Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Real Dilemma

Much has been spoken about last night’s Champions League match in the Bernabeu where Real Madrid met Liverpool, and much more will be spoken in the coming days.

The whole build-up to the game seemed to provoke high emotion and when the team sheet was revealed there was more anger and debate.

Personally, I wasn’t comfortable with many sentiments which suggested we shouldn’t even play the game.  I’m sure Basel and Ludogorets found that amusing.  If teams just chose to turn up for games they thought they were going to win then there’d be no point in football at all.  But shocks and surprises do happen, and even when you’re playing as Real Madrid on FIFA or Football Manager, you can lose to lower ranked sides.

Only last week we had the example of an under-strength Newcastle side going to Manchester City in the Capital One Cup and no one gave them a hope.  90 minutes later they’d won 2-0 and continued their recovery from the depths of despair.  These things happen in football, and it’s often easy for us supporters, most of whom never made it to anything like a professional level in sport, to believe you’re taking the pitch knowing you’re in for a hiding.  But professionals don’t think like that, they don’t have doubts in their ability, they only think of ‘can’ not ‘can’t’ (no, that’s not an opportunity for a pun from last night either).

The Newcastle situation is an example of how idiotic it is for continual “change the manager” rants from some people.  They could have changed their manager long ago but didn’t and now look at them – full of confidence.

The team selection is something which produced a huge wave of criticism, and was especially whipped up by various sections of the media.  Mark Pougatch, not generally a man who succumbs to hyperbole, on Radio Five was certainly stirring things up suggesting Liverpool were “disrespecting the competition by putting out a sub-standard side”.  He would argue he was simply voicing opinions given to him by some Liverpool fans, although those comments are chosen rather than read out in the order they’re received, adding to the mood being created.  Then on television, Adrian Chiles was apoplectic in his view “the great Liverpool football club have thrown in the towel”, and how could Brendan Rodgers possibly choose a line-up like that?  This just served to whip up the audience into a frenzy.  But of course these views are rarely held by the presenter alone, and are often ordered by their producer to improve the viewing and listening figures for the station.

None of us are privy to the conversations which went on around team selection, and I would fully expect they were long, detailed and well thought out.  You may have thought differently but then you have the benefit of this theory never being tested and you never having to suffer the consequences of failure.  I think much of the decision was forced on Rodgers, and I don’t mean from his employer, but by the team’s performance in recent weeks.  Most team selections are a gamble as you never really know what sort of performance you’re going to get, but had Liverpool been playing the scintillating football of last season, and had won the last 5-6 matches, brimming with confidence, then it’s likely only a couple of players would’ve been rested.  Think back to the heady days of April and you could see how that would’ve been more than capable of taking on Madrid on a Tuesday and then Chelsea on a Saturday.  As it turned out he left Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling, Balotelli and Johnson on the bench.  None of those players had been “ripping up trees” in the past few weeks and they are going to be needed when the season reaches “the business end” from February onwards.  We are going to be playing more matches this season than last and so it is essential we have a squad which can cope with the workload, and that would appear synonymous with the transfer policy in the summer.

Rodgers had some big decisions to make and couldn’t just look at the Madrid game, with a Premier League against Chelsea coming up at the weekend.  Chelsea are in Slovenia tonight and so may be at a disadvantage in recovery terms with Liverpool benefitting from an extra day.  Rodgers also had to contend with the fact we’ve already lost to Basel so it was always going to be likely we would have to win the final group game against them at Anfield, to secure qualification to the knockout stage.  So, had we been playing well and were in the top three in the Premier League, and had won 2 of our 3 group matches in the Champions League then maybe last night’s team selection would’ve been different.  But the fact is we’re not, we haven’t and so it was.

Now it is very easy to argue putting out, what some may regard as, a B team suggests we had already given up, and having that belief leads to a feeling of disappointment we weren’t able to see Sterling take on a rarely tested defence, or Gerrard orchestrate the midfield, Coutinho pick holes through the defence or maybe see Balotelli silence his many detractors with a goal in the Bernabeu. 

But there is a bigger picture here and football often finds no place for sentiment.  Had those players performed at the required level in recent games then maybe they deserved that chance, but you can’t keep picking players who aren’t performing and Rodgers has to give Lallana, Markovic and Can their stage to let them show what they can do.  If you’re Emre Can and you’re giving your all in training then watching “the first team” perform as insipidly as they did against Newcastle you have every right to believe your chance is coming.  Now Rodgers has given you that chance in, of all places, the Bernabeu against possibly the best club side in the world at the moment.  Of course, if you were Emre Can you could throw something back at the manager and complain you were picked in a team alongside other “numpties” rather than get the chance to show what you can do alongside Gerrard, Coutinho and Henderson and that you still haven’t been trusted.  But then players always believe they’re right and they’re never to blame.

We have no idea what goes on between manager and players and these days men like Rodgers have shown themselves to be able to adapt to different personalities as can be evidenced with his explanation of why he was so angry with England’s treatment of Daniel Sturridge.  Sturridge has a personal training schedule designed specifically for him, and he’s unlikely to be the only one, giving further evidence with modern management being increasingly about man-management than anything else.  Last season Rodgers got this right, but so far this season he hasn’t and no doubt it frustrates him as much as it does the rest of us.

What Rodgers did last night is send a message to those who have had a regular place in recent weeks that they cannot be certain of their place without a performance.  The message he has sent to Lucas, Toure, Borini, Can, Markovic and Lallana is if they put in a decent performance then they could replace those who seem to be first on the team sheet. 

The evidence would suggest it worked, although how many of them have played themselves into contention for the Chelsea game, remains to be seen, but Kolo Toure, for example, has done much to change the reputation he’d built up in his short time at Anfield.  With Palace, Stoke, Leicester and Sunderland coming up after the Chelsea game they are likely to get their chance then and it they will have been under no illusion that the management were looking carefully at their attitude last night.

The ‘bigger picture’ I mentioned earlier is one which other clubs have found difficult to master.  How do you compete in the Champions League in the same season you are desperately trying to qualify for it again?  Everton and Tottenham haven’t mastered it and even Manchester City are finding it tough.  Qualifying for next season’s Champions League is possibly a bigger target than getting through this season’s group stage.  Some may not like it, but in order to continue to compete with the wealth of Europe’s top clubs, Liverpool cannot afford to miss out on the riches waiting for them with the new TV deal for English clubs over the next three years.  This money could well finance the host of big names so many supporters crave.  If you look at the group situation in this season’s Champions League, even if Liverpool had won last night, they would probably need to beat Basel in the final group game.  Losing hasn’t changed that scenario either.  Remember, if two teams are level on points then the head-to-head record between those clubs is what separates them.  At the moment Liverpool trail 0-1 to Basel.  Of course you could argue a win last night and then a win in Bulgaria would probably mean Liverpool could afford a draw against the Swiss in the final match, but I hope you get my point (no, not another pun)

The other scenario which must have entered Rodgers thinking was that if he’d put out his ‘first team’ last night and they’d spent all night hopelessly chasing the ball this would’ve been a further nail in the confidence coffin, they seem so intent on constructing over recent weeks.  That is not the preparation you want for the Chelsea game at the weekend. 

Last night hasn’t solved everything and in fact it may not solve anything, unless it brings about a return to confidence for the whole squad.  I would hope those on the bench are really proud of the starting eleven just as they would expect those players to be when the positions are reversed.  Club football is very much as squad game these days and Liverpool were fortunate to be able to go through most of last season with only minor irritation with injuries.  We now go to a game against the league leaders where a further defeat could undo the hard work from last night.  We still have to go to Ludogorets and win, although a draw isn’t disastrous it just feeds doubt, leading to a vital game at home to Basel. 

I’m willing to bet Rodgers took a long hard look at those players after Saturday’s performance and then considered what another Madrid battering could do to them, before wondering how he’d ever get them ready for Chelsea.  He is managing a 25-man squad after all.  Sure, those players left on the bench last night will be disappointed, footballers always are.  Robbie Fowler is still annoyed he was left out of FA Cup Final in 2001 and Michael Owen still feels the same about the Worthington Cup Final in the same year.  But managers have to make decisions based on what’s best for the team, and as I said earlier, football rarely has a place for sentiment.

I expect the Basel game at Anfield to be like many a great European night with the crowd playing the part so many visiting teams fear.  St. Etienne, Auxerre, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiakos all over again.  Hopefully by then we’ve hit form and can see them off, then look forward to our opponents in the knockout stages.

In the meantime, bring on Chelsea on Saturday.

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