Brendan Rodgers is on the way down and Steven Gerrard is on the way up. So it’s fitting the younger man prevailed in the battle between Liverpool Past and Liverpool Future at Villa Park.
Less than eight months ago, the Leicester City manager’s reputation was at an all-time high after his side defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Rodgers appeared to have joined the ranks of the game’s top bosses.
Now his fortunes have slumped. After a run yielding five points from a possible 18, which leaves the Foxes in the bottom half of the table, the question is no longer whether Leicester can hang on to Rodgers but whether Rodgers can hang on at Leicester.
The seeds of the current crisis may have been sown just eight days after the Wembley triumph, which seemed to put him in an unassailable position. A home win over Spurs would have secured a Champions League slot, but after leading 2-1 with 15 minutes left, City conceded three goals to let Chelsea edge past them.
For a second season in a row, Leicester had thrown away a top-four spot which had appeared a virtual certainty. Talk of fifth place being a massive overachievement couldn’t hide the fact that they should have been able to close out the deal. It seemed to indicate a lack of rigour and evoked memories of Liverpool’s stumble under Rodgers with the league title in sight.
This season, that lack of rigour has become City’s defining quality. For much of yesterday’s first half, they seemed about to overwhelm Villa with the kind of slick moves epitomised by the one leading to Harvey Barnes’ 14th-minute opener.
The visitors’ failure to capitalise on their clear superiority allowed the home team to hold on and the second half was dominated by Gerrard’s side. Even then, a couple of flashes of individual brilliance, a James Maddison 20-yarder which flew just wide and a Barnes header that brought a magnificent save from Emiliano Martinez, might have rescued a point.
Yet, these interventions merely increased the impression of a team currently playing in fits and starts, which lacks the diligence to get the job done properly. If this raises questions about Rodgers as a motivator, his side’s diabolical defending at set-pieces seems a serious indictment of his organisational abilities.
No one in the Premier League is worse in this area than City, who’ve now conceded ten goals in 15 matches from dead-ball situations.
The home side’s winning goal cruelly underlined this weakness with obvious aerial threat Ezri Konsa allowed to get in a close-range header at the far post. That Konsa easily outjumped a sluggish Caglar Soyuncu and saw his effort sneak past a flatfooted Kasper Schmeichel illustrated perhaps Rodgers’ biggest problem. Both Soyuncu and Schmeichel have been mainstays for Leicester in recent seasons but are just two of the key performers to go off the boil this term. Underachievement has replaced overachievement at the King Power Stadium.
Perhaps Rodgers should have cashed in when the going was good. More boldness on his part could have seen him succeed Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, where he’d have the kind of resources that make management less of an uphill battle. Now he finds himself at the mercy of owners who have not been particularly patient in the past. Sometimes miracle workers just make a rod for their own back.
Gerrard is in the opposite position. Villa’s underachieving was done before he arrived.. A squad with the 11th largest wage bill in the Premier League, one slightly smaller than those of Leicester and West Ham, is capable of more than the shambles of Dean Smith’s final weeks.
The new boss has already got big performances from talented players, who were floundering before his arrival, notably Konsa and Emiliano Buendia.
The outstanding duo even combined for the opening goal, the former getting the barest touch on the latter’s header after City failed to clear a free-kick.
Villa’s oldest player Ashley Young and youngest Jacob Ramsey have also benefited from Gerrard’s arrival, while the manager must have been heartened by the storming performance of John McGinn, whose driving midfield play is reminiscent of a certain former Liverpool star.
Gerrard has enjoyed an extraordinary start to his managerial career. Wresting the Scottish title from Celtic for the first time in a decade while going unbeaten was a notable achievement, but steering Rangers to the last 16 of the Europa League was just as impressive. For all his record-breaking feats at Celtic, Rodgers couldn’t get that far.
A couple more seasons in Scotland, where the relative lack of opposition offers the opportunity of maximum domestic honours with minimum pressure, would have been the easy option for Gerrard.
His decision to return to England suggests a man in a hurry who’s confident his reputation will be enhanced rather than diminished by the Premier League’s demands.
It’s looking good so far for Jurgen Klopp’s putative heir. Though a glance at how quickly things have gone downhill for the previous Liverpool manager is a warning against complacency.
Rodgers now faces a schedule that could hardly be more demanding for a manager under pressure. By the end of New Year’s Day, Leicester’s league programme will have seen them face a mixture of strong teams who should be too good for them (Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs) and the kind of opposition where defeat would seem like utter disaster (Newcastle, Everton and Norwich.)
They’ll need a draw this Thursday away to Napoli to prevent early elimination from the Europa League and there’s a League Cup quarter-final at Anfield to face on December 22. As the old apocryphal Chinese football curse goes, “May you manage in interesting fixture list times.”
The latest vessel for The Brendan Voyage just sprung a leak. Ireland’s missionary to the Premier League has a month in which to either sink or swim.