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Yak Shaving with Occam's Razor

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Occasionally, during the course of yet another discussion about the shape and tactics of the latest vintage of Liverpool FC, do you find yourself nodding off? Since when did football become so complicated, Brendan?

"Skimmed milk, lettuce, porridge flakes, apples, Marco Reus..."
"Skimmed milk, lettuce, porridge flakes, apples, Marco Reus..."
Alex Livesey

Hapless souls, misguided enough to be regular readers of the mercilessly recurrent offerings produced within this scribbler's troubled brain pan, will know that from the very first of those contributions, there has been a circumspect but enthusiastic advocacy of Brendan Rodgers as the right man for the job of developing Liverpool Football Club. Sadly for the Antrim man, that dubious endorsement remains firmly in place, despite the reemergence of some of the less judicious elements of the club's fan base, who seem to appear, pitchfork and torch in hand, after every poor result. This season, there have been so many of those poor results that Rodgers must be saving a fortune on his outdoor lighting, as the frenzied mob gather around his house, calling for his head.

Last season, having found a kind of groove in the latter half of his first campaign, Liverpool were mightily impressive and played numerous systems and shapes under the newly trim Carnlough native. Initially, Daniel Sturridge foraged very successfully alone up top. Then, returning from his enforced absence for nibbling Branislav Ivanovic, Luis Suarez joined him to form the continent's best strike partnership as the Redmen had their best ever Premier League campaign.

In midfield we witnessed diamonds, trios, the one and the two, the two and the one and the reinvention of Steven Gerrard as a deep-lying playmaker. Further back, whilst Simon Mignolet clawed away shots he had no right to reach and flapped at crosses he should have claimed with ease, there was a sieve-like entity purporting to be a Liverpool defence, sometimes featuring three gents and two flanking visitors and more regularly consisting of a traditional four. This latter group managed to concede many goals but, crucially, less than the fellows paid to do the scoring bit. You could say what you liked, the results shouted louder and ultimately came heartbreakingly close to being enough to end a 24 year wait for the top prize.

When the jewel in last year's crown was plucked away by Catalonian hands, they were at least kind enough to recompense the club with a large bag of cash. Rodgers and his increasingly infamous committee went about the business of the recruitment window with an apparent sense of purpose, at least until the end approached  and the signing of Mario Balotelli had a real feeling of being a risky, last-minute punt. The upshot of eight new faces being assimilated has been predictable. The balance has proved too difficult to recapture, partly because of the amount of fresh blood but also because of the absence of not just Luis Suárez but also the injured Daniel Sturridge.

This latter blow has been cruelly exacerbated by the difficulties Balotelli and chums have had in finding the net. Suddenly, the thing that had galvanised supporters -- the high-tempo, free-scoring football that characterised the previous season and a half -- has gone missing and everyone associated with Liverpool, from supporters to staff, is suffering some kind of identity crisis. We are Liverpool...right?

At the back the personnel have changed incessantly, with only the expensive and as-yet-unimpressive new boy Dejan Lovren, ever present. Mignolet, never a commanding custodian in the Neuer mould, seems to have suffered badly from the lack of stability in front of him and when the two new and extremely young Spanish fullbacks have been the club's best performers, one can begin to put together a picture of the tentative and halting progress being made by Rodgers significantly remodelled side.

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Rube Goldberg was famed for his elaborate images of ramshackle contraptions which would perform the most simple and mundane of tasks in the most needlessly complex fashion. His character, Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts invented an automatic stamp licker that involved a robot dumping a can of ants onto upturned stamps and a starving anteater drooling over the back of the stamps in his attempts to sate his hunger. Goldberg was satirising the technology of the time but seeing one of his unnecessarily complicated doohickeys reminded this beleaguered Redman of the attempts we're witnessing at Anfield to accomplish the most basic of tasks -- keeping the ball out of our net and putting it across the oppositions' goal line.

Rodgers needs no apologism from these paragraphs or any other source. He is an accomplished coach and manager and the revisionism and ignorance inherent in some of the latest criticism is embarrassing to witness. Clearly, the Liverpool manager is also a deep thinker about the game. There is no Harry Redknapp talk of finely-honed athletes needing to "run about" in a Rodgers' press conference. He answers thoughtfully and methodically, explaining his ideas. The press, of course lap this up. Then, when success is absent, those answers are lampooned and mocked and the usual criticisms emerge about how the 41 year old talks too much. There may be a little truth in that. Witness, for example, his latest thoughts as a perfect representation of an earnest, if misguided attempt to analyse things to death.

"We changed the system of our team the other night but I’m not going to reveal what we did," he coyly offered. "It was something I had thought about with the shape. Part of the key for us over the past 18 months has been how we’ve been able to surprise opponents with our set-up and structure. Time was limited but we worked on a structure for a few days in training. With the ball we had a shape, without the ball we had a shape. I was very pleased with how fluid the team looked. A strength of ours is the flexibility of the players and their ability to play in different formations.

"Teams prepare all week to play against us in a certain shape and we have that ability to change the way we play. Credit to the players in terms of how they cope with that and the intelligence with which they play. The other night showed that all the players here are ready to fight for a position. I told them before the game ‘you are here because we think you are good players’. This was about going out and doing what they’re good at. We saw that in their performances and it’s given us a real boost going into the weekend."

As long as Rodgers continues to speak about the game in a detailed and occasionally obscure way, he will have critics ready to pounce. Often, the most severe of those dissenting voices will be standing under the same banner on a match day. I have sympathy with the more rational sorts who are a tad irked by what appears to be an over complication of the approach to tactics and selection but the thing about Rube Goldberg's devices was that they worked...eventually. The methodology was convoluted but the stamps got licked. Maybe those who would usher Brendan Rodgers to the Anfield door would do well to hold their fire for a while yet.