AT half time on Monday, Liverpool sent out five substitutes to warm up. The two they didn’t send out were Roberto Firmino and Emre Can — the two that first got on the pitch. Those two pretty much started warming up as soon as the second half began. The manager knew the changes he was going to make and made them.
For some time now there has been a sense of purpose about Liverpool. With the exception of Philippe Coutinho effectively getting selected ahead of Lucas Leiva, it was pretty clear for some time what Liverpool’s team would be against Stoke. I was convinced that Brendan Rodgers would start Mamadou Sakho ahead of Dejan Lovren; in hindsight I was ignoring the markers.
Then I thought Rodgers would change it against Bournemouth. And again I was ignoring the markers. It’s strange, because I had been having conversations, recorded ones with Sean Rogers and Paul Cope, about Liverpool almost treating these first four games as their own challenge — almost as their own competition. These four games being their own thing almost off to one side.
With new signings to bed in, players coming back at different times, with different fitness levels, with a week between each game, with the two away games being grounds where we shipped 10 goals at the end of last season, with 14 days between the fourth and fifth games, with a long season ahead, Rodgers appears to have done just that. He has made a big decision, which is that he effectively has 13 or 14 players to play with. Rodgers has made one big choice early that limits all future choices for August.
This is why Firmino especially warms up when he does and comes on when he does. That substitution was decided weeks ago and only a dreadful game situation would have derailed it. Emre Can’s a little different given Jordan Henderson’s injury, perhaps, but the change that gets him on the pitch against Stoke now feels very much planned, too. Rodgers has spoken about playing very distinct sides in different competitions as the season progresses. This is drawing board team selection from Liverpool.
That this is most likely the case is further buttressed by the news Sakho has been offered a new long-term contract with a pay rise. That suggests Sakho has a long-term role to play with Rodgers and the football club. This, coinciding with the information that his partner had a baby in the week prior to the Stoke game, makes clearer the context within which Rodgers is making his decisions. What’s the best way to get through the first four games? There was bemusement from many when the news broke around the contract offer. How can this be happening now?
Good news for Mamadou Sakho who's been offered a new long term contract by Liverpool despite currently being out of the team.
— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarrett) August 20, 2015
Lucas may well have thought himself likely to be in the first four gang and persisting talk that he is looking for a permanent move makes sense with Liverpool happy to let him go if the price is right despite a loan deal to Besiktas being rejected. Latest reports suggest the Brazilian could return to the side tomorrow with Henderson struggling with a foot injury but that seems to very much be a Plan B born of necessity.
What has never been in doubt, it seems, is that it will be the same centre back partnership of Martin Skrtel and Lovren while Sakho is being offered a bumper new contract regardless; it suggests two quite different approaches to two quite different players at different stages in their careers.
The decision as to who has and hasn’t made up this de facto squad within a squad for these four games could have been influenced by a variety of factors. We don’t have the sports science data telling us who came back from the summer in the best shape for the battles that these games have been and will be. We don’t know if the other players are doing more fitness work to get them into peak condition, ready for the bank of games that follow. We don’t spend time with the players or know their personality types.
We do, however, know the nature of the games themselves and we can observe the markers. Therefore one of the key thing the markers should probably tell us is “don’t read too much into the first four games”. We’re all guilty of trying to extrapolate too much and we all want to know what kind of season we are in for now so we can decide whether to get the flares in or the pitchforks out. But these first four games are their own thing. Far too much can be read into current selection and shape and approach. It’s four games, standing alone.
With victory in either of the games against Arsenal and West Ham we can feel the Reds have got this particular patch of matches right enough — nine points from four games, just over two points per game. Four points across the remaining two would be excellent, but the nature of these games being their own challenge means four points won’t tell us what we should expect come March, just as defeat against Arsenal won’t be the end of the world.
The reality is there is a lot of season to come and I would expect there to already be a plan for the games between Manchester United away and Everton away — seven games in total, in 22 days, Liverpool playing every midweek. Then another 14-day gap followed by another likely seven game run. Then finally the games are relentless from November 21 until deep into February.
There is a run of games through there, book-ended by Manchester City away in November and home in March, of 14 games where Liverpool only play two sides that finished above them last season, both at home. That’s the meat of the season and what Liverpool do in those 12 games, that they should go into as favourites, will define everything.
In addition, Liverpool will have Europa League and FA Cup games too, they may even have League Cup games. It’s then that Rodgers will need a 20-man squad of fit, focused, prepared top quality professionals, ready to be collectively brought to the boil.
For the games we have now, he’s made his call, he’s limited his options in order to clarify and sharpen them. Four games. Fourteen players. Two down, two to go.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo