In the classic British sitcom "Yes, Prime Minister," there is a repeated joke made by Sir Humphrey, the cabinet secretary, that the best way to divert a politician from a course on which he seems set is to agree with him and tell him he’s being brave.
Brendan Rodgers’ team selection on Tuesday against Real Madrid was brave in that sense: whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of playing a much-changed starting lineup, whether you think he was letting down fans who had traveled and surrendering the game, or that he was sending a necessary message to players who had under-performed at Newcastle the previous Saturday, or even that it was necessary pragmatism, he was taking an enormous risk.
It’s not just that if Liverpool had been hammered, he would have shouldered the blame, but that he has removed all the excuses for Saturday’s game against Chelsea. The major players in his side – Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Dejan Lovren, Mario Balotelli – are all fully rested. There’s no moaning that the players are weary from a difficult midweek trip. For better or for worse, it’s in some ways heartening that Rodgers has been so prepared to lay that on the line.
Self-confidence has never been a problem for the Liverpool manager, and perhaps his boldness may encourage his players to take more responsibility – as Kolo Toure did on Tuesday, producing in the Bernabeu probably his best performance for the club. This was always going to be a difficult season, not just in learning how to play without Luis Suarez, but in trying to deal with expectations elevated by last season’s run at the title – which, as Rodgers acknowledged, came far earlier than he had expected it to.
Up to a point, Suarez is the issue. It’s not just that without his goals – and those of Daniel Sturridge, restricted to just three league starts so far this campaign with his thigh and hamstring problems – the defensive laxity of last season is more of a problem;,it’s that without him, the whole dynamic of the team has changed.
Liverpool last season was all about rapid transitions, winning the ball packing in midfield and overwhelming opponents with the pace of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. All the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Henderson had to do was roll the ball ahead of one of the forwards and watch them go. That pace simply isn’t there any more.
Balotelli is quick over the ground, but seems not yet to have adjusted to that way of playing: twice in the first 10 minutes of the home game against Real Madrid, he received the ball from just such a turnover, and plodded head down along a blind alley. Lazar Markovic hasn’t settled yet. Adam Lallana, for all his technical ability, just isn’t that quick.
New players – especially when signed in a glut – often take time to settle, but at Liverpool there seems a need to amend the strategy as well: everybody is learning. The question is what is being learned. Last season’s highly dynamic style was a reaction to having Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling in such fine form; it was a move away from the more possession-based approach Rodgers had previously favored.
The summer signings seemed a chance to move back to that sort of style; after all, finding a direct replacement for Suarez is impossible. Greater possession should equal greater control, which in turn should help protect the back four. Perhaps that is the ultimate goal, and possession stats have risen, although only from 54.8 percent last season to 55.3 percent this one.
Lovren has arrived, but the defense looks no more secure than it did; moreover, he is demonstrably not as good a passer of the ball as Daniel Agger was. Set plays pose a particular problem, which, at this level, is a matter of coaching. But there is also surely an issue of structure. Liverpool has tried a host of defenders over the past two seasons and none has looked comfortable.
With a pattern like that, you have to look at other factors – at the goalkeeper and at the midfield. Simon Mignolet, although he played well at the Bernabeu, is not having a good season. He often looks jittery, although cause and effect are hard to disentangle – is it him unsettling the defense or the defense unsettling him?
The midfield is a more fundamental issue: Gerrard and Henderson, even with the addition of a third player – be that Lucas, Emre Can or Joe Allen – simply don’t offer sufficient protection, just as they left Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka exposed when playing for England in the summer.
That is not something that is readily soluble unless Rodgers takes the step he took away to Queens Park Rangers when he started with Can and Henderson deep in midfield, with Gerrard more advanced. That, though, ended up stymying the flow of ball from back to front. More tinkering is required. It may be that Liverpool, in Rodgers’s third season, needs another year of transition. A key player has gone, a lot of new players have arrived, and the style is changing.
Gerrard, at 34, may soon be phased out. Chelsea, though, even if the past week’s events – a scrappy 2-1 win over QPR and a draw in Maribor – have dinted its sheen of remorselessness, is not an opponent likely to show mercy. Rodgers has left himself without excuses for Saturday: this is Liverpool in its best possible state (injures notwithstanding) pitting itself against the league leader, seeing just how far behind it is.
And that is an act that is unquestionably brave.