Brendan Rodgers is good at moving the needle.
Liverpool had trouble scoring in the season before Rodgers’ appointment as manager (47 Premier League goals in 2011-12). Rodgers changed the system, added firepower and turned the Reds into one of the most fearsome attacking forces in European soccer within two years (101 goals in 2013-14).
Liverpool didn’t earn enough points in the standings to qualify for the UEFA Champions League in Rodgers’ first season (61 in 2012-13, finishing seventh). Rodgers tweaked the squad and returned Liverpool to the ranks of the elite in his second campaign (84 in 2013-14, finishing runner-up). The numbers don’t lie.
Which brings us to the latest, greatest test of Rodgers’ managerial acumen.
Defense was Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel last season. The Reds’ defensive record — 50 goals in 38 games — was their worst in 15 years and often is cited as the reason why their title bid fell agonizingly short in the end. Liverpool had the ninth-best defense in the league, while title rivals Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal had the second-, first- and fourth-best defensive records, respectively. Rodgers set out to change the balance this summer.
It’s hard to gauge the progress of Liverpool’s defensive reconstruction before a ball has been kicked in anger. Liverpool’s World Cup players returned from Brazil with varying levels of fitness. A majority of the new signings only recently have arrived and have yet to adapt to life in a new country and at a new club. Dejan Lovren, who is tipped to lead Liverpool’s new-look defense, couldn’t join his new teammates on their U.S. tour because of visa issues.
Preseason games are, at best, misleading. Liverpool played eight of them between July 16 and Aug. 10, and Rodgers altered the lineup throughout, giving several players time on the field and a chance to impress him. However, one of the main takeaways from these games is that Liverpool’s core defensive philosophy remains in place.
When the Reds are at their best, they apply pressure all over the field, making the game uncomfortable for the opposition. Liverpool’s hunger to win the ball high up the field was evident during preseason, as was their ability to maintain a compact shape and defend deep in their own half when necessary.
In the five games Liverpool played on the U.S. tour, only Manchester City can say it controlled the ball for a large swaths of the game, and that claim is debatable. A five-minute lapse in defensive focus led to Liverpool’s loss to Manchester United earlier this month.
Things changed when Liverpool returned to England for its final preseason game against Borussia Dortmund. Lovren and fellow new signing Javier Manquillo helped the Reds to a 4-0 win. Lovren was outstanding, while Manquillo showed great promise.
If nothing else, Liverpool’s new signings increase the level of competition for playing time, which is a good thing, provided it doesn’t upset the chemistry in the dressing room. The arrivals of Lovren, Manqiullo and Alberto Moreno will push others to raise their games or risk riding the bench. Emre Can, who adds youthful energy and bite in the midfield, will have a similar effect further up the field, and Rodgers has praised Lazar Markovic for his willingness to track back with speed.
Lovren, striker Rickie Lambert and midfielder Adam Lallana played a similar system at Southampton for 18 months under former manager Mauricio Pochettino. They know what Rodgers expects from them, and their adaption should be quick.
Competition should raise the level of Liverpool’s pressing game, which protects an improved back four — at least on paper.
While the signs are promising, the numbers will tell us how well Liverpool’s defensive evolution is progressing. If the Reds can shave 10 goals off last season’s total, they’ll be where they were before their current manager took charge. But we’re talking about Rodgers here.
Rodgers’ changes have been swift and dramatic at Anfield. Something tells us Liverpool will concede between 30 to 35 league goals this season and be involved in another title race.
See our position-by-position breakdowns of Liverpool’s squad.
Photo via LiverpoolFC.com