Sunday 18 February 2018

Rodgers' Oldham rant suggests Anfield boss tired of freeloaders

Paul Hayward

Soft is a hard word. For a manager to use it against his players is taken as a declaration of war. But it worked for Brendan Rodgers after the FA Cup defeat at Oldham. Against a lamentable Arsenal back four, Liverpool were eager and inspired until Arsene Wenger's men finally displayed some pride.

This fixture brought together two sides whose intestinal fortitude had been questioned by their managers. Wenger's challenge to his men was more subtle than the onslaught unleashed by Rodgers after the humiliation of Boundary Park. Wenger confined himself to a lament about Arsenal's timidity at the start of games. But Rodgers waded in. "There are question marks (over the mentality of players) and I don't think that's just over this period," he said. "It's something which goes beyond that. It's something I am finding out about. It's a great season for learning what we have here."

Mental toughness is becoming one of the themes of this campaign. Eminent ex-pros talk of a critical mass in any winning team. The number of natural born winners has to exceed those who are happy to just blow with the wind.

The suspicion among many modern managers, though, is that football is breeding too many players who retreat from personal responsibility. Arsenal have a few of those. Wenger's team is short of iron men who will hunt for the opposition and who refuse to let team-mates drift along.

To hear this kind of doubt envelop Liverpool was a surprise. The Rodgers revolution was proceeding fairly well. He had been decisive in indentifying players he no longer wanted and clear with those who needed to up their game.

But the Oldham inquest suggested Rodgers had deeper reservations about parts of his squad and the club's recent under-achievement. He said: "Oldham may not have been a big enough game for one or two of them but, if they don't learn, they won't be here, it's as simple as that. The same goes for the older players too."

Notice the "older players too."

Arsenal were knocked out of a Cup by a lower league side as well – Bradford in the League Cup – and will struggle to achieve a 16th consecutive top-four finish. Yet Wenger has seldom used the kind of haymaker language Rodgers felt the need to employ this week.

With the 20-year-old Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho seemingly signed from Inter Milan, the ante was upped before Arsenal's defenders slipped and hacked their way into trouble with five minutes on the clock. Luis Suarez, superb counter-attacking from left-midfield against Bacary Sagna, may never again be the beneficiary of so much defensive chaos.

Application has not seemed Liverpool's biggest issue this term. Quality, not courage, is in short supply. Jordan Henderson has improved, but his final ball is often wonky, though his tenacity in charging through Arsenal's gossamer back-four was rewarded with Liverpool's second goal.

Finally Arsenal responded, with a set-piece header from Olivier Giroud and a Theo Walcott equaliser. Pepe Reina, Liverpool's keeper, is not the gymnast he once was. Daniel Sturridge, a £12m buy, is another with plenty still to prove. He gave way to Jose Enrique with 20 minutes left as Liverpool clung on. Listening to Rodgers' speech after the Oldham game, the memory flicked back to his 'envelopes' motivational trick, featured in the documentary Being: Liverpool. In that film he is shown telling his squad: "I think there are three players who will let us down this year... And I have written them down already. Now my point to you as players and staff is make sure you are not the one in the envelope, because you are so important."

Maybe a few let him down at Oldham. But this is the way of today's FA Cup, which has tumbled down the wish list. Liverpool have enough desire, you would say, just too few A-grade talents. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport