Friday 20 April 2018

Only thing that's predictable is their sheer unpredictability

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Dion Fanning

When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool, he spoke about creating a side that was in keeping with the traditions of the club, a team that played "attacking football – but with discipline".

Rodgers said many, many things in those days as he created a magnificent vision of how his side would play and their magnificence has not diminished for being a different type of team to the one he imagined.

Liverpool are unlikely to end the season as league champions, which was once their finest tradition of all, but Rodgers can justifiably claim to have re-established a connection between Liverpool and the idea of winning the biggest trophies, something which had been lost at the club.

Liverpool's current identity was pretty clear at Selhurst Park on Monday night. Liverpool lived by the sword and died by ritual disembowelment against Crystal Palace, a stunning example of how the team can create excitement and drama where there ought to be none. For now, this is their identity, a team of complete unpredictability which could beat Newcastle United 5-3 today or lose 2-3. Expect anything, as Kevin Keegan used to say.

When Ryan Giggs addressed the people at Old Trafford and the wider Manchester United nation on the pitch last Tuesday night, he touched on similar issues surrounding identity. "You've seen a little glimpse of the future and this is what this club's about," Giggs told the crowd after James Wilson had scored twice on his debut. "We never stand still. We always give youth a chance and play attractive football. Sometimes we don't win but we give it our all so keep supporting us and the good times will come back soon."

Giggs has become the embodiment of the Manchester United identity as the Class of '92 assert their authority. There has been a delayed reaction to Alex Ferguson's departure, perhaps inevitable as he didn't really depart at all, so it is only now that the Class of '92 have become the group who will reluctantly shoulder this responsibility. They are football's answer to The Goonies with United threatened by men who don't understand how special it is and how things will never be the same again if it falls into the wrong hands.

In the fairytale version, Giggs would have won all his matches and made it impossible for United to appoint anybody else. In the real world, after the defeat to Sunderland, he had to fall back on abstractions as he spoke, not just as a highly decorated player, but as Alex Ferguson had once spoken, about what the club should mean, even if it is becoming clearer that it meant whatever Alex Ferguson wanted it to mean.

Giggs could surely demonstrate his ability to manage at another club rather than become Van Gaal's number two where he will be assisting but also waiting for his chance.

In his own way, Giggs embodies the problem for the British footballer. The Premier League has become a global league but they want to be protected from the invasion when they would have a better chance if they decided to take advantage of globalisation themselves.

Gary Neville believed a British manager should have been appointed because Manchester United "have always appointed British managers" even though the last but one manager was appointed in 1986 when every manager in England was a British manager, or Scottish at least.

Previous Liverpool managers have sometimes struggled with the expectation placed on them, particularly by the ex-Liverpool players working in the media who recalled the golden era with a debilitating regularity. As Manchester United enter their uncertain period, these ex-players are part of Giggs' staff, a reminder of the glorious past and a future which may not exist.

The Liverpool of 2014 might not resemble the Liverpool Brendan Rodgers promised in 2012, even if the teams he wanted to emulate don't always look the same (the side of 1977 took a very different approach to the side of 1987).

Rodgers sounded mixed up last week as he tried to articulate what his side were trying to do about their inferior goal difference in their final two matches. Before Monday's game, he baldly stated "if there is any team that can score goals and turn it around it will be us". He told Geoff Shreeves that he would take a 1-0 win and by the end of the week he was saying "it would have been near on impossible to get that amount of goals back".

No group – with the exception of the magnificently disparate bodies that make up Eamon Dunphy – has embraced the idea that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds with more zeal than football managers. That Rodgers says different things depending on the occasion is nothing to be amazed by.

It was a bit more startling that he was baffled by what he witnessed in the immediate aftermath of the 3-3 as he called Liverpool's defending 'criminal', referred to the approach as 'Roy of the Rovers' stuff and criticised the management of the game 'on the field'. The performance was entirely consistent with everything Liverpool have done this season so it was bewildering that Rodgers couldn't understand it.

He could quite legitimately have shrugged, pointed out that this reckless style has excited people all year and stated that Liverpool were top of the league in the final week of the season.

Rodgers may be the visionary depicted in some of the more excitable online artwork, but last Monday he was showing a politician's pragmatism in talking his way out of a difficult situation.

He was the manager who had imposed this beguiling style on Liverpool and made them title challengers, but he was as powerless as any other weeping spectator at Selhurst Park as his players abandoned all understanding of game management as Gary Neville had explained the term on Sky Sports a week before.

The title should have slipped painlessly into Manchester City's hands in the fortnight following the defeat at Chelsea. Instead of a humane execution, this was a lethal injection gone wrong. Right now, Liverpool know no other way.

dfanning@independent.ie

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