Following their recent critical home defeat to Chelsea, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers seemed satisfied he had obtained some sort of moral victory over the football gods.
Despite a 2-0 loss during which they struggled to register a serious goal scoring opportunity of note, Rodgers praised his team’s commitment to ambition while leading the attack on Jose Mourinho’s supposedly negative tactics. Unsurprisingly unperturbed the Chelsea boss retorted that a team that cannot defend does not win trophies.
In spite of the result the consensus of sympathy seemed to lie with Rodgers’ adventurous philosophy and there were more than a few gleeful sniggers as Mourinho was given his ‘comeuppance’ three days later by Diego Simeone’s excellent Atletico Madrid side.
However, as the fates would have it it was with no little irony that the Mourinho way was somewhat vindicated as Liverpool threw away their title hopes inside nine utterly disastrous minutes at Selhurst Park on Monday. As far as collapses go throwing away a three-goal lead against a team not exactly renowned for their goal scoring exploits this season is up there with the all-time catastrophic sporting collapses.
One only had to look at the tortured and tearful Luis Suarez at the final whistle to understand just how shattering a surrender it was. However, as Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville were at pains to point out in their analysis on Sky Sport’s MNF, they should have seen it coming.
It is difficult to be too critical of Rodgers and his Liverpool team. They have been a breath of fresh air in a sport where increasingly success is bought not built. The achievement of taking the same players that finished 7th last season to within a game or two of the Premier League title - scoring nearly a hundred goals along the way - is a staggering achievement. It speaks volumes for Rodgers’ ability as a coach and should fill Liverpool fans with optimism about the Rodgers project going forward.
Yet this Liverpool team have exhibited serious failings in the past few weeks. While the way Liverpool have played at times is a throwback to youthful late night sessions of Playstation football - attack! attack! attack! without a concern for the consequences - it has been at the cost of important fundamentals.
After the Crystal Palace game Liverpool have conceded 49 league goals this season (their worst defensive performance in the Premier League since the 1998/9 season). The cold hard truth is that it isn’t good enough for team with Championship aspirations. Liverpool have been playing with fire for weeks, pushing the limit in games against Cardiff, Norwich and Manchester City where the sheer power of their attacking force has glossed over the embarrassing defensive fragility on display.
At Palace Liverpool were accused of being naive. After the match Rodgers suggested a lack of experience and game management cost them. I think it goes deeper than that, it was quite simply a lack of wisdom; it was due to a fundamental flaw in the team’s playing philosophy.
There is a parallel in the Newcastle team of 1995-6 which enthralled fans of the Premier League with their stunning attacking football, their seemingly never-ending fidelity to ambitious play, their commitment to the principle that they could always outscore you. That team was undone in the end - never to scale those same heights again - because it did not have the wisdom to heed its own errors.
You can only take so many chances with fire before experience teaches it will burn you and this is the harsh lesson Liverpool and Rodgers have to learn from.
The ambition and the adventure must prevail because the Liverpool of 2013-14 is a team to inspire and be admired. But the philosophy that underpins all of this requires a degree of wisdom. The brazen ‘we can always outscore you’ attitude has to be curbed in favour of pragmatism when it’s needed.
At 3-0 Rodgers should have ordered his players to shut the game down, sacrificing flair for discipline. It was folly to chase the goal difference deficit of nine to Manchester City; the likelihood of Liverpool ever catching it up being next to zero. The pressure Liverpool needed to exert would have been achieved by three points not the margin of victory.
To paraphrase one football pundit Liverpool were guilty of an epic ‘schoolboy error’. They should never have allowed Crystal Palace a sniff of a chance back into the game.
Unfortunately for Liverpool fans it seems that is one lesson Rodgers did not learn from his time at Chelsea under the tutelage of ‘The Special One’. But the lesson of Selhurst Park is one Rodgers must accept now if Liverpool are to be anything more than a one-season wonder.
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