LIVERPOOL - “First is first and second is nowhere,” Bill Shankly famously quipped when Liverpool’s legendary manager was asked to describe his aims heading into a new season.
For Brendan Rodgers, the latest man to follow Shankly into the Anfield hotseat, the belief that only the very best would do for Liverpool must seem an admirable but impossible legacy to live up to.
Like Shankly, Rodgers arrived at Anfield with the Reds at a low ebb after several years of underachievement. But there the comparisons must end for now.
While Shankly transformed Liverpool from second-tier strugglers into champions of England and laid the foundations for the club to conquer Europe, former Swansea boss Rodgers would be happy just to challenge for a place in the Premier League’s top four.
The after-effects of Kenny Dalglish’s disappointing second spell as Liverpool manager are being felt by Rodgers, who has taken over an unbalanced squad lacking pace in defence and attack and creativity in midfield.
After just a couple of months in charge, Rodgers has already made the painfully honest admission that Liverpool may not be in a strong enough position to win their 19th league title for several years.
There have been no bold pronouncements from principal owner John W. Henry either after the American investor put Dalglish under pressure last season by claiming it would be a major disappointment if Liverpool failed to qualify for the Champions League.
Instead of securing a place among Europe’s elite, Dalglish’s side finished a woeful eighth – the club’s worst position for 18 years – and not even a League Cup final victory over Cardiff and a run to the FA Cup final, which ended with a defeat against Chelsea, could save the Scot from the sack. With expectations at an all-time low, Rodgers, who can still call on top-class performers like Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel, has the chance to make the changes he wants without too much criticism.
He has been busy casting a critical eye over his squad already and England striker Andy Carroll appears to be surplus to requirements following Rodgers’ lukewarm response to questions about Liverpool’s club record signing.
Rodgers is keen to emulate the smooth-passing style that led the Anfield crowd to give Swansea’s players a standing ovation after a 0-0 draw on Merseyside last season.
And a burly target man like Carroll looks an awkward fit for the philosophy Rodgers has developed after years visiting some of Europe’s biggest clubs to study their methods.
“There is a lot of work going on and a lot of hours have been spent analysing the group,” he said.
“There is a lot of work to be done and it will take a bit of time until we get what we want.
“I had a friend who went to Harvard University and he said to me many years ago when he first went there on the first day he was told it was about being ruthlessly simple because they have a lot of intelligent people go to that university - that is something which has stayed with me in my work.
“It is about being ruthlessly simple on and off the field and it is something I have carried with me over many years.”
So far Rodgers has brought in only young Italian striker Fabio Borini, a £10 million signing from Roma who had impressed the Reds boss during their time working together in Chelsea’s reserve team and when he was on loan at Swansea.
But Rodgers insists that, despite Liverpool’s obvious flaws last season, there is no need to panic buy.
“Initially it is about assessing the group and looking at their strengths,” he added.
“Come the beginning of the season I hope to be able to have the squad to take us through. It will be the case of piecing it together and building a squad which can compete.”