Liverpool's recent history is against Brendan Rodgers in his bid for the title
It was not quite a resignation from contention, but it came close. Brendan Rodgers left Upton Park on Saturday declaring that Liverpool "cannot entertain talk" of winning the title. Their last challenge spanned nine months, ending only in the bittersweet final-day victory over Newcastle. If Rodgers is right, and the early evidence is that he probably is, this one is already over, five games and six weeks enough to suggest it is not Liverpool's year.
If so, it will complete a quarter of a century without a league title. This is the longest drought in their history. Yet if that statistic suggests stark failure, the reality is that in an era of some underachievement, four managers have overseen significant improvements. The problem for Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez was that, while each produced an accomplished team which had a claim to be the best in the country, they found the final step to glory the hardest. Sooner or later, their sides either stagnated or regressed. Rodgers' quest is to avoid the pitfalls that waylaid his predecessors, because he finds himself in a similar situation.
Three defeats in the first five league games do not necessarily equate to proof of decline (indeed Bob Paisley only won three of the first 11 in 1981-82 and still ended the season on top of the league). Given the twin complications of adjusting to the demands of Champions League football and recalibrating a side without the 31-goal, 12-assist Luis Suarez, it is too soon to say that last season's magnificent 11 successive Premier League wins will remain the high point of Rodgers' Anfield career, just as his summer spending spree cannot be dismissed on the basis of a few underwhelming early results.
Yet there are echoes of history. If Liverpool can never regain the momentum or recapture the effervescence they showed in their spring surge towards glory, Steven Gerrard's already infamous April slip against Chelsea will be deemed the turning point. It will be the equivalent of David James' 1997 goalkeeping clangers against Manchester United, when victory would have put Liverpool ahead of Sir Alex Ferguson's side with three games to go. Or Houllier's disastrous decision to replace Dietmar Hamann with Vladimir Smicer in Leverkusen in 2002 when Liverpool, "10 games from greatness," in their manager's words, ended up empty-handed in both Premier and Champions Leagues. Or, indeed, Xabi Alonso's 2009 sale to Real Madrid, breaking up Benitez's best side.
Decline came swiftly in the Spaniard's final season. He stayed a season too long and Benitez, whose towering achievement in winning the 2005 Champions League with an unexceptional side means he ranks as the finest of the Liverpool managers who never conquered England, was hampered by the machinations of owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
Rodgers need not fear a repeat. Yet a common denominator among the managerial quartet is that each inherited a club at a low ebb. Indeed, it was an indication of the problems that three -- Houllier, Benitez and Rodgers -- initially took Liverpool backwards before making progress. A trio rebranded Liverpool, too: Evans with a traditionalist makeover by restoring their passing traditions, the modernist Houllier fashioning a defensively-sound, counter-attacking side (Benitez had similar principles) and a futuristic Rodgers placing a greater emphasis on possession and intelligent attacking.
Each was reliant on one striker: Robbie Fowler was prolific for Evans, Houllier's tactics became more and more based on Michael Owen's pace and Benitez had no understudy to Fernando Torres. Perhaps Daniel Sturridge and Mario Balotelli can buck the trend by showing that Suarez's departure is not a terminal blow to Rodgers' Liverpool but as it stands, the club's four finest forwards of the Premier League era were all indelibly associated with one managerial reign.
Balotelli's arrival is reminiscent of the recruitment of Stan Collymore, an explosive, unpredictable talent who did not fully realise his potential for Evans. At the other end of the pitch, Rodgers' Liverpool also bear closest comparison with the Liverpudlian's side. Though both were capable of making outstanding saves -- for Simon Mignolet's recent struggles, read James' calamities in the 1990s. Neither was a guarantee of reliability. Evans spent heavily on central defenders, with Phil Babb looking especially uncomfortable at Anfield. Now the cumbersome Mamadou Sakho looks a liability and the still more costly Dejan Lovren has endured a mixed start to his Liverpool career.
Meanwhile, Rodgers' summer investment has a particular significance because of Liverpool's track record of making major misjudgements as they looked to transform runners-up into champions. In 1991, Graeme Souness' expensive acquisitions included Michael Thomas, Mark Walters, Dean Saunders. In 2002, Houllier made the monumental miscalculation of concluding El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou were what he needed. In 2009, while his budget was being cut, Benitez invested 20 million pounds in the injured Alberto Aquilani.
The worst-case scenario for Balotelli, Lovren, Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana is that they end up in the same bracket. The lesson from history is that Liverpool, serial champions between 1964 and 1990, seem to struggle to build on second-placed finishes.
Like Benitez, albeit for different reasons, Rodgers merits sympathy. He was hamstrung at a time when he wanted to accelerate. Such was Suarez's importance that it feels like he is already on his second Liverpool team, even though he has only actually lost one player. Such is the transitional nature of this season, with its influx of new players and its continental challenges that Liverpool last encountered under Benitez.
The Spaniard's achievements spanned longer than any of the modern band of Liverpool managers, from Champions League glory in 2005 to the inspired title challenge in 2009, via consistent top-four finishes and European achievement. Houllier's real triumphs were concentrated in a two-year period from 2000 to 2002. Evans actually recorded his highest points total and secured his only silverware in his first full campaign, though he came closest to lifting the league two years later.
It is not as simple as saying they peaked and then slumped. Yet eventually, a gravitational pull dragged managers who had lifted Liverpool up back down again. The achievement that eluded them, and which represents Rodgers' biggest challenge, is to take them still higher, back to the summit of English football. But, as he accepted, it is unlikely to happen this season.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.