Amid arguably the biggest decision Rodgers has made in his Liverpool career, I find myself wondering what his motivation was in leaving his so called strongest players on the bench. Was it damage limitation? Chelsea in mind? Fear of failure with a strong squad? Last season’s ending? There is no doubt that had this been a different team other than Liverpool, there wouldn’t have been so much debate around the starting eleven against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Every football writer had a strong opinion about Rodgers’ selection. So should a manager have to make decisions based around what team he leads and its reputation, or should he follow his instinct and face the reality of recent performances, results and the opposition?
Almost every football writer mentioned Liverpool’s reputation when speaking about the team selection. So should we take it that it matters more what people expect from a Liverpool manager rather than what the reality is in his team’s performances? Due to Liverpool’s success in this competition, many have intimated that Rodgers should have played his strongest side irrespective of current form. A manager’s job is to make the selection that is based on form, the opposition and the run of fixtures. This is a manager’s continuous dilemma. Rodgers made his choice based on Liverpool’s weekend performance against Newcastle, which nobody can describe as inspiring. Looking at it from this angle Rodgers cannot be blamed.
Nobody wants a manager that isn’t flexible in his approach and Liverpool’s goal in the summer was to add depth. No manager should be criticised for dropping players that have been favoured consistently and yet only won two out of the last ten games in all competitions. The results speak for themselves. Rodgers said that his selection was made with the Newcastle performance in mind. The fact is that Liverpool’s star players have consistently underperformed. Brendan Rodgers made choices based on what he has seen on the pitch. Sterling has yet to hit form, Henderson has not been as influential with his passing, Balotelli is yet to score a Premier League goal and Lovren has disappointed in defence. Rodgers ignored egos and reputations and acted on his belief that the squad has depth it can call upon. He took some risks in Can and Toure; a manager’s job is to take such leaps of faith from time to time. After all this is what makes football beautiful and managers distinctive.
Let’s be honest. Despite the loss, Tuesday’s match saw Liverpool play with more poise, persuasion and purpose than they have since the game against Tottenham Hotspur on the 31st August. In between that time results have been disappointing and performances awkward and stuttering. Liverpool’s ‘weak’ side showed so much character to keep their shape, remaining unruffled in the face of the so called best team in the world. They should be proud of their display and Liverpool fans should definitely be proud of them. Liverpool have not shown such togetherness since August and it took the strongest players to sit on the bench for that to happen. Away from home. Midweek. In a different country. And at the Bernabeu, no less. Many thought Liverpool would get a thrashing; they did not. Did Rodgers make such a bad decision after all?
The media was quick to rebuke the starting line-up but I wonder how many predicted a 1-0 result. Liverpool could have gone on to get an equaliser in the game and should definitely be criticised for being too cautious, but if that is their only lesson then it is a positive one. Yes, it can definitely be said that Rodgers looked almost happy to lose 1-0 however under such scrutiny and public criticism in his choices many wouldn’t have reacted differently. Football is a game of expectations and in this fixture Liverpool did not capitulate as many would have predicted.
Cause for Confidence
Everyone concerned with Liverpool needs to look ahead now. What we saw was an encouraging display by the B team, showing that Liverpool effectively have two teams that can compete at the highest level. The new players were allowed to shine and their performances stated individual passion, desire and positivity.
What happens next against Chelsea is crucial. It could be that this radical decision is what kick starts Liverpool’s campaign. However, if the Liverpool manager decides to play his ‘strongest’ side, this will throw his midweek selection into more of a critical storm and cement the idea that he gave up on the fixture. It will be very interesting to see which players make the team sheet and how Rodgers justifies his choices. Hopefully the players have given him a healthy selection problem and a winning line-up against Chelsea can be put together. Only the manager knows his players and can give them a winning mentality- this is what a manager is paid to do. Rodgers has silenced critics in the past, we will see whether he still has that in his armour this weekend.