Pride, they say, comes before a fall, and for the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers there may be no greater fall this season than that which occurred at Anfield yesterday afternoon, as his team was outplayed by Aston Villa to bring to an end the feeling that Liverpool were, perhaps, finally starting to turn a corner this season. The starting point for making this claim hadn’t been particularly strong, though. Single goal wins against Southampton and Udinese were workmanlike rather than spectacular, whilst the late comeback which brought a win at West Ham United last weekend rather overlooked the fact that his team had already turned a one goal lead into a one goal deficit already that afternoon. Sometimes as a manager, the rub of the green will go your way and two goals in four minutes towards the end of last weekend’s trip to London – one of which was an own goal – was proof of this.
Yesterday, however, familiar insecurities reared their heads again. Aston Villa went into yesterday’s match off the back of a five match unbeaten run since their traumatic five goal thrashing at Manchester City last month, but such recoveries often have an air of fragility about them, so an accomplished performance by Paul Lambert’s team, however (and especially an individual performance from Christian Benteke worthy of the praise that has followed it) will have been a blessed relief to Villa supporters, whilst it was also more than enough cast doubt upon the aspersions of those who had sought to claim that three consecutive wins had been significant steps forward after a mixed start to the season. Liverpool were careless in defence, indecisive in midfield and impotent in attack, with a Steven Gerrard goal with three minutes to play being a face-saver rather than being an indicator of any greater significance. In short, Liverpool played like a mid-table team having an off day yesterday afternoon, and if the hysteria that we often associate with such a result happening to Liverpool seemed a little more muted than usual, it was probably because this sort of thing has become something of a running theme at Anfield over the last couple of years or so.
Brendan Rodgers seems to have spent much of this season talking, but many of the quotations that have been attributed to him seem to have been either taken completely out of context or (as in the case of the one that did some rounds following the defeat to Spurs at the end of last month that, “We had 65% possession tonight. To me, that’s more important than goals”) not actually said at all. Now, this will hardly trouble those for whom mocking Liverpool takes up as much time as supporting their team, but the fact that so much is being attributed to Rodgers is indicative of the scale of his job at Anfield. Last week, for example, he was quoted as saying that Liverpool could finish in the top two in the Premier League. What he actually said, however, was only partially reported. Rather than sitting at a press conference and telling the world that Liverpool would finish the season in second place in the table (which, let’s face it, is what is implied in headlines such as this), he actually said this:
I said to the players that everyone talks about fourth place, but what about third? Third is up for grabs, so is second and maybe even first. We are eleven points off second so if you can get a consistent run and keep our mentality and our focus – we have still got to play Man City and we should have beaten them at home. It is not fourth place we want to aim for. Of course when the club has been out of the top four for so long that is the ambition to be in there, but we are not even halfway through the league in terms of games played.
I just wanted to reinforce to the players that it isn’t about fourth place for this club. This club is bigger than that. Okay, we might not arrive there this season or next, but you hear everyone talking about arriving in fourth position. Well, there’s not that big a difference between that and third or second. There are seventeen points between us and Manchester United at the moment. That’s a big ask but eleven points isn’t and four points (to fourth place) certainly isn’t.
Perhaps it is in quotations such as these that the inexperience of Brendan Rodgers is seen the most clearly. Those that would seek to destabilise his career at Anfield aren’t going to trouble themselves with such semantic gymnastics as the context of what a manager says, but it is, perhaps, telling that Rodgers doesn’t seem to limit these comments to his players and the relative privacy of the training ground. Why, we might reasonably ask ourselves, is he going ahead and telling the press what he has been saying to the players in such circumstances. Not only is it none of anybody’s business what he says to the players in such circumstances, but it feels as if there is no point at which Rodgers pauses to consider how his comments will be interpreted in the wider world, either by those with agenda against him or those who merely amuse themselves by making those at the centre of the Premier League sound as ridiculous as possible.
Rodgers has, in short, put himself into something of a no-win situation in making this sort of comment in public. If a manager starts to say too much, he exposes himself on two fronts – from those whose sense of entitlement leads them to believe that they, more than all of the clubs above them in the current Premier League table, deserve more than they are getting on the pitch at the moment, and also from those who want a new, young manager with clear potential to be given the time to actually complete the transitional period that Liverpool Football Club seems to have been in for much of the last twenty years or so. Perhaps it’s a lesson that can only be learned over a period of time, but time isn’t a commodity that is in great supply for many Premier League managers these days, and there isn’t much room for nuance in the language of modern football.
The problem for Brendan Rodgers is the problem that is the same for all managers whose clubs are failing to live up to the expectations that are placed upon them by supporters and sections of the media. Successful transitions seldom occur overnight at football clubs unless endless money is thrown at the club’s playing resources, and it should be reasonably common knowledge by now that endless money is not going to be thrown around at Liverpool. If Liverpool supporters want a team that can challenge with the best and can do justice to the Liverpool team of, say, three decades ago, then a degree of patience will be required on the part of the supporters of the club to allow the groundwork for a new dynasty to be built. Whether the modern Premier League has the inclination to allow for such patience is not a question that is easily answered, though.
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