Brendan voyage: From Antrim to Anfield

When the Fenway Sports Group took over Liverpool in October 2010, there was widespread excitement.

Not only were they not Tom Hicks and George Gillett, but John W Henry had tried to appoint Billy Beane to be general manager of Boston Red Sox. He was an owner who grasped sabremetrics, somebody who understood the importance of statistical analysis and could perhaps find truths previously hidden to those who had grown up within the culture of football. He even, played by Arliss Howard, made a brief appearance in the film Moneyball.

Things started badly. Roy Hodgson left on January 8th, 2011. In came Kenny Dalglish, initially as a short-term move until the end of the season. Fernando Torres was sold for £50 million and Andy Carroll signed for £35m, which didn’t look much like what Brad Pitt had been doing in Moneyball. Dalglish lifted the mood. Results improved.

They beat Manchester City 3-0, Birmingham 5-0 and Newcastle 3-0 in successive home games. They thrashed Fulham 5-2 away. Fenway gave in to sentiment and gave Dalglish the job.

Everybody waited to see what signings sabremetrics would bring. Football, in its fluidity and its multiplicity of styles, has historically been a game resistant to statistical analysis but there is a growing sense that the code could be cracked, that it’s just a matter of making the formulae sophisticated enough. Liverpool signed Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing. No sabremetric explanation was forthcoming but it seemed telling that all three had been the leading chance-creator for their teams the previous season.

In fact, of the 10 players who had created the most chances, they were the three Liverpool could realistically have expected to sign. Could football really be as simple as that?

It proved not to be, although the thought lingers that Liverpool were unlucky last season. They came eighth, their worst finish in over half a century, yet in the top five leagues in Europe, only Barcelona had a greater proportion of their play in the attacking third of the pitch. In only five of the 38 games did Liverpool have fewer shots than their opponents. Only three teams had more shots on goal than Liverpool last season. All of those are metrics widely used to indicate domination of a game. They hit the woodwork a Premier League record 33 times and missed five of their six penalties; even if only half of those 38 squandered chances had gone in, Liverpool’s goal difference would have shot up to +26, the third best in the league. That might not have equated to third in the league, but it would surely have meant a challenge for Champions League football.

None of which is to suggest that ousting Dalglish was necessarily wrong; rather it is to say that, particularly when the Carling Cup win and the appearance in the FA Cup final are taken into account, last season was far from being as disastrous as it may at first have appeared. Which means Brendan Rodgers takes over in an enviable position: expectations are as low as they’re ever likely to get at Liverpool and yet he inherits a squad that, with a touch of fortune, could easily have finished fifth last season.

He will, though, change the style. The emphasis on crossing will be replaced by an emphasis on ball retention. Whether Rodgers’s philosophy can be effective remains to be seen, but it is refreshing. “My father loved European football, he also loved the Brazilian team,” he said in a recent Blizzard interview. “His own dad loved the Brazilian team. So I grew up loving the technical game; and when I played as a young boy, I played in teams that were not technical. So I spent more time without the ball than with it. I always wanted to change that. But I had a very short career as a player, from 16 to 20 [for Ballymena United then, very briefly, Reading]. So my ideology then was, ‘Ok, I’m not going to have an influence on the game as a player, technically or tactically. Can I do it as a coach?’ My objective was to show that British players could play football. That was the challenge.”

Fenway, meanwhile, have fallen into the classic bind of owners. Each new manager they appoint wants to sign his own players and probably ship out four or five of the previous manager’s signings. That’s why sporting directors make sense; in theory they should determine the philosophy and sign players and appoint coaches to fit that, thus maintaining continuity. The problem is, of course, that Liverpool lost their sporting director, Damien Comolli, last season. Continuity has gone, Rodgers has arrived and, in typical fashion, has brought in Fabio Borini, Joe Allen and Oussama Assaidi while off-loading nine players. Carroll, meanwhile, hangs around awkwardly, not a natural fit for Rodgers’s style but, by virtue of the fee Liverpool paid and their unwillingness to make an enormous loss, too expensive for most other clubs to contemplate.

Again, that’s not to say that the change of approach wasn’t the right thing to do. Consistency on the wrong path is worse than inconsistency. But if the Rodgers appointment doesn’t work out — and given his limited experience it is a gamble — then serious questions have to be asked about those making the appointments.

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