Friday 22 November 2019

Surplus of virtues looks fine in theory but not in practice

Dion Fanning

Football's great truth is that managers need time, although it's probably not true at all. Good managers need time; bad managers look as lost after two years as they were after two months. The reason this doesn't become clear is that, due to the extreme Darwinism of football, bad managers aren't usually in a job after two years.

Should owners also be given time? Two years ago FSG made the first big decision of their ownership of Liverpool when they dismissed Roy Hodgson. Nothing they have done since has worked out as well.

The appointment of Brendan Rodgers was trailed as the moment FSG started trusting their instincts. They had reluctantly appointed Kenny Dalglish and then they took the brave decision to dismiss him.

In the summer, they had promised a smarter way of doing things. Some of these ideas have been implemented, some haven't. Signs of superior intelligence have yet to be detected.

One of the ideas was that Liverpool would operate as a collective. Rodgers doesn't act alone in the transfer market. Some within the club were said to have questioned the wisdom of paying £15m for Joe Allen which looks like a very good question.

The idea of the collective will only go so far. If Rodgers fails, it should be said that FSG have failed as they have failed so often in key appointments. Whatever happens to Rodgers should now also happen to them. The idea that this would be a season of transition predates Rodgers. Liverpool were planning to cut the wage bill and introduce some young players no matter who took the job. This was a sensible approach and a compelling one when it comes to boosting the morale of whoever transfers the money into Joe Cole's account each month.

Transition works best, however, if there is some indication where you might be going. If the transition was the transition from big club to small club, then the transition can be said to be going entirely to plan.

John W Henry promised in September that Liverpool wouldn't be stung in the transfer market again. This week Liverpool will sign Daniel Sturridge for £12m. John W Henry hasn't been seen or heard from much since he made those promises. He had been the most articulate supporter of the new philosophy at Liverpool.

Henry and FSG bought into Rodgers' pitch last summer, even if right now it seems like merely a spiel rather than the initial declaration of an outstanding manager.

Perhaps the plan to make this a season of transition has made Rodgers sound as he does at Liverpool. The club needed a salesman and they got one. For whatever reason, Rodgers appears to have no noticeable competitive instinct. If he has, it has been very well disguised.

If he is to become a great coach, he may do so despite being one of the few who doesn't place not losing high on the list of priorities. Rodgers has always looked sanguine when reflecting on one of Liverpool's many, many defeats this season. Perhaps he is ferocious in the dressing room and simply protects his players in public.

Others might suggest that Rodgers is showing that most essential trait in a coach, the ability not to over-react to victory or defeat.

Yet when Liverpool beat Fulham a week after the capitulation to Aston Villa, Rodgers did not shrug or ask more from his team. In fact, he couldn't have been happier if he had done the post-match interviews in a funny hat while reading out bad jokes from Christmas crackers. Fulham had played as if they felt their civil liberties were being infringed simply by being asked to travel so far from home but Rodgers took the opportunity to hail his team.

"There were aspects of the game where I saw everything I want my team to be and that was the most encouraging aspect of what was an outstanding response to last week's defeat."

Liverpool's outstanding response to that victory was another defeat, this time to Stoke. Chad Harbach suggests in The Art of Fielding that coaching involves telling a player the story he wants to hear about himself, emphasising the struggle and the obstacles that were going to get in the way. "People loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense."

Rodgers tells a story of beautiful losers. He talks magnificently. His team will cause "death by football", he said, even though death in football is always caused by victory.

Liverpool have played some nice football this season but the philosophy which has gained most ground at Anfield is a philosophy of losing.

There are other styles of management. There are those who will point to Alex Ferguson as the role model. They will recall the Scottish Cup final in 1983 and the glorious scenes of celebration as Aberdeen beat Rangers. As his players cavorted behind him, Ferguson gave a post-match interview during which he described the Cup-winning performance as disgraceful.

He may have subsequently apologised for his comments but Ferguson was setting certain standards. By giving an interview on what for normal men would be a happy occasion and suggesting that these cup-winning players would be lucky to play for the club again, he was developing his own ideas of death by football. Or death by Alex Ferguson. Ferguson, of course, was given time at Manchester United, a fateful decision as it allowed all who came after him, most of them bad managers, to suggest that they needed time as well.

Rodgers has given few indications since he arrived at Liverpool that he will do much with time. Daniel Sturridge will sign for Liverpool this week. He has been described as an unimaginative signing which would be fine if he turns out to be good.

Liverpool have made a series of unimaginative signings in the last two years. In other words, they have signed a lot of British players. Few of them have been any good.

Rodgers sounds less and less convincing. He is the Aaron Sorkin of football, a man who promotes beautiful notions that have no connection to the real world with a relentless zeal. Usually by the 23rd episode of one of Sorkin's shows, some of us are feeling nauseous and repressing feelings of irrational hatred towards the impossibly virtuous characters.

Rodgers promotes a style of football that is over-burdened with virtue but lacks knowledge of how the world works. He gave his players Christmas Day off, a wonderful gesture, especially to the people of Stoke who Liverpool were playing the next day.

FSG will give him time because they have no option – they are giving themselves time too. Time might help Brendan Rodgers, but, it would help him most of all if he used it to become a different type of manager. Unless Rodgers changes, time won't change anything.

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