Saturday 14 December 2019

The Couch: How to face down the herd and avoid getting trampled

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers

Tommy Conlon

As if there wasn't enough pressure already on Brendan Rodgers going into yesterday's match, the verdict on his experiment in Madrid last Tuesday was also left pending the result against Chelsea at Anfield.

It didn't matter that the 1-0 Champions League defeat against Real would be more than three days old by the time yesterday's game came round. The Liverpool manager wasn't going to get off the hook that easily.

When his team-sheet was delivered before that match in the Bernabeu, it seems that most of England's football media began sharpening their knives in expectation of a massacre. Rodgers had had the temerity to field a so-called second string 11 against the European champions on their home ground.

In doing so he was pilloried for disrespecting the heritage of the great competition, and the hallowed traditions not just of Liverpool but Real Madrid too. For this he would get his comeuppance against opponents who were in rampant form, arguably the best club side in world football at the moment bar none.

But it didn't turn out that way. Rodgers' shadow team did him proud. Their collective spirit in the face of Real's fearsome artillery was exemplary. They held their composure, guarded their shape and sustained their concentration.

They ran hard and honestly all evening. It was an impressively executed rearguard performance against a team that had compiled 46 goals in their previous 11 games.

Among that 11-game winning streak was the 3-0 defeat of Liverpool at Anfield on October 22. Rodgers deployed his first 11 that night; by half-time they were three down, overwhelmed and outclassed.

Last Tuesday they were one down by half-time and there the score remained. They demonstrated the sort of resilience and work ethic that was demonstrably lacking two weeks earlier. And they thoroughly vindicated the faith Rodgers had shown in them in the first place.

The manager was rewarded for a decision that showed serious nerve in the circumstances. He must have swallowed hard once or twice before committing to such a radical selection.

He was taking his team into the lion's den and was doing so without any comfort blanket or security net. The Anfield capitulation was presumably fresh in his memory; the chasm in class was apparent that night for all to see. Real at home had the capacity to tear his team apart. And it was all going to be on his head if the worst transpired. But he went with it anyway.

And he had his reasons. The 3-0 was followed by a miserable 0-0 at home to Hull. It took two late goals to overturn Swansea in another underwhelming performance three days later. And this was followed by a 1-0 defeat away to Newcastle.

He evidently decided it was time to shake things up, despite the prospect of doing it at the Bernabeu Stadium, of all places. And all of a sudden he found himself friendless in the punditry industry.

Paul Scholes, Gary Lineker and Stan Collymore were among the eclectic mix of commentators queuing up to dance on his grave before a ball was kicked. Lineker and Collymore tweeted jibes about Liverpool fielding their 'reserves'. And it wasn't hard to imagine the platoon of British football writers in the Real Madrid media suite shaking their heads at the team sheet over pre-match coffees and canapés. So it must have been a tad inconvenient for them all when the likes of Kolo Toure and his fellow stiffs produced such a dignified performance against the Spanish aristocrats.

It was a prime example of the herd mentality that prevails in much of the football media. They had reached a preordained conclusion before the game had even started. Real were going to destroy this Liverpool selection. Rodgers was fair game because he'd spent lavishly in the summer and his team was faltering. And now he'd betrayed Liverpool's glorious tradition in Europe by picking a side that was tantamount to raising a white flag. So the hacks felt a good old-fashioned kicking coming its way in their bones. The landslide on the field would be followed by a feeding frenzy off it.

But the landslide never came; the white flag never went up; the media monstering was left stillborn. Instead we got a sort of carping, begrudging acknowledgement that Liverpool had done alright. But they were lucky; they got away with it; Real weren't up for it; Simon Mignolet had kept them in it. (As if the 'keeper shouldn't really be a factor in the post-match analysis.)

And finally it could only truly be judged in the context of yesterday's performance against Chelsea. Rodgers had sacrificed Liverpool's European campaign for this domestic showdown with the league leaders. Ergo if they didn't beat Chelsea, then the display in Madrid would be retrospectively devalued too.

But each game has its own intrinsic value and its own intrinsic metrics, irrespective of what went before or what comes after. The scoreline stands and a good performance remains a good performance; it cannot be rewritten by subsequent events.

As it turned out, Liverpool weren't good enough for Chelsea yesterday. Therefore the Madrid gamble was a complete waste of time too, or so the logic goes. But Rodgers, unlike his growing corps of naysayers, cannot postpone his judgements until hindsight comes along to validate them. The job he does has its lucrative rewards, but that's a luxury he will never have.

thecouch@independent.ie

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