No escaping grim reality
Brendan Rodgers is talking the talk but not walking the walk, writes Dion Fanning
Brendan Rodgers had been talking beautifully about the progress he is overseeing at Liverpool. He marvelled at the brilliance of Luis Suarez – the term 'false winger' was used impressively. He spoke at length about the tactical advances of Jordan Henderson. He let it be known that he had been watching the new signing Philippe Coutinho since he was 15 – "another great product to come into the league" – and had talked to his friend Jose Mourinho about him.
He was happy here at the Emirates, talking away, bursting with "real pride" after Liverpool had thrown away a two-goal lead against an Arsenal side that has fragility in its DNA, in front of a crowd that was ready to revolt and a team that knew it.
Rodgers kept talking and we slid down in our chairs as relaxed as if we were in an all-night lock-in, with the sweet soothing sound of bullshit allowing us to believe we were experiencing what David Bowie liked to call the "eternal now".
When the question came it was as if somebody had switched on harsh spotlights and yanked open the blinds to reveal unforgiving sunlight and a brutal dawn. Rodgers was asked if he was concerned that his team had yet to beat a side in the top six (they have yet to beat a side in the top half.) This was reality intruding and it felt bad.
He said he wasn't "overly" worried, even if "you guys keep going on about it". He made this failure sound as if it was just a secondary piece of tittle-tattle, a contract extension or a poor disciplinary record, that the press wouldn't let go.
Anyway, Liverpool should have beaten Manchester City, he said, and if they win at the Etihad today they would have four points from two tough road trips. He is right but he was dealing in abstractions. The elephant in the boot-room is that reality will always break through in football.
Liverpool had a couple of brutal intrusions from reality last week. They lost at Oldham, looking "soft" as Rodgers said. On Wednesday night, Liverpool played brilliantly at times but reality also revealed that there is no killer instinct in the side being created by Rodgers. At Arsenal, they took part in a thrilling game against another side which has lost sight of the ultimate point of football: winning.
Last week, Brendan Rodgers finally took a stand but he took it against the weakest at the club: the young players, with Martin Skrtel thrown in.
Everything Rodgers does suggests that he is not just postponing the moment when he will be judged but, beneath the self-confidence and the projection of authority, that he is worried what that judgement will reveal. His friend Jose Mourinho also projected this authority before he had the CV to match it. When the results and victories came they seemed like the inevitable consequence of all he had been telling the world about himself.
Rodgers has mastered the looking confident bit but it remains to be seen if he can produce a successful side. He has tried to make it seem an irrelevance. When Swansea played in Sunderland last year, Rodgers talked about the game in language that is now familiar.
"It is great for the public here at Sunderland to see us," he said after the game. "They must have been wondering what this team everyone is talking about are all about and now they have seen. We were wonderful. Our intention is always to pass teams to a standstill, but give credit to Sunderland, they defended ever so well when other teams might have wilted." Sunderland had just beaten Swansea 2-0.
His words would be irrelevant if Liverpool didn't play as if they have absorbed his central message. At Boundary Park, at the Emirates and at Old Trafford, Liverpool have performed as if glimpses of spirit and some thrilling football is enough. Even Rodgers seemed to think the Oldham performance had been transformed at a certain point, remarking that Steven Gerrard played as if he had been "dropped in from heaven" when he came on.
Liverpool scored in that time and Gerrard hit the bar but Liverpool were playing a League One side which had won one of its previous nine games. Some doubt was inevitable and to see a transformation in turning a 1-3 scoreline into a 2-3 scoreline makes Pangloss seem like Beckett.
Rodgers then went to the other extreme in criticising the young players, but if a manager must sometimes look ridiculous to protect his players, it is not a good idea for a manager to make his players look ridiculous to protect himself.
By Wednesday night, he was saying "Sunday was more my fault than theirs". By then Liverpool had their pride and he was finding leadership in reliable places, certainly more reliable places than a Brendan Rodgers press conference.
Jamie Carragher will probably start at the Etihad today. At the Emirates, he brought authority to the side. At one point in the first half, Glen Johnson took a knock on the head. Carragher went around the Liverpool players, reminding them of their responsibilities. He then had a quick word with the referee. The referee restarted the game with a drop ball and Arsenal knocked it back to Pepe Reina. The Arsenal fans howled. They believed the ball should have been given back to them.
Carragher is a player who has always been looking for an edge. He seemed less inclined to be consoled by the performance or talk of his pride in drawing against a team that is sixth in the table. Carragher has competed for titles and won the European Cup. In those years, he was at the heart of everything Liverpool achieved. "A manager going into a club would want those guys right behind you," Rodgers said afterwards and he is right.
Rodgers will also point to progress. Liverpool collapsed against Arsenal in August so he saw Wednesday night as a benchmark of how far they have come (Arsenal have nosedived since then).
There may have been signs of progress this season but Luis Suarez has delivered most of them. Suarez plays as if to win is the only thing and he plays with a ruthlessness that is out of step with Rodgers' better-luck-next-time philosophy.
Suarez is making encouraging noises about staying at Liverpool but he is also talking about making a decision in the summer. He is 26, he has scored 17 league goals already this season and he will be wanted by all the top European clubs.
If Suarez leaves then Liverpool's greatest test will be how they replace him. Rodgers has been average in the transfer market.
If Joe Allen has faded (perhaps because he is too closely identified with the manager, Rodgers exempted him from blame for the Oldham defeat), Henderson has grown and Rodgers can take some credit for that.
Yet Liverpool, and presumably Rodgers, were prepared to let Henderson leave the club in August as they tried to find a way of getting Clint Dempsey to Anfield. Henderson refused and Liverpool refused to pay the money for Dempsey. Whoever made that decision, and it wasn't Rodgers, was right.
In the aftermath, John Henry, who has yet to visit Anfield this season, issued a statement declaring FSG's ambitions for the club.
Like many things FSG say, their words had an appeal but the reality is different. Rodgers can talk about the project and the group and the product but Liverpool's future depends less on him than it does on Luis Suarez.
Every year spent away from the Champions League is another year when it becomes harder to attract the players necessary to return to the Champions League.
Rodgers must deal with that and he has managed, in the main, to remove himself from criticism.
There is a feeling that Rodgers is just a proxy, that those who criticise him only use him to further another agenda. This view allows Rodgers off the hook. His mistakes are obvious and need no agenda to be pointed out.
Liverpool has been dominated by feuds in recent years and in the summer FSG decided to go with their instincts. It was a courageous and sensible decision. They wanted to move on from the past and they wanted to create a club where the manager was one of many voices and couldn't cause too much havoc.
Rodgers probably hasn't done much harm at Liverpool. FSG wanted a middle manager to lower the wage bill and the age of the squad without causing too much fuss as they sought to cut costs. They didn't want a manager like Benitez who would always demand more and who would prevent them breaking free of the past. It was an understandable point of view, but there were coaches who could have been pursued, men like Frank de Boer, who would have taken Liverpool forward with more intent than Rodgers.
In blaming the weakest and most marginal at the club last week, Rodgers gave little indication that he is a manager capable of doing more than middle management, despite all his empty rhetoric.
If bullshit is designed to conceal the truth, a point arrives when bullshit reveals it. The truth about Rodgers is that when he talked of the young players after the Oldham game, he was revealing something of himself. When he said they were soft and needed to understand the demands of playing for Liverpool, he was getting closer to the truth. Everything he said about those players could as easily be said of him.
Brendan Rodgers promotes football without a reckoning. In football, there is always a reckoning.