IN recent years, supporting Liverpool FC has been a bit like visiting your dominatrix and realising she’s forgotten your safe word.*
“BANANA!”, you whimper. Nobody hears.
The ball rebounds off the woodwork for the umpteenth time. A referee denies a stonewall penalty, and books your striker for having the temerity to fall over in the first place. The media brands the collective a disgrace. The fans are defiant! The fans are disgruntled. The fans are in outcry. The men in their suits who are supposed to make things right shuffle some papers around. The owners get a call from their sponsors and shift uneasily in their bespoke tailored ‘pants’. Drops of saliva well in the mouths of the stalking media.
“BANANA!”, you scream! Nobody hears.
Well, until now maybe. The dirty work is maybe starting to pay off.
Now is a good time to go back and listen to Brendan Rodgers Talks To TAW. A full frontal exposure, in which nothing’s hidden. As you listen, you can begin to really unravel what Rodgers was getting at, as he laid out his vision of how he expects his sides to play.**
During the interview he said, “the more we work together, the more we get the ideas, the more we get the types of players that fit this way of working, then you’ll see it then change very quickly.”
We’re seeing the beginnings of that now. Rodgers introduced several of Rodolfo Borrell’s reserve side into the starting eleven, players who are accustomed to his way of working already, or something approaching it, and hey presto, we’ve seen it change very quickly.
We’ve also seen evidence of improved quality in possession. As he said, “what we’ll become better at is doing it a bit quicker. It probably needs to be a bit quicker in the tempo but that will come once the methods are more installed with the players.”
Coupled with that, Borrell’s players, and also his buys in Allen, Sahin and Assaidi, have all demonstrated what he was hoping for when he said, “you have to have more patience …every time you cross the half way line you’re not going to score on your first attempt – so test the organisation. Teams are well organised now so you have to test their organisation move the game move the ball, move the ball, get them tired, keep them running …and then once you keep moving them side to side in order to penetrate someone loses their concentration.”
What we’ve also seen both the front line side and the midweek side start to demonstrate is an ability to control the shape and tempo of the game – the balance of play, the available space, and the rhythm. He made several points along these lines in the interview. About his time with Swansea, he said, “teams were frightened to death of letting us get a rhythm in the game. So they would push right on to our back four. So I then had Michel Vorm just take them out of the game …now it’s four v four. …then they’re unsure …they don’t want to be exposed …So then they start to drop off so then you can build your game.”
There’s little doubt the transition involves a big change for the keepers. On Reina, he said, “Pepe …can use his feet so for us when we’ve got the ball it should be eleven versus ten. With Michel Vorm last year …it was perfect. He was quick, he was agile and he could play football and it meant when my team had the ball my team had eleven men against the ten and when you’ve got the ball 65-70% of the time it’s a football death for the other team. We’re not at that stage yet but that’s what we will get to.”
We’ve seen both Jones and Reina flapping a little – they’ve had a lot to think about. But the players have started building the trust to make these changes, because the penny’s starting to drop that it’s effective. Whether it’s the longer pass from the ‘sweeper keeper’, a centre back dropping the shoulder and carrying it through the midfield (Coates on Wednesday, Agger putting Suarez through on Saturday), or by the keeper or centre halves threading it through the pivot in midfield. Those pivots also need to be capable of turning into play – it’s fundamental. We saw what happened when Henderson misjudged his ball to Wisdom at West Brom, for example, whereas when it’s worked, we’ve seen just how effective it can be in disrupting the opposing team’s shape.
The best example of all this is the build up to the 5th on Saturday. Admittedly, Norwich were poor, but Liverpool played the shape of the game like a concertina. Having already worked Norwich up and down the full length of the pitch, Allen receives the ball with his back to play, spins his man, slips it to Gerrard, and the minute Garrido overextends to try and intercept the ball to Sterling, Norwich are all over the place.
Rodgers wants his teams to test their opponents’ organisation, to move the ball, get them tired, keep them running, and then penetrate the minute someone loses their concentration. That’s exactly what we’ve begun to see. And it all gets better with time.
January is going to be interesting, because as a result of his boldness, our squad, dare we say it, has begun to look almost deep, save for in that striking position. At this stage, some senior players look doomed to finding playing time elsewhere, be it via loans or sales. It’s hard to see what they’re going to add when the kids introduced, at a guess, collectively earn a fraction of each of their individual salaries. Less need to reinforce elsewhere, coupled with funds raised and wages freed through sales? An established scouting team in place? There aren’t going to be many excuses if we don’t do something impressive up top.
On the negative side, people are worried about cheap concessions, lapses in concentration from senior players (Pepe, Skrtel) and the openness of the football, but I’d hope Brendan Rodgers has bought a little credit now on this front. Again, in the interview, describing his focus after improving Swansea’s attacking play, he said, “it was still about getting the balance because at home we were brilliant, away from home it was a little bit too open …it’s important about being secure and getting the balance behind that so you don’t concede.”
The improvement is unlikely to be linear. We’ll see mistakes, defensive lapses, and downright bad luck – it’s inevitable (with our current refereeing establishment at least). So we need to be patient and reasonable. Players’ roles are different, and the model of football demands both heightened concentration and balls on the ball. It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that we’re making a few mistakes as we adjust. Maybe if it continues into the winter we can worry. But this is our starting point. As Rodgers said, “it will be an education that hopefully will put us in place for the next number of years going forward. But this is the ugly bit of work; this is the dirty work as you call it.”
And boy are we beginning to look a little spicy on the park. The difference, though, is we’re less frantic, and a little more tantric.
Here’s to more of that.
* Shamelessly borrowed from the excellent Sahil Malik. Also, I realise I’ve used the word ‘your’. I’m not suggesting you, you know.
** Handily enough, Jim Boardman transcribed the interview in full.