Monday 23 April 2018

Sterling crisis is the only cloud on Rodgers' shiny new horizon

Speedy spending spree gives Liverpool boss room to manoeuvre

The squad that travels for a series of friendlies in Asia and Australia next month looks more like the one Brendan Rodgers wanted last season
The squad that travels for a series of friendlies in Asia and Australia next month looks more like the one Brendan Rodgers wanted last season

Nick Ames

Mario Balotelli had been a Liverpool player for only five weeks but already Brendan Rodgers felt pressed to plead mitigating circumstances. "I always said it was about availability and affordability of players," said the Liverpool manager after his new signing's first seven games had yielded a single goal.

"Mario was the one right at the very end who was available for that. I said when he came in that it was a calculated risk and it's something I have to work on to try to make it work for the team."

Broken down, it was an extraordinary statement. Rodgers' words had a put-upon air and he appeared content to make it clear, even if it pushed his new striker under the bus, that he would have preferred to go down a different route. Balotelli had signed for Liverpool on August 25, a week before the summer transfer deadline; Luis Suarez, whom the Italian had been enlisted to replace in body if not in effect, had been announced as a Barcelona player 45 days previously. The truth behind who drove Balotelli's move is yet to emerge but the picture one imagines from that intervening month and a half is one of desperation, Rodgers and his board scrambling around Europe between missed targets before landing on a player whose style appeared the antithesis of the club's carefully designed approach.

It will go down as a strategical meltdown barring a significant improvement from Balotelli this season, but Liverpool seem determined not to make the same mistakes twice. Five new permanent transfers - six if Nathaniel Clyne's move goes through as expected - before the end of June is some going and it will relieve one area of pressure on Rodgers if his sole concern for the remainder of pre-season is to ensure that his new players combine on the pitch as he intends. By July 1 last year only Rickie Lambert, who was never intended to be an integral member of the starting XI, and Adam Lallana had been rubber-stamped; six further signings and the Suarez affair made for a congested run-up to a season that brought four wins from Liverpool's first 12 league games. Liverpool had spent £117m in what looked the least coherent of trolley dashes.

The squad that travels for a series of friendlies in Asia and Australia next month looks more like the one Rodgers wanted - a set of malleable talents like Roberto Firmino, Danny Ings and Joe Gomez being joined by that most dependable of sure things, James Milner. They will have six weeks to fine-tune before Liverpool's season begins at Stoke, the ideal venue for a spot of catharsis after their extraordinary 6-1 defeat at the end of last season, and a handy means of comparing the attitude of the reshaped squad with that of the players who capitulated in the season's final weeks.

Even if pre-seasons feel largely spent in the air these days, Rodgers will relish an extended amount of time out on the training pitch, and the task will be to show that early recruitment can make a difference. Firmino and Ings will be granted extra rest after their Copa America and European Under 21 Championship exertions but it is a far cry from 2014, when five of their eight signings had been involved in the World Cup.

It could justifiably be claimed that the key to effective preparations lies in the number and gravity of a summer's major tournaments but Chelsea had closed their deals for Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa - the two players who arguably gave them a title-winning edge - within two days of the World Cup's conclusion while Liverpool were still struggling in the post-Suarez fug.

Arsenal, who were always well ahead of Liverpool in the chase for Alexis Sanchez, wrapped up that deal after Chile's elimination. Rapid action can pay dividends and Manchester City had already proved the point before their league-winning 2013-14 season, when Fernandinho and Jesus Navas, two important pieces of their jigsaw, had been installed by early July.

The pieces are in place for Liverpool and perhaps the only matter of concern personnel-wise, if the continuing doubts about Balotelli's suitability are discounted, is the future of Raheem Sterling. Firmino's arrival could be seen from some angles as paving the way for Sterling's exit, probably to Manchester City, although it would appear more in Rodgers' character to envisage Firmino, Sterling and Philippe Coutinho buzzing around a striker. Regardless, it is a saga that threatens to go the distance and there would be a risk of undoing some smart early work if Liverpool held firm only to yield much closer to the transfer deadline.

Early recruitment is no sure-fire path to success and it could be said that, with fixture schedules as tight as they are, the ability to adapt to suddenly changing circumstances - as demonstrated by Jose Mourinho and Chelsea's two faces last season - is as important as instilling an overarching philosophy. But Rodgers now has his chance to do the latter with players who were long-standing targets and show his words about the Balotelli move were, in footballing if not strategic terms, at least partly justified.


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