06 November 2014

Was Brendan Rodgers throwing in the white towel?




























In case you were unaware, crisp salesman Gary Lineker has dissed Liverpool FC manager Brendan Rodgers for selecting an allegedly weakened team against Real Madrid (current official best team in Europe, after having won last season's champions league), in Madrid!
Because he's such a charming chap, I'll forgive him the mixed metaphor: surely you either throw in the towel or wave the white flag? Perhaps this was a double capitulation, I don't know.

Rodgers did admittedly field a weakened team, though he coyly mentioned that he doesn't know what his best 11 is (possibly a reference to his side's defeat to the far from amazing Newcastle United, on the weekend just gone). Stars such as Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Mario Balotelli (lol) were warming the bench, while squad players and 'prospects' Emre Can, Fabio Borini and Kolo Toure were allowed rare starts.  Was it a pre-emptive submission?

I actually think it was a pretty smart move on Rodgers' part, and not only because his selection meant he couldn't really lose - even if (and when) he actually did.

The common perception is - with a league match against Chelsea imminent - Rodgers knew he would lose this match, so decided to rest the players he would need on the weekend. When the loss would come, he could point to his weakened side, and ask us what we expected from them. The criticism would not just be for the "white towel", but for denying his newer players what is possibly a once in a lifetime experience: to play the European champions in their historic stadium.

However, this set of subs and second-stringers managed a more respectable loss (1-0) than the all-stars did at Anfield (0-3, and should have been a lot more): why is that? It's not like Madrid took their feet off the gas, as this wasn't an aggregate knock-out tie; they had to win this as much as the other one. Winning the group would be a factor, as they'd want to avoid other group winners in the next round. Could it be that Liverpool were better this time?

My (very amateur) theory is that this side was picked because they weren't as good, and Rodgers knew they would perform better than the first 11 would.

Liverpool under Rodgers are known for basing their game on attacking as much as possible, hoping to score so many goals that they compensate for their defensive frailties. Last season, that was largely the case: they scored only one goal fewer (101) than the champions, Man City, and they had the top two scorers (Suarez, 31; Sturridge, 21), but conceded one goal fewer (50) than 13th-placed West Ham.

This season, with Suarez sold to Barcelona and Sturridge injured a lot, their goals scored have slipped from more than double those conceded to equalling them, at 13 each: against the firepower of Real Madrid (37 goals scored in the same amount of games), Liverpool cannot use their usual strategy and expect to win. After all, it led to conceding three first-half goals in the previous match between the two.

In football, lesser teams are often more difficult for elite teams to play against than other elite teams would be. This is because, while both elite teams are trying to win, the lesser team is often trying not to lose. If Rodgers starts Balotelli, Gerrard and Sterling, they'll be up the pitch, trying to score. As they're there, if the team doesn't want to get too stretched, the defence will press high up, as they are used to. As a result, if they lose the ball, the power and pace of Ronaldo, Rodriguez and substitute Gareth Bale will make them pay with dangerous counter attacks.

So you use the less experienced, less decorated players. Because the team automatically switches in personnel from title chasers to mid-table chancers (and of course "prospects"), they will both play more cautiously and follow Rodgers' instructions without question. As a result, they defend as a priority and make Madrid's counter attacking game more difficult to pull off. Of course, as time goes on without conceding, the likes of Borini and Can will grow in confidence and make forays into the opposition half, but without compromising their strategy. For evidence of Liverpool's new sense of caution, their first shot on goal came in the second half.

Playing this kind of game is also risky, as your defence is likely to creak at some point in the 90 minutes and, once behind, a cautious strategy will make it hard to get back on level terms. This is why the aforementioned lesser team doesn't often beat the elite 11: at some point, the better players will take their chance. But it does mean you won't get smacked. So, in terms of winning a match, Rodgers did capitulate. But he intelligently avoided taking too much damage, gave a set of youngsters vital experience at the highest level, and his best players are now rested for the match against Chelsea.

Oh, and we got to see Kolo Toure really impress as a solid defender; perhaps some of this team will find its way into the first 11.
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