Benched at the Bernabeu

 

bernabeu-dugout

Bernabeu bench. Photo by Hugo, http://www.flickr.com

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.

Blogvember

fountain-pen

Fountain Pen. Picture by: Ali from Riyadh, http://www.flickr.com

It is 14 weeks since this blog was launched. Apparently, on average, this is around the time that many bloggers give up. It proves to be a bit harder than imagined, a bit more time consuming, and the number of people viewing on a typical day would fit comfortably into a Cinquecento.

The goal at launch was to post at least once a week. This is post 11 so we’re a little behind schedule and that’s partly why I’m going to attempt to post every day in November. The aim is to quickly generate quite a lot of content for the site and also experiment with a few different formats and types of post.

The average length of post on this blog is between 1,200 and 1,500 words. Brevity has never been my strong suit (my PhD thesis eventually crawled to a conclusion at 95,000 words – it now works well as a bedtime story for the kids, they go straight to sleep) but some posts over the next month are likely to be considerably shorter given the self-imposed time pressure. I’ll even tweet about it (@ciwilkie) in a bid to discipline myself with 140 characters or fewer.

So to kick off this month long post-a-day challenge, some brief thoughts on a couple of things that have caught my eye in the last few days:

Steven Gerrard – football’s honest man

Gerrard is an honest footballer. You’ll never catch him giving less than 100%. You’ll never catch him hiding. You’ll never hear him give a less than honest assessment of his own or his team’s performance. Yesterday I read an interesting and typically honest interview he gave to the Daily Mail.

He revealed that Liverpool haven’t offered him a new contract yet. His current one expires next summer and Gerrard insists he has no plans to retire. I’m sure an offer will be forthcoming (and would expect it to include the option of a coaching role) and if not, he’s hardly likely to be short of suitors elsewhere.

Gerrard must be one of the best players never to have won a league championship medal. His slip-up against Chelsea during last season’s title run in was a huge blow to player and club but his response has been typical of the man. Asked if he hears the many chants that now reference the incident, he said: “Of course. There are thousands of them singing it. Does it affect me? No, it drives me to perform better.”

The banana skin nature of his Chelsea slip ensured it would be subject to future ridicule but it’s quite ridiculous to suggest that it cost Liverpool the title. The last few games of the campaign showed that Liverpool were a little too lacking in guile and experience to be champions and that would still have been the case if Gerrard had not slipped.

If Liverpool don’t retain his services then there seems a good chance he would choose to go abroad. It’s something I think he could and should have done a while ago. I could imagine him being a success in the same way that Paul Ince, a very similar player to Gerrard, was at Inter Milan.

As a good captain, Gerrard also defended Balotelli in the interview, saying that the striker is “working hard, doing extra shooting sessions.” Those sessions should at least serve to improve the fitness of the goalkeepers if they have to go chasing after the various wayward efforts that Mario has specialised in of late. Still, as Gerrard says: “I am not gonna judge him after 10 games.”

Which brings me to the second thing that caught my eye recently:

Manchester City – crisis, what crisis?

Robbie Savage, a pundit who lives up to his name, has used his BBC column to stick the boot in to City after a disappointing week for the club. Sticking the boot in came naturally to Robbie throughout his playing career and he’s taken the same studs up approach to his analysis.

He claims that those who say City are ‘on the brink of a crisis are not far wrong.’ Savage’s thesis is that City aren’t going to win the Champions League (almost certainly true), that they might not even qualify from their group (it’s far from certain that they will) and that if they fail to beat Man U in the derby then they’ll fall dangerously far behind Chelsea (who Savage thinks won’t lose three times all season) in the title race.

If City are in crisis, or even on the brink of it, then it’s a condition that most clubs would settle for. Of course the huge sums that have been invested at the Etihad bring correspondingly large expectations. The team has disappointed in Europe but they have yet to experience any luck in the Champions League draw.

Chelsea do look like the team to beat this season but I’d still be amazed if City are not their nearest challengers, and genuine challengers at that. Impressive though Chelsea’s start has been they would quickly become quite vulnerable with a few injuries to some key players and just as with Balotelli, it all feels a little early to be reaching firm conclusions.

Pellegrini is shrewd and calm. He won’t panic and he’s been around the block enough times to know that a few poor results don’t make a crisis. I expect City to win the derby tomorrow and if they follow that up with a result in the Champions League then all of a sudden the supposed crisis will evaporate.

Savage’s studs will then have to seek a new target.

Well, as this post heads towards 1,000 words I’ll stop with day 1 of blogvember successfully ticked off. If you have any thoughts or suggestions on this blog (posts you’ve particularly enjoyed, things you’d like to see) then please leave a comment below. Be as honest as Gerrard but slightly less savage than Savage.