’ ay @PaulMerse ?
Slightly strange that this would be England man’s first thought half an hour after the end of England’s game against Italy but the motivation seemed to work for him.
Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088)
Home sweet home
The Arsenal man shows his lazy side again
Rio Ferdinand (@RioFerdy5)
Is Ed looking at everyone else the way he is looking at me here in my kitchen ?! Stop IT! #leadersdebate
The QPR defender, like everyone else, is slightly unnerved by the UK Labour leader’s stare straight-into-the-camera style.
Jon Walters (@JonWalters19)
Not happy with this.....! I’m going in. I want at least 120k?
Stoke man wants a pay rise after the online headline which, of course, should read ‘fewer’ goals.
Jamie Carragher (@Carra23)
The Nivea advert at half time doesn’t go down too well when you’re 3-0 down
Carragher, like the rest of the Reds, suffering from stress sweats.
Bafe Gomis (@BafGomis)
I’m very proud for scoring my first double of the season. I’m a Jack bastard!!!!
We don’t know what the Swansea striker means but it sounds great