As Brendan Rodgers assessed his team’s loss to Udinese in the Europa League at Anfield last night, it was not difficult to see that he was hurting. This was a game that, up until half time, Liverpool never looked like losing. They were in control, bossing possession and creating the best chances. Rodgers made significant changes from the team that had faced Norwich five days earlier and the trust he had placed in those given a chance to impress against Udinese was being paid back. The story at full time was very different though and Rodgers clearly felt his trust was not returned when he referred to his players as being ‘lazy’ and ‘sloppy’ during the disastrous third quarter of the match.
Up until now, Rodgers has been nothing but positive and encouraging of all at Anfield. The players have listened to his ideas, they have followed his guidance and they have started to reap the rewards with a style of football that is very enjoyable to watch and play. The early signs against Udinese were no different with Liverpool on top and looking likely to secure their second win in the Europa group stages. The manner in which Liverpool capitulated in the second half though, giving away three goals in twenty five minutes against a side who had one decent player in their team will have re-affirmed Rodgers’ fears about some of his second string.
Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, both big money signings under previous manager Kenny Dalglish, were given a chance to impress last night. It was an opportunity to put their Anfield careers back on track and to question the managers’ belief that neither player is good enough for a starting place in the Premier League – something both had perhaps took for granted under Dalglish. Times have changed, and the style of football being played at Anfield has changed with it. Rodgers demands the team defends as one and attacks as one. This means forward players need to work hard without the ball and add creativity with it at their feet, being good at only one of those is no longer an option under Rodgers.
The team started well and when Liverpool went one nil up mid-way through the first half, with another flowing move finished off by Jonjo Shelvey, it looked like this young reds team would complete another football lesson by securing the first win at Anfield in four matches. Stewart Downing had even made a contribution, providing the cross from which Shelvey put Liverpool into the lead. Liverpool had further chances to stretch their lead in the first half but were, once again, profligate in front of the opposition goal. On this occasion their profligacy was to cost them heavily as the opposition punished them on the counter attack.
Just like any good manager in any good business, Rodgers has made clear what he wants to see from his Liverpool side. He has left his players in no doubt that talent is not enough, hard work alone is not enough and transfer fees count for nothing when he is picking his team. After this, as in any organisation, it is down to the players to perform. Last night, they performed for 45 minutes and that is not enough for Rodgers.
Dalglish adopted a very different style to the new Liverpool manager and you have to feel Kenny would have said the team were ‘unlucky’, ‘they will keep working and will look to the next game’. Rodgers though is a younger man, he is perhaps a more aggressive man too and is not going to accept a lack of effort as contributing to results. Rodgers expects his players to fight with their lives in a red shirt, watching Jordan Henderson make runs only to then take a breather in the centre of the pitch will not be what he had in mind. When Henderson left the field in the second half the player looked less than impressed with his substitution. You have to feel that the anger of the player will be nothing compared to that of his manager.
Two of the Udinese goals came from breaks down the left hand side, a side of the pitch that was being marshaled by Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Glen Johnson. It could be argued that, once Udinese broke, their was still time for the Liverpool defence to clear the ball but Rodgers will have been expecting Henderson and Downing to help the defence and work back. This failed to happen on both occasions and Liverpool suddenly looked like a team that was being overrun.
When Gerrard replaced Henderson, with almost half an hour left, there was still time for Liverpool to fight back but the scoreline by then suited Udinese as a team. They were able to sit back, let Liverpool do the work, and waste time at every opportunity. Despite a wonder strike from Luis Suarez, you never felt that Liverpool would get back into this game. As the final whistle went, and Jordan Henderson sat on his own at the back of the dugout, you could be certain that Rodgers was clear in his mind about the players who had let him down with ‘lazy’ and ‘sloppy’ play.
Whether those players get another chance to earn the trust of the Liverpool manager will be in doubt this morning. The honeymoon period is over and Brendan Rodgers is about to lay down the law again. On Sunday against Stoke at Anfield, we are likely to see a completely different Liverpool line up, but they will be determined to move on and build on remove the memory of this display.