Liverpool's biggest problem? Blame the signings
This has been an horrific season at Anfield but sacking Brendan Rodgers is not the answer - the club just needs to recruit better
In the build up to 1992 election as US president, Bill Clinton had a slogan on his wall to serve as a permanent reminder of the real campaign issue: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Liverpool’s American owners could do worse than take inspiration as they work out how to fix what has gone so appallingly wrong in the last eight months.
Walk around Anfield and Melwood and you’re always colliding with catchphrases. They’ve even taken to creating a parade of sound bites on the road heading towards the stadium – the main stand development at least offering an emblem of a promising future.
Fans ouside the Liverpool club store
Instead of quotes from ex-players, legends of the game and Kop chants reminding the world how wonderful the club is, for the foreseeable future they should have only one mantra on display: “It’s the signings, stupid.”
We can discuss the different managers since Liverpool’s last title in 1990, the numerous chief scouts, director of football, transfer committee members or chairmen, owners and chief executives who at one time or another have been blamed for the malaise, but it is always comes down to the players they bought.
As recent reminders of precisely how much the club has spent in the last 25 years underline, the notion Liverpool have not had enough money to compete has always been a myth cultivated by managers in self-preservation mode. Even the voodoo economists Tom Hicks and George Gillett spent plenty on the likes of Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano (it just happened to be money they didn’t really have).
You can recycle the same arguments demanding changes of policy and targeting whatever manager takes your fancy every three years, but the only way Liverpool – or any side for that matter – will improve is by engaging in the obvious. End the culture of excuses and find and recruit the most talented players out there.
Regardless of the resources of others, Liverpool have always had more than enough to do better and no-one – not a single employee with responsibility at Anfield since 1990 – can give themselves anything but an average score in that category. It’s the eye for talent that has let Liverpool down for too long.
Brendan Rodgers manager of Liverpool grimaces
From Graeme Souness’ catalogue of transfer failures; through to Roy Evans believing Oyvind Leonhardsen the ‘last piece of the jigsaw’; Gerard Houllier arguing El Hadji Diouf would score the goals to take Liverpool from 2nd to 1st; Rafael Benitez finding increasingly elaborate ways to pin the blame on others for the idea Alberto Aquilani would be an upgrade on Xabi Alonso; and Damien Comolli’s ongoing self-justification for paying £55 million for Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing; it is always the same. The signings ruined them all and left the club engaging in another rebuilding process.
Brendan Rodgers is under scrutiny today because last summer’s deals were worse than anything Comolli and Dalglish turned up with. But although this should not need repeating, it seems necessary to do so - the structure that has previously compromised him is also that which, for the moment at least, should save him.
Say Liverpool make their signings by committee and you’re immediately accused of saying they have nothing to do with Rodgers. Not true. Rodgers is part of the committee. He is not absolved from blame for the signing of Mario Balotelli, but he is not solely responsible.
He did not stake his reputation on pursuing and signing the player, he convinced himself of the argument he would be better than nothing. That - no matter how much you wish to tattoo a big red stamp PROPERTY OF BRENDAN on the arm of each signing of the last two years - is the reality.
Some say it is too easy to blame this season on Balotelli. Too right it is. The same way Houllier paid the price when he replaced Robbie Fowler (and Nicolas Anelka) with Diouf; and Benitez for losing Alonso because he wanted Gareth Barry but ended up with Aquilani.
Replacing world class players with lousy ones is transformative and this season was undermined the moment Suarez walked out the door and Balotelli walked in. As Suarez demonstrated last season, one player can be the catalyst. That applies for worse as well as better.
Rodgers will know as much as anyone he should have trusted his initial instincts when in Boston last summer he said publicly he would never sign the Italian. Many were astounded by his ridiculous u-turn (and said so). In terms of this season, it was a catastrophic error of judgement he can only admonish himself for.
But you can also be sure there is an email trail when investigations are launched as to why Liverpool went into this season with no decent striker other than Daniel Sturridge, and it will lead to many PCs. When Comolli was sacked, and Dalglish followed, they knew they were to blame for the misuse of resources, but if John Henry is going to dismiss staff for last year’s deals he’ll be aware it is not only the manager who is accountable.
You might argue get rid of them all, then. Fine. A raft of dismissals usually costs around £10 million, with another major investment then needed to reboot the workforce. Everyone is entitled to argue otherwise, but it would make more sense to use that cash for the transfer kitty and give most if not all those responsible a drink in the last chance saloon this summer.
This season has been horrific, but the explanation why – because Liverpool do not have anyone who can score a goal regularly (or in last night’s case get into the opposition box) – is valid. One world class player can make all the difference, and there is no reason why Liverpool cannot sign two. And another two next summer. And the next.
History tells us exactly what would happen if Rodgers was replaced – the same every new Liverpool manager is appointed.
The industrial strength air freshener is sprayed with a new personality issuing uplifting quotes that immediately prompt ridiculously premature comparisons with Bill Shankly. It all looks promising for a while.
Then word filters through that the new man thinks all the players he’s been left are hopeless. Before you know you’re back in the realms of five-year plans.
Then three years pass, those initial encouraging signs and uplifting victories have been forgotten and a sexy name from abroad (who probably has no wish to join, anyway) is available. A dodgy away defeat in Hull or some relegation-haunted venue in 2018 is presented as the tipping point and the wheel turns again.
It’s no wonder the manager’s office at Melwood is like the caretaker’s room in ‘The Shining’. At few other clubs do you go from King to court jester in the space of three games. Liverpool is a club that feeds narcissism and then accuses those they instantly transformed into Gods of thinking too highly of themselves.
The damage of this season is repairable in time. The stadium construction is a beacon of hope. Liverpool has money to spend, overrated players they can sell to raise more and the lure of their name which – although certainly not as attractive as it once was – still counts for something.
The post-season review need not be too long. Why did Liverpool play so poorly, and how will they make it better next year?
It’s the signings, stupid.