The Bad Times Will Pass: Brendan Rodgers, Confidence And Misfiring Forwards
It was one of those weekends.
Goals everywhere, shots aplenty and in some regard reversion to the old order. In itself, Saturday was a match day like few before it. We’ve seen plenty of goals before but rarely, if ever, have we seen so many shots land on target. The season average across the league is 4.5 per team per game and Saturday offered up 6.7 each. I’ve checked back and I can find no weekend any higher than 5.9 across six seasons, so it was a tough week for goalkeepers to earn their corn. It was inevitable that Palace and Watford would play a grindy match on Sunday that brought the average down. But still…
Maybe it was the weird conjunction of a lunar eclipse and a super moon, and now civilisation is hanging by a thread and you’re reading this in a bunker, wondering how the internet is still functioning despite the apocalyptic scenes outside? Or maybe sport just does this kind of thing sometimes and is best enjoyed as the genuinely lunatic spectacle it can sometimes be.
Regardless, amongst the chaos a fair few inevitable events took place. After noting last week how other than United, all of last year’s top seven had been under-performing in shot conversions, the four chief strugglers all perked up. Liverpool netted thrice, as did Southampton, Tottenham found one more, with four and Arsenal did something they had promised to do all year by pulling in the full handful.
Having taken at least 19 shots in each of their games other than the Chelsea loss, a continuation of this trend would surely eventually precipitate a glut of goals. And so it proved against a team that have been on a hard-to-sustain run of correct coin calling all season- Leicester. That this married so kindly with the reawakening of Alexis Sanchez’ relationship with finishing tidied that non-storyline away too. Elsewhere player-wise, Kane and Depay also thankfully dispatched their dreary non-scoring narratives netwards and Kane in particular was quick to note:
“I am a confident young man, and I have faith in my ability.”
A real bombshell, huh? Compare to what we’ve been hearing relentlessly all season…
Is it too much to wish for a world in which the wider media can reliably distinguish between confidence and a lack of confidence? Or even move on from the whole issue of confidence, when quite obviously so few people can identify it reliably? Far too often we see lazy interpretations of otherwise identical events framed by a pre-conceived perception of a presumed mind-set of the player in question. How about scratching beneath the surface and looking for evidence to support the conclusion rather than merely relying on gut feeling and unqualified “expertise”?
In 2015, we find ourselves in a situation where repeatedly in commentary, player decisions are referenced immediately against an alternative close in proximity: “He should have shot there”, ” Could he not see the pass was on?”, “A confident Harry Kane plays his team mate in there”- as a clearly unfazed Kane fires one slightly wide.
There are many culprits.
Tottenham! Decisive Win!
The confidence issue had been thrust at Mauricio Pochettino prior to the City game, and he’d danced around it in his typical manner of saying a lot whilst informing very little. This is less a language barrier than a coherence barrier, similar to the one Villas Boas employed, in which insight runs a poor second to filler and we are rarely the wiser for his media interactions. And this is important because this season, questions of confidence appear secondary to this team. They appear to be unaffected by opposition or circumstance and are seemingly capable of enacting and “executing the gameplan” and imposing their play upon the opposition rather than otherwise.
This ethos was in danger of coming up short against Man City- and there would have been little shame in that- but in a badly officiated match, the balance of decisions landed on Tottenham’s side and Erik Lamela found favour once more.
In a direct contrast to the matches between van Gaal and Pochettino’s Tottenham, which have repeatedly incorporated a tiny number of shots on goal-18, 16 and 18- Pellegrini and Pochettino’s styles seem to generate the opposite effect. The two games in which Man City conceded the highest volume of shots last season were the two fixtures against Tottenham, and although they won both of them, Tottenham weren’t without chances in each game.
This weekend’s match featured both teams fashioning eight shots on target, and 37 total shots to go with the 39 and 36 from last year, and with this degree of openness, the variety of possible results on the table quite obviously increases. That Tottenham should come out on the positive side of this type of game is not inevitable, but nor is it as unlikely as it might initially seem.
Is it possible that having recorded a series of positive results against Tottenham, Man City approached this game with a high level of confidence, perhaps overconfidence? A direct and clear divergence from the extreme caution that seems to characterise van Gaal’s style?
But then, of course, I would be falling into the same trap that i’ve warned of already. Confidence is tricky to ascertain with any accuracy and I prefer to retain an analysis that open styles, lenient officials and an absence of key personnel for City as being the predominant drivers here.
And to paint a positive picture of Tottenham, Lamela, Eriksen, Son and Kane is a front four that offers great diversity and genuine talent. It is my hope that they will be retained in their roles going forward.
The Bad Times Will Pass, Pal
Brendan Rodgers’ role has been called into question on many occasions since the 2013-14 near miss. In the modern game, surviving on the goodwill generated by one good season is not guaranteed, but the intransigence of FSG and a general sense of fairness allowed him to shepherd Gerrard into the minor leagues, cosset Sterling towards his big move and spend a year wondering how he went from the best strike force in recent league memory to being reluctant to field anyone up front.
As the season meandered away from the cusp of Champions League qualification and turned to shit, even my support for Brendan– conceptually, as a coach that could create solid numbers from his squad- started to waver, and had he left in May, it would have been difficult to build a cogent case to retain him. The decline and defeat at Stoke was that bad, up there with the defeat that Rodgers himself supervised that ended Villas-Boas’ tenure at Tottenham, that it seemed likely that he had to go.
But the owners retained him, and they also backed him with another array of potentially useful signings and allowed the dice to tumble freely from their organisational hands, hoping once again, to land the big score. That the early weeks have been uninspiring has been entirely predictable to us seasoned Brendan watchers- his teams never start well– so that the fan base has seemingly decided in a large way to turn on him, although understandable, appears a little short sighted.
Only Arsenal are finding a way to convert their goal bound shots less frequently that Liverpool, and that 19th place ranking is ably accompanied by a 17th place rank for all shots. With concern that too many efforts are flying from the boot of a mid-pitch positioned Coutinho, the return of Sturridge’s nose for goal was a huge fillip this last weekend, but realistically, these conversion rates will improve.
As will the dismal 59% save percentage. That gives us underwhelming figures at both ends of the conversion numbers. Worry not fans, there is a ton of leeway in a PDO of under 80 and if it doesn’t kill the coach, he can ride the wave as it reemerges into something more normal.
The vital numbers look fine: “shots for” levels are enough to rank top six so far and the only bad “shots against” game was when they shut-out Arsenal, who as we learned earlier shoot frequently against nearly everyone. Defense may be winning the day, for now, and the base for future success is reasonably solid. The 47 shots against Carlisle was an extreme example, and in the way it has been used as a stick to beat him with is reminiscent of Moyes’ 81 crosses against Fulham. In itself it represented an erroneous focus on shooting for shooting’s sake but a team’s real problems arise when the shots dry up, and that simply hasn’t happened. It would simply make no sense to remove Rodgers at this point having restructured the coaching department and given him half a new team. Last May was fine, or even June- rebuild from that point- and if after reaching twelve or fifteen games, Liverpool are firmly mid-table, then maybe there is some logic in sacking him.
Until then, the smart thing for Liverpool to do is hold fire, see how the team progresses and make decisions when they have a solid process behind them rather than as a reactionary sop to the more skittish elements of the fan base. For if the process is faulty, the buck eventually stops with the decision makers that FSG have empowered, not the coach.
Thanks for reading!
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