Brendan Rodgers safe at Liverpool for now but major improvements needed
Brendan Rodgers might be the luckiest man in English football right now.
"Judge me in three years," he famously said. Well those three years are up and the fans' verdict is in. If it were up to the overwhelming majority of them he'd have been looking for a new job before the final whistle had even blown at the Britannia Stadium as the Reds crashed to their worst defeat in over half a century to leave them languishing in sixth place. Fortunately for Rodgers, his employers took a more lenient view.
Following a meeting with Mike Gordon (Rodgers' biggest ally at Fenway Sports Group) and chairman Tom Werner, the club announced that Rodgers would remain in charge and that "all parties agreed improvement need to be made." And so it begins.
Supporters are now bracing themselves for the inevitable wave of spin the club are about to throw at them over the next few days. Expect lots of talk about how last season was not acceptable but lessons have been learned and they will work tirelessly to put it right. There may even be a sacrificial lamb or two to appease the masses, either from Rodgers' backroom team or a low-ranking member of the transfer committee.
Talk is cheap as they say; many supporters will now feel that Liverpool's owners are too. It's difficult to get away from the conclusion they only kept Rodgers in place because of the significant expense it would incur to remove him. With three years left on his contract, it would certainly not have been cheap to dismiss Rodgers and his staff. There's also the large salary and long-term contract that any top quality replacement would command.
Ultimately, it appears that FSG would rather gamble on Rodgers somehow sneaking back into the top four next season than pay what it takes to get someone who will increase the chances of it happening.
The novelty certainly seems to have worn off for most of Liverpool's American owners over the past 12 months or so. Even Jose Enrique made more appearances at Anfield than John W. Henry this year. Neither Henry nor Werner made it over for Steven Gerrard's final Anfield appearance, while Henry never even bothered to attend the supposed "grilling" Rodgers was expected to face from his employers this week. Their disinterest is alarmingly palpable.
Only Gordon seems to be concerned with what is happening on Merseyside but unfortunately he may be a little too "hands on" if reports in the Merseyside press are accurate. Not only is he a member of the transfer committee, but he was also the man most entrusted with reviewing the performance of the manager. Many supporters feel there's a conflict of interest, while others are wondering just what qualifies him to be in such a position of great responsibility at one of Europe's biggest clubs. He's yet to do any interview discussing his role at LFC so supporters are entitled to be sceptical.
A club with genuine ambition would surely have made a change -- not directly due to Liverpool's final league position (although some would argue that in itself was justification to act) but more the circumstances in how they arrived there. After all, it was Rodgers himself who once remarked about Spurs that "if you spend a hundred million pounds, you expect to challenge for the league."
Liverpool spent in excess of that yet were incredibly fortunate to even finish above Southampton. It's also worth pointing out that they took the same amount of points against the rest of the Premier League as Swansea City did; the only thing separating Rodgers from his former club were the two wins he managed over his old pal Garry Monk, one of which was considered by most to be extremely fortunate.
Given how poor the Reds were for two-thirds of the season, it's arguably remarkable they finished as high as they did. The FA Cup semifinal defeat to Aston Villa was alarming to say the least. You do not expect a side to under-perform as badly as Liverpool did on such a big occasion, while the club's performances in both European competitions were utterly embarrassing.
Would Chelsea have tolerated a season like Liverpool's? Would Manchester City? Manchester United proved a year ago they would not and ditched David Moyes less than a year into a long-term contract. Even the long-serving Arsene Wenger would have been hard pushed to survive a season like the one Liverpool have just had.
Perhaps the biggest concern many supporters have about Rodgers being retained is that in the closing weeks of the season it looked like he had lost the proverbial dressing room. It certainly looked as though they players had tuned him out and were no longer buying into his methods. A team that is fully focused and behind its manager does not lose back-to-back games to Crystal Palace and Stoke City by a combined score of 9-2.
The players may as well have taken to the field on the final day of the season with "Rodgers Out" on the back of their shirts, as their lack of interest spoke volumes. His relationship with his players is something Rodgers will need to address if he's to stand any chance of winning back the trust of the supporters. Usually though, once that trust is gone (both from players and supporters) it rarely comes back, so he certainly has his work cut out on both fronts.
It's not completely out of the question that Rodgers may turn it around, though. He has clearly lost his way over the recent months but he remains a fine coach and an innovative tactician when he has the right quality of players at his disposal. After looking humiliated back in December, he came up with a drastic formation change that sparked a revival to take the Reds to within one win of the Champions League places before it all came crashing down like a house of cards again following a home defeat to Manchester United.
He may yet pull another rabbit out of the hat but Liverpool's performance in the transfer market must also drastically improve this summer for him to stand any chance. He cannot make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of a squad he currently has at his disposal -- a squad he helped put together, it must be said.
Persuading James Milner to give up regular title challenges and Champions League football at Manchester City to play in the Europa League with the Reds would certainly be a feather in Rodgers' cap. With a fair wind behind him and some talented new recruits, he might yet oversee a successful campaign nex goalscoring form that would immediately transform the side into serious top four contenders. Perhaps Dannyt year.
A lot of things would have to fall into place but stranger things have happened. Maybe Daniel Sturridge finally returns from injury and regains his best form. Maybe Danny Ings arrives and undergoes a Harry Kane-like transformation from talented youngster to top-class frontman and, who knows, maybe some of last year's transfer flops may find their feet having had a year to adjust to life at the club. Anything is possible, but the odds are surely stacked against it and the pressure will therefore be intense on Rodgers right from the very first kick of next season.
He may have been granted a stay of execution but Rodgers cannot feel entirely safe. FSG may not have wanted to pull the trigger on him this summer but should Liverpool get off to a stuttering start next season, the calls from supporters for change will be deafening, especially with the spectres of Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti looming large in the background for as long as they remain on "sabbatical."
Brendan Rodgers will begin next season as Liverpool manager, but he'll have his work cut out if he wants to end it that way.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.