HEART OF FOOTBALL

Acid tests await Wenger, Rodgers

Arsenal's Francis Coquelin (in red) gaining ground on Chelsea's Willian during last week's Community Shield. The emergence of the Frenchman has stemmed the Gunners' urge to go out and sign a holding midfielder.
Arsenal's Francis Coquelin (in red) gaining ground on Chelsea's Willian during last week's Community Shield. The emergence of the Frenchman has stemmed the Gunners' urge to go out and sign a holding midfielder.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Title would validate Wenger's quest for silver and Rodgers' aim to remain at the Reds' helm

In the most competitive league in the world, humiliation festers longer than the glow of achievement.

On the first Sunday of the English Premier League, Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger acknowledges that the FA Cup win back in May was nice, but says the target now is to start strong, and to go all the way to the league title. No ifs or buts, no equivocation. The title is his aim in his 20th season with the Gunners.

Brendan Rodgers, in contrast, has to restart with Liverpool where the Reds really did go bust on the closing day of last season.

"When the fixtures came out," he said, "we couldn't have had a better first game. Stoke is a difficult place to go, but it will be tougher for them than it was last season."

Last season, on the last day, Liverpool capitulated 1-6 at the Britannia Stadium.

The window is open, and so is Wenger's mind, to the possibility of spending if an exceptional player comes on the market. But he insists his focus is on making sure the players are ready for the fight - this time from day one and not from mid-season when Chelsea are out of sight.

The response, not simply to that but to a year in which Liverpool failed to land a Champions League spot, and failed to get anywhere near silverware, brought Liverpool's top brass over the Atlantic from Boston.

Fenway Sports Group, the owners, wanted to know if the manager was any longer the right man to spend their cash on rebuilding what was clearly an uncompetitive squad.

Wenger is pretty much safe for as long as he keeps on sustaining the minimum requirement of a top four spot in the EPL, guaranteeing Champions League income and proof of ambition beyond the retention of the FA Cup.

He preaches style, and stability. All he has done so far this summer is buy Petr Cech, an experienced goalkeeper and, from what Cech says, still ambitious to be a serial trophy winner.

That Theo Walcott might lead the attack against West Ham today, and Francis Coquelin has stemmed the urge to go out and buy a holding midfielder, testifies to Wenger's belief that it is better to develop than to do what everyone expects of a big club and just buy.

The window is open, and so is Wenger's mind, to the possibility of spending if an exceptional player comes on the market. But he insists his focus is on making sure the players are ready for the fight - this time from day one and not from mid-season when Chelsea are out of sight.

From the outward serenity of Arsenal's training complex at London Colney, to the turnover at Liverpool's base at Melwood.

In the trauma that followed the last game at Stoke, even Liverpool's practice ground has had a major overhaul.

Rodgers kept his job, but dispensed with his assistant manager and his first team coach. Three new assistants - England U-19 coach Sean O'Driscoll, former academy coach Pep Lijanders and former Liverpool player and Leeds United coach Gary McAllister - are the manager's new backroom team.

Fenway has approved this new combination, and just like last season has authorised a heavy recruitment of new players.

Obviously the departure to Los Angeles of Mr Liverpool, Stevie Gerrard, signified change, as did last season's defection of Luis Suarez to Barcelona.

And obviously, Liverpool was hurt by Raheem Sterling's rebellion, enforcing his sale to Manchester City.

But the seven new signings, costing another £80 million, and the backroom rethinking suggests revolution rather than evolution at Anfield.

Stoke City did not alone cause Rodgers to strip down the team he believed in, but listen to how much it sticks in his craw:

"It was unacceptable. The identity of what you stand for in terms of organisation, character and fight - forget quality, that is irrelevant - you have got to be able to fight. All these elements we failed."

Rodgers not only survived that humiliation, his American bosses made it clear that all the seven signings they sanctioned came with the manager's seal of approval.

This statement was necessary because rumours abounded last season that some of the purchases were imposed by committee. The Mario Balotelli misfit might be top of that list, and Liverpool are still trying to offload the Italian.

"Forget quality . . .you have got to be able to fight," might be written in reference to less-than-Super Mario. And one is reminded of something the former Manchester City manager Joe Mercer said almost 50 years ago: "Talent is fine when it's on song," opined Joe, "when it goes off it contaminates."

In the place of the role that Balotelli never fulfilled in the red of Liverpool comes Christian Benteke.

You might have seen on video the incredible volley the Reds' new £32.5 million (S$69.73 million) centre forward landed into the roof of the net in pre-season.

"Christian will surprise you," Rodgers states in one of his most upbeat moments of the rebuild.

The question mark with Benteke has never been about his quality, although there will have to be a change of style if Liverpool are to capitalise on his strength in the air.

He has a bullying quality there, he puts his head in where defenders fear to go. To capitalise, Liverpool will have to cross the ball from the flanks, and maybe that, to a degree, is what Rodgers means by taking the team in a different direction.

We shall see. Jordan Ibe, now backed by the industry of James Milner down the right, could well get in those high crosses. But on the other side, where Sterling was so swift, the options are Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and the new Brazilian Roberto Firmino.

Coutinho was outstanding last season, but he and his compatriot Firmino want, like most Brazilians, the ball on the ground.

Stability at Arsenal is a given.

Instability at Liverpool has meant two summers of huge turnover and spending. Rodgers has, you sense, one season to put it right.

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Arsenal v West Ham (8.30pm), Stoke v Liverpool (11pm), Singtel TV Ch102 & StarHub Ch227, 8.30pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'Acid tests await Wenger, Rodgers'. Print Edition | Subscribe