Liverpool's squad have collectively let their heads drop in recent weeks, seeming to at least on some level buy into the woe-is-me narrative suggested by many who believe the season's only real problem has been a lack of luck and not tactics, execution, and team selection on the back of perhaps the most wasteful transfer window in the club's history. Certainly luck has played its part, but recent dire results have only confirmed just how dangerous using luck as a crutch can be.
Now, with luck out to get Liverpool Football Club, the players can be counted on to crumble at the slightest sign of adversity, seemingly as much in need of a psychiatrist as a shooting coach. And looking back, it's no surprise that things went from bad to worse at the same time that Kenny Dalglish was turning to luck as the culprit in losses to relegation-threatened QPR and Wigan.
His words to the media mirrored an almost complete collapse on the pitch, the players coming to realise that any chance at fourth had entirely slipped away and responding by falling into a self-pitying funk that seemed to blame luck and not their own mistakes and shortcomings. With the worst saved for last with a whimpering defeat at the hands of Newcastle, it may be too much to hope that preparation for Saturday's match against Aston Villa doesn't involve eyeliner, razorblades, and cliche-strewn poetry scribbled into notebooks.
With half the team seemingly having decided there's no point fighting back against cruel fate, it's not entirely surprising that most of those who have seemed largely immune from the depressed fatalism in recent weeks are the younger prospects and fringe players. After all, most of them haven't been on the pitch through a season of goalposts and bad bounces, and at the same time many will feel as though they have something to prove.
Sebastian Coates was one who performed well when called upon against QPR, scoring a wonder-strike and emerging blameless from Liverpool's late collapse. Then there was Raheem Sterling, who made a promising late cameo against Wigan that showed more determination and fire in his five minutes on the pitch than Stewart Downing had from the opening whistle. And then against Newcastle on Sunday Jonjo Shelvey put in an imperfect but motivated performance that put many of his more senior teammates to shame.
Certainly his wasn't a flawless performance—his 74% pass completion rate from open play in particular was nothing to write home about, though it was hardly out of place alongside Steven Gerrard's 75%. What was noteworthy, however, was that while so many of the players around him let their heads drop when things didn't go Liverpool's way, Shelvey's didn't, while from first minute to last he at least appeared to be trying to do more than play out the season. This was perhaps no clearer at any point than when he picked up the ball in space in the second half and drove towards Newcastle's penalty area with Andy Carroll ahead of him only to find that instead of making a run or at least drawing off defenders, Carroll chose to simply stop and stare.
Lip readers might have picked up on a rather annoyed "Get in the fucking box" directed at Carroll after Shelvey was left with few attacking options but to drive a hopeful ball towards goal from outside the area. It was a sentiment most of the traveling supporters watching at St. James' Park and all the rest watching on television would have been in full agreement with, though for many there would have been a desire to see it aimed at more than just Andy Carroll.
Video by kLFCreds
While it still seems far too early to suggest Sterling should see more than occasional minutes, there just as clearly is no excuse not to start players like Shelvey, Flanagan, and Coates against Aston Villa. When the choice is between unproven youngsters and players who appear to have no drive to even—at the very least—play for their own or their club's pride and who have succumbed to a belief that the footballing gods are actively thwarting any chances of success, then there really is no choice.
It's not just about playing the kids for the sake of the future any more—things are worse than that now. It's about playing players who don't step onto the pitch expecting to lose before the first ball is kicked. Liverpool may still not win—maybe not against Aston Villa, maybe not against Blackburn, and maybe not against Everton in the FA Cup. But they can't do any worse than they have so far in the second half of the campaign, and it would at least be nice to see players who don't appear to have largely given up not just on the season but on themselves, their teammates, and the coaching staff given a chance.