Its an infamous expression that has become synonymous with Brendan Rodgers’ post match press conferences, and particularly those games in which we haven’t quite achieved the result we were hoping for – and there have been a lot of those this season. “The players showed great character.” how many times have we heard him say it? And how many times has it been genuinely true?
Following the terrible performance and result against rivals Man Utd on Sunday – in my opinion a far worse one than the draw against Blackburn a couple of weeks earlier – all Liverpool fans awaited the inevitable cliché to come from the manager’s lips to explain another failure to find a way past one of our top 4 rivals.
I for one have already voiced my support for the Rodgers regime along with the footballing style and philosophy he is trying to implement, but there are some concerns around the squad still, ones which do need addressing if we are to move forward. It can’t escape anyone’s notice that under Rodgers we have played some excellent attacking football, been transported back 30 years or so to those glory days of the 70s and 80s, with one exception. The team seem to bottle under pressure, in the big games against the big clubs.
It can be argued that with 10 men and two goals down against rivals Utd, we did well to pull a goal back and almost claw our way back into the game, perhaps we showed character? Actually, Utd took their foot off the pedal and allowed us back into the game, they had a comfortable lead at Anfield and we failed to apply sufficient pressure to create uncertainty in the ranks that might have got us that vital point. It’s happened before, less than 12 months ago when the fate of the Premier League was in our hands, we were the form team in the league and just a home match against Chelsea stood in our way towards certain glory, and yet we bottled it. Forget the Stevie G slip in that game or the sending off against Utd, on both occasions we could have taken the game by the scruff of the neck, our fate was solely in our own hands and we failed to take the advantage on both occasions.
Gerrard has held his hands up and apologised for his mistake, and sure he needs to shoulder some of the blame for letting his team mates down, but it didn’t change the game. We had been abysmal in the first half, allowed Utd too much of the ball, didn’t press for the ball enough, failed to make quick incisive passes – on the performance of the first half we deserved to lose. How can that be? We went into the game as favourites, we had home advantage, the most secure defensive record of 2015 and everything to play for; we should have taken the game to Utd from the first whistle, had them shell shocked within the first twenty minutes and accepted no mercy.
What happened in that game was very different, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. We’ve been playing great football of late, controlling games with such confidence to a level almost equivalent to performances at our height last season, and yet we looked nervous throughout. Gerrard didn’t lose the game for us, but sadly our Captain Fantastic who has dug his heels in throughout his career and dragged us through great occasions with his goals and tenacious attitude couldn’t supply the same piece of magic this time round, and as a result we were left wanting. Gerrard’s main crime in that match was simply not being the superstar he once was in terms of single handedly winning games, and not having a prodigy quite ready to take on that responsibility.
The legend of Istanbul still remains very clear in a lot of our minds, it wasn’t just playing style that won us the Champions’ League but something extra. We had a mental strength that pulled us through when we were down, the players spotted a chink in the opposition’s armour and exploited it. From 3-0 up Milan took their eye off the ball, allowed us to build momentum, and we pounced. From there on, there was never any doubt in my mind that we would go on to win the penalty shoot out because we’d shown the strength in character needed for the occasion; the players looked shattered, but determined and confident.
Fast forward to this season and that resilience seems to be missing. Our exit from the Champions’ League and league cup, last season’s pivitol title clash against Chelsea and Sunday’s vital top four defeat are all examples of occasions when we have had the opportunity over 90 minutes to make huge steps towards success under Brendan Rodgers but failed to take the initiative. Personally I’m not privy to what goes on behind the scenes, whether there is an issue with the manager or the players; whether Rodgers is unable to adequately motivate his players to the occasion, or if those in the squad don’t quite have that edge. But it is becoming ever more clear that the current squad are missing that special something needed to push them over the line into footballing greatness.
That is not to say the players are wimps. There have been games in the league over the last few years where we’ve ground out results under difficult circumstances, and on occasions we have managed to beat some top sides; deserved back to back home victories over Man City this season and last show there is ability in the team, but I’m not talking about whether we are a good side, we’ve seen enough to know that is the case. The question is what are we missing to make us a great one.
This is the big step for Brendan Rodgers, it is all very well complimenting the character of the players under difficult circumstances, but that is not the same as having the guts and determination to win those big games that really count. We currently have a number of young players looking to take over the mantle of Steven Gerrard, but to do that it is these games against the likes of Chelsea and Man Utd where they should be shining through – it is a matter of time as to whether any of them have got the right mentality to do that. Again, I’m not just talking ability or working hard, I’m looking for that something that instills belief into the team and forces us to take control over those must win matches, and that will eventually bring the League title back to Anfield.
By Ernie Fox