Thursday 26 April 2018

Rodgers and Liverpool need a team - not a mythology

Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez will meet this afternoon with neither happy about how their team season has started. Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez will meet this afternoon with neither happy about how their team season has started. Alex Livesey/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

They say that in politics a week is a long time but they should try football. We need only ask Brendan Rodgers. It can strip you of certainties you have been building and massaging for years. It can invite you not only to think again but rush to the mirror to ask, 'Where did I go wrong?'

Such a question may not yet have reached the lips of the Liverpool manager but then if he has revealed any weaknesses in his brief but meteoric career they have not been in the self-belief department. However, this particular well of confidence is in some danger of running dry - and as early as high noon at Anfield tomorrow.

Rodgers not only needs to beat Everton, who are also currently dismaying the best hopes of their recently upwardly mobile young boss Roberto Martinez, he has do it with at least some of the authority his team displayed back when Luis Suarez was making his own rules, and drawing his own horizons until the final days of last season.

The brutal truth is that Liverpool have simply not yet begun to properly populate the great swathe of empty space left in the wake of the Uruguayan's defection. At Anfield tomorrow it is not so much a baton that has to be picked up but some rudimentary idea of what constitutes a coherent, seriously contending team.

There has to be re-gathered leadership by Steven Gerrard. There has to be a spark of evidence that Mario Balotelli can create anything more at his new club than another candidate for the graveyard of managers who had the stomach, or the ego, to believe that they could make him play.

Rodgers was surely stretching the limits of optimism when he saw the seeds of redemption in this week's record League Cup penalty shoot-out against Middlesbrough. Wonderful theatre, no doubt, but it hardly disguised the shortfall of performance that in some ways touched again the poverty of last weekend's tactical and psychological implosion against, of all people, Sam Allardyce's long-ball West Ham.

Rodgers was suitably mortified as English football's cover-boy for the short, crisp passing game that was seen to such impressive effect last season, and most gloriously in its release of such as Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and the only player so far this season to augment his reputation, the precocious, instinctive Raheem Sterling.

Rodgers said: "We played more long passes than West Ham and that is not something you have seen from us over two years. The 4-4-2 diamond worked really well but it worked well with certain players and not at the weekend.

"Until I get back the players who I know are multi-functional, I'll look at the strength of the players I do have fit. Hopefully, that gives them confidence. Confidence has not been affected but if you don't win games for too long it can be."

Elementary, Dear Brendan, you might say - and maybe at the same time as wondering if the sheer virtuosity of Suarez gave Rodgers an early momentum which has proved not only impossible to maintain but also questions the extent of the groundwork which was supposed to have returned Liverpool, with or without their ungovernable superstar, to the elite of the English game.

Such a proposition certainly has to be questioned in the light of dismal league form, six points from a possible 15, the underwhelming return to the Champions League against the pride of Bulgaria and the need for shoot-out pyrotechnics against Middlesbrough.

This is not the portfolio of a team on the march but one desperately seeking to find some acceptable level of consistent performance.

Rodgers' lamest defence of the early-season frailty was surely his reference to the weight of the Liverpool jersey, saying: "What people probably don't get is the pressure of playing for such a big club. The weight of the jersey is heavy for most players. Once you adapt to playing for Liverpool you become clear in your thinking."

Legitimate

This simply isn't good enough. The dressing room was hardly slow to respond to the idea that they were legitimate runners for the highest prize until the desperate failures at Crystal Palace and at home to a marginalised Chelsea.

The breakdown was hardly intellectual, it was of that nerve that enables a team to seize a moment, but with Suarez gone we were assured that the right signings had been made and that greater strength had been brought to the broken places.

The necessarily uncharted brilliance of Balotelli would reproduce at least some of the impact of a Suarez - and the other new signings would ensure all-round improvement. That was the claim of Rodgers and making it happen was plainly the first great test of his regime.

It is too soon to pronounce failure. Who knows, Gerrard may indeed reach out for his last hurrah. A bright light might just, finally, radiate in the skull of Balotelli. But then the need for convincing evidence grows more pressing by the day.

Liverpool have to prove that if the speed of last season's progress was at times startling it was based on something more than the often surreal brilliance of that man who lived on the edge.

They have to show that the likes of Sterling and Sturridge, Henderson and Allen can build a fresh aura all of their own.

What it comes down to tomorrow is that Rodgers has to send out a team hell bent on something more than a tribal flourish against an equally desperate Everton.

He has to make good the claim that he is creating a team rather than a myth.

Irish Independent

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