Monday, 28 April 2014

Atlas slipped

Alas, alas... The Rodgers juggernaut has - at least temporarily - been halted by the parked bus of his mentor and friend, Jose Mourinho. 

Plenty has been said in the hours since the clash between Liverpool and Chelsea and a lot of it has been utter rot.

The first is questioning the legitimacy of Mourinho's tactics.  This can be cleared up quickly.

Parking the bus is a perfectly legitimate tactic, when executed well it is devastatingly effective and good teams who come up against such a tactic - especially when it was so eminently predictable - should be able to break it down. We do not measure football like Strictly Come Dancing. Craig Revel Horwood doesn't get to say who wins and who loses. There are no prizes for the most attractive team. If we did, the Dutch would have a couple of World Cups in the bag, Wenger a few more league titles to his name and Mourinho would likely still be translating at Barcelona.

We may find some styles more attractive than others, we may prefer to watch some teams but Chelsea yesterday were a study in defence. Defence matters. We lost yesterday to a fine team managed by the finest manager in the game today. Sometimes you just have to hold up your hands and say ''alas and well done''.

You may disagree. You may be part of that merry band of men who believe it is how you play the game that matters. Good for you. You have a different outlook to me and a different outlook to that of Mourinho. There are many ways to win a football match and there is an austere kind of beauty in a defensive display. Liverpool have conceded 20 more goals than Chelsea and 11 more goals than Manchester City. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth we could learn something from yesterday if we want to do so.
 Imagine City lose or draw to Everton or Villa and Liverpool beat Palace. Would any Liverpool fan mind if we beat Newcastle with a performance like Chelsea's yesterday? Don't be daft.

In football the means generally justify the ends. Cruyff, my footballing hero, was wrong when he said there is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style. Every single Liverpool player would trade style for a Premiership medal or they shouldn't be wearing in the shirt. We still get to enjoy how Liverpool play, to take pride in their performances and achievements and measure them against our expectations at the start of the season. We can still take joy from this season even if the title ends up in Manchester. Anything above fourth was a bonus, remember.

On the ends and the means, I've defended diving over the years because I see it as part of a continuum of gamesmanship that the game applauds and encourages. It seems bizarre to me that diving is some unconscionable sin but time-wasting, claiming corners you know are goal kicks and 'clever fouls' are all something that we to varying degrees applaud. The openside flanker in rugby is probably the beast best known in sport for pushing the law to its absolute limits and testing the referee but to a lesser or greater extent we all do it. Mourinho gambled that timewasting in the first half would put Liverpool off their game whilst not incurring significant punishment from the refereee. His gamble paid off.

Mourinho is a genius - a genius of theory and of willpower. Rarely has anyone so rigorously applied theory to the game. Rarely has that theory been so adaptable from one game to the next. Rarely has anyone cared so little (rightly) for what people think. Celtic fans still berate his gamesmanship from a UEFA Cup final over a decade ago. Mourinho won. That is, in the end, what matters to him. It's what matters to Celtic fans too. The first rule is to win. If you can win playing the beautiful game so much the better.

That isn't to say that one has to enjoy watching a team 'park the bus' nor is to say that we would like more teams to do it. Merely it is to acknowledge that it is a useful and effective tactic if deployed well and, despite what Rodgers says, it is remarkably difficult to do well. What one can question is why Mourinho - with the riches available to him - is lauded for such brutalist tactics whilst managers who deploy such tactics and do not have his money, players and support are questioned. Perhaps it is because Mourinho is making a choice? Pulis, Allardyce and co have no option. Maybe Jose's genius is that he does and chooses the option no one else would.

Liverpool surely suspected that Mourinho's men would waste time at every turn, niggle throughout and attempt to defend resolutely for 90 minutes hoping for an error from the Reds to sneak a victory if possible. I suspected they would and I am merely a fan with a laptop. We saw what occurred in the Champions League only a few nights before. This Chelsea team is rigorously drilled and the finest defence in the league. Mourinho may have claimed he would field a weakened team but this was horseplay in the press - the team was a fine one and did exactly what their manager wanted. There is probably no such thing as a weakened team in Jose's mind. Each selection is carefully thought out. Yesterday's was hardly lacking in cost or international experience, after all.

When it comes to Liverpool, there is lots of talk too about a Plan A, Plan B and a Plan C. Barcelona, also outfoxed by Mourinho whilst at Internazionale, were accused of similar. Rodgers' Plan A 
could have worked. The combined skill of Sterling, Coutinho and Suarez may have found a way through a packed defence but it didn't quite come off. Passes were over or under hit, runs weren't seen, the ball didn't quite bounce the way it might have done. Spain over the years have shown that continuing with Plan A - or subtly changing Plan A throughout the course of the game - against a parked bus can work. 

So Plan A might have worked but there remains a feeling that Rodgers needed a Plan B. This misunderstands what Rodgers is about. You can't set up a squad to play his style of football and then throw in Andy Carroll or some other rumbling striker on the off chance, once every fifteen games, they might be needed. Of course, a big striker was exactly what Ivanovic, Kalas and later Cahill would have loved to have dealt with.

It seemed though that Rodgers couldn't find a way and his Plan B was not refinement of, or a subtle shift of, Plan A but rather simply an amplification of Plan A - taking off Lucas to replace him with Sturridge, taking off Flanagan to replace him with Aspas.

Gerrard's slip shows just how cruel a game football can be but it also showed that even the finest players can lose their heads on the pitch (Ed Smith writes on this in a chapter of 'What sport tells us about life' explaining why Zidane head butted Materazzi'). Mistakes happen. Shit happens. Black swans happen. How one deals with those mistresses is important. 

Gerrard - the Atlas of Anfield these past 15 years, carrying a club to more than enough silverware - responded in the only way he can. By trying to make it up to his people, by trying to be Roy of the Rovers, by trying to win the game with one of those cartoonish strikes from outside the box that have saved Liverpool so often. Yesterday it wasn't to be. Gerrard likely believed it was only a matter of time before one of those shots flew in but ultimately his focus, and the team's focus, shifted. They weren't thinking correctly under pressure. Plan A turned to plan Stevie G. Rodgers shouldn't have let it happen and neither should his team.

Mourinho - the arch pragmatist - would have subbed Gerrard off. Benitez did in the white heat of a derby years ago to howls of derision. Rodgers couldn't. Largely this was because of the lack of an alternative but there was more to it. Even for this enterprising manager there are totems that he won't countenance. Taking off Gerrard after 60 minutes is one of them. It is difficult to blame Gerrard - how many others in the same situation wouldn't do similar? Sure, he should know, better but someone needed to step in and say 'let's keep going down the wings, let's stop belting it from distance'. With that in mind, it is perhaps wise to question why the manager didn't step in? He will, no doubt, be saying to the board this morning that his only substitute midfielder yesterday was Alberto - a man essentially untested in the Premier League and who had just been found guilty of drink driving. With Henderson out of contention, with the ineffective Lucas off there was no other option from the substitutes' bench.

Despite what opposition fans would dearly love to be the case Gerrard didn't lose Liverpool the title (there is still a reasonable chance that the club will win it, after all). It is important to remember that the season is the combination of all the moments, goals scored, goals conceded, chances missed and all the rest. Liverpool's chances were hurt by Gerrard's error, yes, but they were equally hurt by the defeat to Southampton, Sterling's goal that wasn't given against City, Toure's pass at West Brom, numerous flaps by Mignolet, and Henderson's sending off against City and hundreds of similar moments (involving the club and not). All teams will look at their season and notice things in the debit column. Liverpool can and will but should remember that they have already achieved their goal for the season. They may finish 2nd in the league having lost once in the league since the turn of the year. There is little shame in that.

Focusing on those other moments it is Henderson's sending off and subsequent ban that really hurt the side yesterday. What Liverpool would have done for his verve and energy in midfield! What they would have done for his ability to link midfield and attack! What we would have done for his work-rate harrying Chelsea men around the pitch. Allen played well enough but Lucas isn't a Henderson and, as above, we didn't have a replacement. Rodgers will curse not signing Willian last summer - a player so consistently fine this season. He'll curse not getting Konopylanka in the January break to give options in attack. The rumours about M'Vila will swirl in the minds of Liverpool fans. If only we'd signed him. But 'if only' are the two most pointless and hopeless words in the English language. 'If only' is the refuge of every washed up has-been and never was. It is the refuge of the charlatan. It is the place where reality goes to die.

Admittedly, Rodgers' squad is thin compared to Chelsea and City and whilst he must take some culpability (he loaned out players who could have bolstered the squad and bought others who have not played consistently) it is remarkable what he has achieved with what he has in his squad. He has built a fine house of cards but without Henderson the structure began to wobble against Norwich and tumbled yesterday. 

There are ways to beat a parked bus. Liverpool were at their most threatening when Sterling ran at defenders. He should have been encouraged to do so more often as should Suarez, Coutinho and the full-backs. In those situations the mantra should always be - do what your opponent doesn't want you to do. Running at defenders ensures they commit into the tackle. It draws fouls, it draws free kicks, it draws bookings and - from time to time - you get past the man and create space. There are other ways but that, to me, seems the most obvious one. A win was what we wanted and needed and we shouldn't be blaming the Reds for trying. We can, of course, question how we went about doing so.

Those fans and commentators claiming Liverpool only needed a draw. Deary me. Victories at Crystal Palace and against Newcastle are not certainties and it made eminent sense to at least go for the win yesterday. Rodgers' men playing for the draw would likely have ended in a similar manner as him playing for the win. Aim for the sky and you'll hit the ceiling, aim for the ceiling and you'll stay on the floor.

Indeed, not only were some folk calling for the draw in the vein assumption that Liverpool would steamroller Palace (as Chelsea singularly failed to do only a few weeks ago) and then Newcastle some turbo-charged zooters were even calling phone ins last night demanding Rodgers be sacked! If you think, in a year when Rodgers has pulled this Liverpool side to within sniffing distance of the title, playing the brand of football he has, developing the talents of Sterling, Flanagan and Henderson, and done so against such talented opposition, that Rodgers should be sacked and you still call yourself a Liverpool fan then, Jeezo, you let yourself down and you let anyone who stands beside you in red down. Wind your neck in, appreciate what we've had and done this season, stomach a loss to a fine team with some good grace, and support the team.
Turning to Rodgers again, his remarks after the game, I hope, were bluster - there may be a day when we need to deploy parking the bus and I hope he is wise enough to adapt his team accordingly.  Whilst there is room at the top table for ideologues they generally get the crumbs whilst the pragmatists fatten themselves on the good stuff. That said, his '
two buses' comment has been the lead story  in a number of papers. It is always good media strategy to get the papers talking about the other team rather than your own faults. Mourinho is best of all at this - he's now in the arena of if he wins, his mind games have worked. An example? There was some kerfuffle about how he arrived at the ground - would Liverpool allow him to travel by car separately or insist he arrive on the team bus? Whatever Liverpool did someone in the media will claim that his mind games worked. He is a genius in any number of ways but his greatest genius? Making everyone think his every move is genius. Making people think that whatever he does is part of his puppet-mastery, all part of his grand plan. Hell, some of his sycophants in the media will no doubt believe he's deliberately finished (likely) third in the league to get a bigger transfer budget this summer.

And yet, and yet, for all Mourinho's genius and for all his guile and with all the talents he has at his disposal (including, let's not forget, two of the new faces Liverpool wanted in the summer and winter breaks) he may yet finish third behind Rodgers' men and may finish a second consecutive season without a prize. Whilst the title is now no longer in Liverpool's hands it may yet be the case that Gerrard lifts the trophy.  For all Mourinho's mind games, for all his fine win yesterday it might yet count for nought. 

After the West Bromwich Albion draw, the title looked a distant dream. Nobody thought Liverpool, with two games left to play, would be top of the table. Nobody thought they would win eleven games on the bounce. Nobody thought they would so playing thrilling football. From that draw at the Hawthorns to the defeat against Chelsea was watching a team climb Mount Improbable. They still might do it if they win their games and City take their eye off the ball once. Winning is all that matters in football. Winning should be what matters at Liverpool Football Club. But, but, but if your soul hasn't soared, and your heart hasn't sung, and you aren't proud of these boys for that winning run and for dragging us back into a title race then hell what do you want from a football club?

We go again.



dearieme said...

Well said. But who are we to laugh at now, now that Ryan Giggs' Red Army have become flat track bullies again? For one week, anyway. I'm afraid that this weekend it had to be Gerrard. Still, whether Liverpool or City win the league, it'll be a grand attacking team that wins, which is fine by me.

Rob Marrs said...

Yes, fair enough.

One other thought - LFC, in resorting to more (though not as many as is being reported), crosses weren't even playing Plan A.

I still think Plan A might have worked but it needed more dribbling and attacks through the middle, little one-twos between the forwards and quick movement. It didn't come off. Alas.

City to slip up somewhere? Possibly, possibly. What odds on City not getting the points against Everton only for Liverpool to labour to a draw at Palace?

Metatone said...

Well said overall. Liverpool in their pomp certainly played cagily enough in some European legs (back pass in particular), so I don't think they can really complain about this kind of use of tactics.

Where I think the zeitgeist reaction to Chelsea parking the bus does say something is that after watching Chelsea park at Athletico and Liverpool and Madrid park at Bayern you start to wonder if the fitness of players is getting in the way of the balance of the game.

The last time the game was getting this way it they banned the straight pass back to the keeper's hands.

I think we're getting close to the point where the game needs to become 10 vs 10. Parking the bus should always be an option, but there should be a cost...

Metatone said...

A final thought, particularly again from the three games I mentioned - another option, less nuclear, would be for referees to start taking fouls more seriously when a team parks the bus.

If referees were not so cowardly about giving yellow cards for cynical defensive fouls then we'd get better games to watch. When a team puts 10 men behind the ball it will never be a clear-cut denial of a chance, so the ref needs to man up and give a yellow card after the 5th foul (or in Chelsea's case against Athletico, the 10th would have done to see them down to 9 or 10 men) and then the team parking the bus would have to exercise more than just "commitment."

dearieme said...

You'd have thought that Suarez of all players would know the advantage of getting into the area against a packed defence, namely that the ref can't see your fouls for the number of bodies in the way.

Midfield Veteran said...

Excellent stuff as always. With regards to ‘parking the bus’, I think it depends on the bus. As a Celtic fan, I expect to see open, attacking football, whether it be in domestic or European games. Yet, when we beat Barcelona with 16% possession, I couldn’t have cared less about how we achieved the result – I was delighted with the players for their defensive discipline.

I would have preferred to see us beat Barca at their own game - passing them off the pitch while scoring a few goals. Of course there wasn’t a hope in hell of that happening, so I was able to conveniently set aside my principles and enjoy the win. I think that, like most fans, I prefer winning ugly to glorious failure.

That’s one of the reasons that Mourinho gets away with it. His teams are often dour and defensive but he wins games and trophies. That’s why he is loved by Chelsea fans but Sam Allardyce isn’t overly popular with West Ham supporters.

I don’t like how he goes about his business, but I agree completely that Mourinho is a genius. That’s why I would love to see him encourage his teams to open up a bit – it’s not like he’s restricted by finances or the standard of player at his disposal. However, I don’t think he is under any obligation to do so and I don’t expect him to ever change his approach. For Jose, a win is a win, no matter how he gets there.

dearieme said...

Giggs out!

dearieme said...

Goodness gracious me. Well, they gave it a good shot. Next season, eh?

dearieme said...

Of course, it ain't over till it's over.