Brendan Rodgers caused uproar with his team selection against Real Madrid last night. Seven of the starting 11 from Saturday’s defeat were rested (or dropped depending on the interpretation) including Gerrard and Sterling. Gary Linker accused Rodgers of having ‘thrown in a white towel’ and called the move ‘unbefitting of a club of Liverpool’s stature.’
Rodgers hit back in post-match interviews saying: “I didn’t see this as a big showcase game where I had to play the so-called names.” If Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the Champions League is not ‘a big showcase game’ then I’ve no idea what is.
The manager went on to say: “I picked a team that I thought could get a result. The players that came in were excellent and we were unfortunate not to get a result.” I didn’t see the game so I can’t comment on the performance but from all the reports I’ve read it seems as though Liverpool were dogged and determined while being thoroughly outclassed.
Of course the actual result was better than the one achieved at Anfield with the big names in the side and Rodgers also said that some players were dropped because of how poorly they played at Newcastle. He would have been justified in changing the entire team after that performance but I can’t help feeling he got exactly the result he expected in Madrid.
His judgment appears to have been that Liverpool had little or no chance of getting anything from the game irrespective of the line-up he chose and so he opted to drop some players as punishment for their recent form and rest others for the game against Chelsea at the weekend.
Rodgers believes that Real Madrid are the best side in the world. I agree with him. I think he also believes that Real will win all of their matches in this Champions League group and thus Liverpool are effectively competing in a mini group with Basel and Ludogorets. He may well be right about that as well. So what to make of his team selection?
Managers are paid to make decisions and they will succeed or fail by those decisions. I’ve written previously that much as I admire a lot of the work Rodgers has done at Anfield, I think he has made some very questionable decisions, mostly in the transfer market.
Some have suggested that Rodgers disrespected the competition. I don’t have too much sympathy for that view. UEFA have done that all by themselves with their remorseless and money driven expansion of the tournament.
Also, their rule that clubs are required to “field their strongest team throughout the competition” is a ridiculous one. Who is going to determine that an insufficiently strong team has been fielded? How will that decision be reached exactly? If is a team is already eliminated, is not a good idea to give some fringe and younger players a taste of the Champions League?
Another accusation is that the team selection was disrespectful to the club, ‘unbefitting’ as Lineker put it. Here it gets a little trickier. Rodgers is absolutely entitled to field any team he likes. It should be his decision and his alone. If, as a Liverpool fan, I had spent a lot of money travelling to Spain for the game then I think I would be quite upset at the team that was picked. The fans surely travelled in hope more than expectation but that hope must have been all but extinguished when the team was announced.
Pragmatists argue that the decision can only be judged after the Chelsea game and then the remaining two fixtures in the group. There is some truth in this. If Liverpool win all three games then Rodgers will surely feel that he made the right call.
I think the decision was wrong though even if we do triumph in all three of those games. It was wrong because of the tone it sets. Rodgers just indicated to his players, ‘you are not good enough to compete at this level; we can’t really expect to get a result here.’
Liverpool are returning to the Champions League after quite a long absence. Everything the manager says and does should convey the message: “this is where we belong.” His selection against Real did not do that. The side already looks like it will struggle to qualify for next year’s Champions League and Rodgers’ decision last night is only likely to have undermined confidence.
The way that managers conduct themselves and the way their decisions are perceived matters a lot. Just ask David Moyes. Although Manchester United’s Champions League performances under him weren’t too bad he didn’t look like he felt he really belonged there. I’m sure he actually felt he did but it didn’t always look that way.
Compare that to Louis van Gaal. His side are not even in the Champions League but he has the strut of a man who believes his team could probably win it. I expect Manchester United to be back on the Champions League stage next year and I don’t think he’ll take a weakened side anywhere.
Rodgers is apparently learning Spanish and hopes to manage in Spain one day but it remains to be seen when he or Liverpool will next get a chance to test themselves against Real at the Bernabeu.