When he traded his family’s cow for that fabled bag of beans, walking home even gullible Jack must have been developing that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The cow, beloved but no longer lactating, was gone and all he had gotten in return was a pouch filled with these pills of uncertainty. If they were magic (they were), then he’d done the deal of the century. If they weren’t, his mother was going to be very displeased. He was teetering on a balance beam, with feather beds and cotton candy on his left, and a perilous void on his right. When he got home, beans in hand, his enraged mother flung them with contempt out of the kitchen window and sent Jack to bed. As it turned out for Jack, his mother was a poor judge of bean, that they were indeed of the magical genus, and the beanstalk that shot up next to the house eventually led, via theft, conspiracy and murder, to a life of luxury for them both.
But what if the beans hadn’t been magical? What if they’d been a bunch of old chickpeas, dry and infertile? They’d have been pecked up by a passing chicken, and Jack and his mother would have likely descended into miserable poverty. Jack gambled, unwisely really, on the dubious word of the bean seller. He came up trumps, and bully for him.
As Brendan Rodgers signalled for Mario Balotelli to trudge off the pitch in the 79th minute against Chelsea, his team trailing by a goal and looking toothless, tired and stymied by the Italian’s very presence, the Liverpool manager must have felt like Jack on that balance beam, slowly leaning into that perilous void. His own gamble, the fiery Balotelli, has been the metaphorical chickpea and not the magical bean that the club had hoped he’d be. Brendan’s magical bean was now laying on a couple of tidy assists on for his new team mates in Barcelona. Luis Suarez had been a similar gamble for Liverpool, one that the club had made before Brendan Rodgers had arrived. Coming from the Dutch league, long a source of flatteringly deceptive strikers, with a very patchy disciplinary record, the Uruguayan was no sure thing. But he turned out to be one of the best strikers ever to play in the Premier League, and for Liverpool he quickly went from being the undetermined bean to the cow, the prized asset. So, when his departure became an inevitability, it was Brendan Rodgers who played the part of Jack, walking to the market with his cash cow that, although a little bit bitey, was sure to command a high price. He traded the cow, and in Balotelli, Markovic, Lovren and the others, he got in return a handful of ordinary beans that look unlikely to sprout any time soon.
Liverpool’s title challenge was a fairytale, but the storied journey has not continued into this season. Tottenham had given Liverpool a helpful lesson in how not to spend all the nice, new money you’ve just gotten for your best player. After Gareth Bale’s sale, Tottenham bought so freely that theirs then became an issue of squad integration; they didn’t even necessarily opt for quantity over quality, as Eriksen, Lamela and Paulinho were all considered quality players when they brought them in. It was more a matter of too much of a good thing, and this team of strangers played disparately and incoherently. It still plagues them to a certain extent now, theirs is an unsettled squad full of players that should be better together than they are. The moral was thus: you can’t make up for the departure of a single stunning individual with players en masse.
Unfortunately, this is just what Liverpool did after Suarez left, bringing in 8 players all of whom, you could argue, expected to start. Such an influx of new faces, even if all of them hit top form immediately, would be incredibly difficult to integrate seamlessly. And if a few of them suddenly begin playing terribly, as has happened with Lovren and Balotelli, then the task is made immeasurably harder. Dejan Lovren has already shown himself bafflingly inept when playing against muscular strikers this season, and his performance on Saturday against the haughtily subversive Diego Costa was no different. He has looked horribly shaky in possession, and is no doubt hindered by the equally tremulous presence of the badly waning Steven Gerrard in front of him. An ample replacement for Daniel Agger Lovren is not.
Balotelli has been similarly ill at ease. Yet to score in the league for Liverpool, the Italian’s broodiness and surly demeanour has done very little to warm him to the fans. Shooting wastefully, rarely showing the energy or willingness to make repeated runs, Balotelli does not fit the system that Rodgers purpose-built for Suarez, which should come as no surprise, as they’re utterly different types of strikers. Why Rodgers continues to play this way is anyone’s guess. Lazar Markovic has barely featured, and one wonders what the point of spending £20 million to secure him was. Emre Can has been only sporadically effective and, in spite of his deflected strike that opened the scoring against Chelsea, he is not a player who will invigorate Liverpool’s spluttering attack. Adam Lallana has actually been fairly good when he’s been given the chance to play, but opportunities for the England international have been limited by injury and non-selection. Rickie Lambert, overjoyed when he signed for his boyhood club, might now be regretting the decision, with his occasional substitute appearances largely unsatisfying. Divock Origi, the young Belgian striker purchased from Lille in the summer then loaned back to them for this season, has scored 5 goals so far in France, just over a third of what Liverpool have managed as a team, so there’s that to look forward to.
None of the signings brought in to replace Suarez can be called unbridled successes, with some already looking like complete write-offs. And it’s been made worse by the recent prosperity of teams like West Ham and Southampton, teams that are both sitting above Liverpool on the table, and that also brought in a number of players this off-season. West Ham spent considerably, with Alex Song, Enner Valencia, Aaron Cresswell, Diafra Sakho, Cheikhou Kouyate and Carl Jenkinson some of the names to arrive at Upton Park. All have become automatic starters, all have bedded in very nicely indeed, and all are jointly responsible for the Hammers’ lofty position. Southampton experienced a staggering exodus during the summer, brushing it off without even flinching. Their new signings, Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic, and Saido Mane have all found life in England rather fun. As these two clubs have demonstrated, it isn’t impossible to do what Liverpool tried to, and the fact that Rodgers had considerably more money available, as well as the tempting carrot that is Champions League football to offer, makes their plight even less defensible.
When you think about it, the only players signed by Rodgers that have been successful at Liverpool are Phillipe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that Liverpool have been leaky at the back for the last two years. This sort of project is one that elite managers must take on every few years; Louis van Gaal is currently struggling through such a transition at United. Teams must eventually dissipate and be rebuilt, stars will wantaway, club legends will retire, and managers must be prepared for dramatic restructuring. When a manager is fortunate enough to have a sizeable kitty at his disposal, he can go out and tempt fate on a magic bean or two, but he can’t blow it all on kernels that never sprout. Jack, and his mother, were lucky rather than smart. Brendan Rodgers has not been either, and with his team in danger of dropping into the bottom half of the table by the end of the week, Liverpool’s season is now being pecked up by hungry chickens.