A DUTCH legend once told me that a talented player devoid of discipline is as useful as a phone without a charger. Ability alone would never see you touch greatness, he preached — pointing to diligence as the power source to succeed.
He would look at his squad and identify the good influences, as well as their opposites, before looking at how the more impressionable players associated with each group. The last aspect was especially important to him as he was dedicated to helping shape young stars.
I thought of this vignette as Mario Balotelli celebrated his 25th birthday on Wednesday, and Jose Enrique lamented being alienated at Liverpool along with the eccentric Italian and fellow forgotten man Fabio Borini.
The words also camped in my mind during Brendan Rodgers’ first press conference of the season, in which he named James Milner as vice-captain. He saluted the midfielder’s dedication to advancement, detailing how the 29-year-old arrives at Melwood two-and-a-half hours ahead of training to prepare for the sessions. Milner is a “great ally” for the skipper Jordan Henderson, whose approach to extracting the best out of himself is as rigorous.
Examples. Those two are the examples. The good influences. The phones with chargers.
Balotelli, Enrique and Borini are not. That is the reason they were not part of the club’s pre-season tour, while Rickie Lambert, despite also being surplus to requirements, was afforded an invitation. West Brom’s new hitman also didn’t have to wait long for concrete interest in his services, because his professionalism has never been in question.
Aged 25. Not a kid. Not promise. Not potential. TWENTY FIVE. “He no longer has the alibi of his age,” as Balotelli’s agent Mino Raiola put it.
I’m one of those people desperate for ‘Super Mario’ to shrug off his kryptonite and be the unplayable version of himself. The problem? We want it way more than he is willing to work for it, and this is the gospel across Europe. The missed training sessions, the lack of interest when he does turn up, and his magnet for controversy are placed on a higher shelf than some incredible achievements.
We can talk about Rodgers’ use of him, we can dwell on ‘what ifs’, we can go the supermarket and purchase all the excuses we want, but we should just buy a mirror and hand it to Mario. Take a look at yourself before it’s too late, lad.
Enrique, meanwhile, puts the F U N in defunct. He’s always up for a game of table tennis, is forever logged into Instagram, and is ever ready – for a selfie. Everything is a laugh, anything is laugh. He says he knows he’ll play if he stays, as the club “only have one pure left-back” in Alberto Moreno.
Well, if he does hang around, he’s got 99 problems and Joe Gomez is one. In fact, part of the reason the 18-year-old has ousted Moreno to a first-team place is the Spaniard’s association with Enrique. Spending time joking around with those who can’t particularly be arsed is not going to work as well as putting in shifts to ensure you’re pushing yourself to infinity and beyond.
Gomez didn’t just impress Rodgers during games on Liverpool’s pre-season tour, he was an absolute machine in training. He listened, he learnt and he was desperate to capitalise on his opportunity and put himself in contention. There was no doubt over his ability, no doubt over his attitude, and it is also why there was no doubt he would start the first game of the season at the notoriously unforgiving Britannia.
It amused me that Enrique doesn’t think he’ll play because he deserves it, or because he’s planning extra sessions to ensure it — if anything, at least he’s not kidding himself. Moreno needs to distance himself from the clowning around, the sulking, and get to work. Gomez has a helluva head start.
On Borini, I was once informed, ‘there are players who dine on the prestige of being at Liverpool, and there are those who know they are incredibly lucky to have the privilege and pour everything they have into the club. He, sadly, is the former.’
Liverpool have seven players in the current first-team squad who are aged 21 and under. They need examples. They need guidance. They need inspiration. Distractions and disruptions are not welcome.
There are 15 players between 22 and 25 at the club and only seven over that age bracket. It is a very young group, and Liverpool are determined to cultivate a culture of excellence to thrive in.
Milner and Henderson are not alone in knowing distinction is a habit; Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho share their thirst to unearth every added advantage. The latter referenced Luis Suarez as his example to follow on how to be “a maniac in training”.
Kolo Toure may as well be a synonym for dedication. Jordon Ibe cut short his summer break to better his finishing and overall game. Martin Skrtel will do anything you need him to — yes, even moisturise his inked arms in a Nivea commercial.
Simon Mignolet has studied his strengths and weaknesses, and worked on them both. Dejan Lovren is intensely trying to right the wrongs of a nightmare debut season. Mamadou Sakho has a blend of ability, leadership and a personality brighter than Melwood’s new floors. Danny Ings’ fire has impressed Robbie Fowler — case dismissed. Emre Can’s desire to prove himself in midfield is as obvious as his good looks…
We are what we repeatedly do. If you can’t trust a player at the club complex, how do you trust him at Anfield, let alone at any away ground in the league?
Liverpool have plenty of positive influences and plenty of room for improvement. There are aspects — like wage structure and unlimited resources, which has the club playing catch up. But there is no restriction on making sure your work ethic is optimal and your output is top-tier.
The culture of merit isn’t restricted to the playing staff; the coaching team have been tireless in trying to improve individuals and the collective. There was acclaim for Pepijn Lijnders’ work during the tour, with senior players talking about revitalisation and rediscovery of their attributes under the new direction. The approach is more comprehensive and clearer.
Give me players possessed by high performance, the backroom team helping them obtain their maximum, and Liverpool fixating over excellence any day. All day.
I’m all for working for what you want. Then working some more. And if you’re not with it, keep the change ya filthy animal.
Liverpool cannot afford dead batteries, the club needs to be charged up.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo