Tuesday 21 January 2020

Paul Hayward: Fatal flaw in Rodgers' philosophy is standard of players he inherited

Paul Hayward

Liverpool are a good idea in search of a team to make it work. They are a philosophy in need of the right players to turn Brendan Rodgers' thinking into victory parades. However counter-intuitive it seems in this age of instant gratification, the temptation is still to applaud even when it all falls short.

Rodgers is not the only Premier League manager defending an idea against the cold reality of the table. Arsene Wenger can no longer hide behind beauty because Arsenal are not beautiful any more. Andre Villas-Boas speaks scientifically but is really a high-stakes poker player, with a mental block about defending in the English game. And Rafa Benitez despises the idea that attacking well means you have to defend in a cavalier manner: hence Chelsea's instant return to regimentation.

Rodgers looks up the league to see both Everton and his old team, Swansea, above him. A club who have won five European Cups and spent £35m on a loaned-out centre-forward are in "transition", aka 16 points from 14 games. But here's the thing: a curse on those who mock everything beyond today's results.

In the press box at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night, I could sense why Liverpool supporters are mostly understanding of what Rodgers is trying to do. Their patience stems from somewhere deeper: the feeling that Rodgers is instilling a culture of ground-based play that is true to the best on show in Europe.

With his emphasis on passing from the back, his midfield pivot and his insistence on courage under pressure, Rodgers laid the foundations for what Swansea are today, and he will do the same for Liverpool, on a grander scale, if he is allowed to choose players capable of imposing his ideas.

Arguably the most wasteful splurge in Premier League history – on Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing – is being reversed with brutal clarity, and while the lack of a proven striker to play with Luis Suarez is embarrassing, it is not the manager's fault.

Nor were the dozens of other sub-standard buys made prior to Rodgers' arrival: recruitment errors that have worked like a ball and chain at Liverpool's feet. Last season yielded an eighth-place finish and 52 points: their worst return since 1962. Faced with those numbers, you need a whole new start. Even with seven draws from 14 matches, Liverpool have a new purpose, an identity.

Swarming all over Spurs in the second half on Wednesday night, Liverpool again relied on the thespian-king Suarez to land the telling blow. Suarez is a "false No 9" because Liverpool lack a real one. On the flanks, Downing cannot give them what they need. In the centre, Henderson is emotionally frozen into a world of safe short passes. He knows the manager is only using him until he can move him on. In goal, Pepe Reina's aura of gymnastic impregnability has gone missing.

Yet the idea still makes sense. The logic works. Over the last 10 years, Liverpool have had no single vision to cheer. They have had good teams and players, certainly, but no guiding manifesto.

As the Premier League title race settles unmistakably into a battle to see who is the best side in Manchester, the absurdities multiply for Liverpool. Thomas Ince, sold to Blackpool for £250,000, may now cost £6m to repatriate. Downing (a £20m buy) could end up back at Middlesbrough and Henderson needs to send a search party out for his confidence and to start afresh elsewhere.

To cheer Joe Allen's pass completion rate of 91.69pc is, to the more pragmatic observers, risible because it elevates short passing above the kind of defence-splitting zingers that Steven Gerrard has always loved to deliver.

But Rodgers is not arguing for sterile domination. He wants to see a killing at the other end as well, but simply lacks the staff because of the cumulative transfer errors of the last few years.

With that eighth-placed finish in May, Liverpool found a league point so low that they had no choice but to abandon the image of themselves as a title-chasing team. To prevent it turning into a permanent exclusion from the elite, they needed to do something radical: to find a modern style, skilful, methodical and soulful.

There is no flaw in Brendan Rodgers' scheme, only in the ownership and some of the players he was given. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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