Thursday 18 January 2018

Brendan Rodgers must embrace case for Liverpool defence

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
James Lawton

James Lawton

HIS professional life may have been in tumult for a few days now but it's still hard to believe life could be much sweeter for the new young lord of the football universe, Brendan Rodgers.

It hardly seems possible near the end of the season that saw his former Merseyside rival David Moyes die what seemed like a thousand deaths at Manchester United and had the great Jose Mourinho looking into the skull's head of a second straight failure to land a major trophy.

There was, though, no such angst for the 41-year-old Rodgers after seeing his team outplayed by failed title challengers Chelsea at Anfield, then fall apart at Crystal Palace after building a 3-0 lead.

Not only has he escaped any kind of serious inquisition; his American paymasters are ushering him towards rich new contract talks.

He is already a Liverpool folk hero at an age when his legendary predecessors Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley still faced long years of learning their trade.

COLLAPSE

Even the Crystal Palace catastrophe, the collapse of will and even basic tactical nous which has undermined to the point of extinction his club's claims on a first title in 24 years, has been greeted as a random piece of banana skin – and not least by the man who oversaw the disaster at Selhurst Park.

Rodgers had his regrets, of course, but they were of the non-specific variety.

Yes, his team nose-dived in a stomach-wrenching way but these things happen, we must understand, and anyway all of football is a learning experience, he said, before adding: "To be successful you have to be able to lose.

"If you look back over the years the great winners have been teams and individuals who have lost and gone on to become champions again."

True enough, but first you must win. You must seize the moments that are given to you and, however you dress it, Liverpool this week looked much less than a team ready and able to grab hold of a beautiful destiny.

They were, let's be honest, a team whose vaunted boldness of spirit and strong psychological underpinning went missing at the worst possible time in the endless suburbs of south London.

This was 75 minutes into another trademarked attacking performance spearheaded by Footballer of the Year Luis Suarez and the sorcerer's apprentice, Daniel Sturridge.

Former Liverpool stalwart Jamie Carragher did point out that his old team's defensive frailties had been clear enough for most of the season and he was aghast at the failure to respond to Palace's late upsurge but he was a relatively lonely critic – especially when compared to the pack which descended upon Moyes after his worst setbacks, Mourinho after home defeats to Atletico Madrid and Sunderland and Manuel Pellegrini before Manchester City regained their composure.

Rodgers was largely allowed to conduct his own inquest after the failure at Palace and it was one that did not dwell on any failures of adjustment by either himself or his much-praised captain Steven Gerrard.

Nor was there any mention of the supposedly deep psychological strength imposed by the guru of the moment, Dr Steve Peters, whose success with Liverpool and snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan led to his appointment as an adviser in England's World Cup bid in Brazil.

Certainly Monday night was not one that the lauded psychologist will care to remember as O'Sullivan was worn down remorselessly by the new champion Mark Selby as Liverpool were by Palace.

Rodgers made only glancing and airy references to the defensive meltdown which has almost certainly cost Liverpool the Premier League title when he said: "We were outstanding for 78 minutes.

"We scored the goals and we looked like we could get a few more but to concede three goals at the end was hugely disappointing."

It was also a conspicuous failure of damage control.

Despite Palace's sudden ability to attack with ease, Rodgers' response was to bring on two fresh attacking players, Philippe Coutinho and Victor Moses.

Daniel Agger and Kolo Toure stayed on the bench despite the growing and desperate discomfort of both Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho.

Nor was the presence of Gerrard, the most enthusiastic disciple of Rodgers, any point of resistance to Liverpool's astonishing decline.

Gerrard was almost as distraught as a Suarez leaving the field with his shirt over his head. Rodgers discussed his failed strategy in only the most general terms, saying: "At half-time we said that the most important thing was to win the game.

"It was not about Roy of the Rovers football to make up the goal difference (against City). It was just about winning. We did not manage the game at 3-0.

"We gave them a sniff and they have some good players who can punish you. It is something we will improve on next season."

PRICE

Such improvement will have to come at a pretty price in the shape of two proven central defenders. Saying that Liverpool have to manage a game on the field, as Rodgers did, is one thing, but having players to impose such control is another.

It is also to avoid the question that inevitably descends on the man in the technical area when a game has demonstrably been taken away from him.

None of this is to obscure the extent of Liverpool's progress this season, nor the fundamental change Rodgers has achieved in the way the club and its supporters now see themselves.

He has brought a thrilling game that has returned Liverpool to a classic tradition. He has invested in the ability of key players to produce football of superior rhythm, pace, and creativity.

What he hasn't done yet, though, and it is an omission which has probably cost him the joy of an extraordinary coronation at Anfield on Sunday, is to attend to the vital matter of serious defence.

It was a possibility the great Shankly so firmly rejected when he signed his personal 'Colossus' Ron Yeats.

If Rodgers is to fulfil brilliant potential, plainly he needs to retrace at least a few of such giant footsteps.

Irish Independent

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