As expected, Liverpool's approach on Tuesday night at Anfield relied heavily on sentiment. Nearly ten years to the day that Steven Gerrard's late half-volley against Olympiacos sent Liverpoolinto the knockout rounds of the Champions League--a competition they'd go on to win in Istanbul in, almost impossibly, even more dramatic circumstances--Brendan Rodgers tried to rally the club and its supporters around a sense of occasion and sentiment. European Nights at Anfield had done it before, and it would certainly be capable of doing it again.
And, for ten minutes at the end, it nearly did.
Of course it was Gerrard again, hitting a curling, dipping, inch-perfect free-kick over the five-man Basel wall and in off the post past goalkeeper Tomás Vaclik. Just as it was supposed to happen. Rodgers' reasoning to leave Gerrard on late in matches surely relies on such moments, and in the biggest one of what's been a disappointing season, the captain delivered, further lionizing himself and making good on his manager's promises of magic.
From there they poured forward in numbers, nearly nicking a winner first on a deflected Jordan Henderson header off a Basel defender, saved at the last second by Vaclik, then through makeshift striker Martin Skrtel, who got on the end of a cross from the tireless Raheem Sterling, and then again from Henderson, whose half-volley from outside the penalty area closed quickly on Vaclik and forced the Czech international to parry away at the last second.
It was riveting stuff, some of the best all season, and very nearly enough to push Liverpool through to the knockout stages. Their body of work in the competition suggests that would have been undeserved, with a last-gasp win on the first night of group play providing their only win prior to Tuesday, but when dealing in magical moments that come along once every ten years, on European Nights and the like, bodies of work mean little.
To say that Rodgers expected his side to rely solely on the Ghost of Gerrard Past would be unfair, though, as it was clear that he set them up in a manner that's become familiar in recent weeks. Don't do anything stupid early, control the game by being patient with and without the ball, and look to score via opposition mistakes or a moment of individual skill. That much was clear even as the Kop urged Liverpool forward early in the match but only witnessed Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson breaking at pace, with few responding to their surging runs forward and the cries to attack.
It's a far cry from the Scorched Earth approach we witnessed during the second half of last season, but one that makes some sense given the defensive frailties to which that setup lent itself. In a matter of months he's lost his prolific strikers in Luis Suarez, the world class talent around whom he built his eleven-man flamethrower, and Daniel Sturridge, who will have been injured for at least four months by the time he makes his return, and realized that the man he expected to fix the defensive issues, Dejan Lovren, has been the biggest liability in that defense.
With no other choice and in the face of mounting criticism, the manager relented, bringing Lucas into the starting eleven and abandoning Steven Gerrard's transformation into a deep-lying playmaker, a move that would extend his career by years--and very nearly end Lucas' at Liverpool--in the process. Out went Lovren and in came Kolo Toure, who served as a further indictment of Lovren's form and Rodgers' reliance on him by looking positively serene comparatively.
Out too went Emre Can, Alberto Moreno, and Adam Lallana, three of the best performers throughout a dismal fall, and minutes were further limited for Lazar Markovic, a player who would have surely looked far more at home in last year's squad than this. Fabio Borini, a bit-part player after fighting for the right to stay despite the club agreeing two separate deals to sell him over the summer(!!!), was pushed out of the squad completely, with Rickie Lambert kept in as the only recognized striker. "It would have been unfair to leave Rickie Lambert, as a 32-year-old, as the only other striker that we had," Rodgers opined without a hint of irony earlier this week, on the heels of leaving Borini out of the squad for the third match running and just ahead of leaving him out for the fourth straight last night.
It's worked in some ways, of course, with Liverpool unbeaten since Toure and Lucas came into the eleven against Ludogorets and fewer goals conceded. The changes have ushered in an approach that is far more patient, far more methodical, and, unfortunately for Liverpool going forward, far more sluggish.
So suggesting that Rodgers entered tonight wholly reliant on his captain and whatever sort of magic he could conjure up is inaccurate, even if that's what almost ended up saving him. Last night he relied on old heads and tired legs, because that fits with his polarized view of how to improve results. Liverpool can't do dangerous anymore so Rodgers set them up to be safe, even though the occasion demanded more, and even though the plan for patience included an eleven that was totally at odds with dominating a match that needed to be won.
The plan was an abject failure for the first 45 minutes, sent into tatters by Fabian Frei's terrific opener and flung out the window by Rodgers at the half. On came pace in the form of Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno, with the former lasting only 15 minutes before earning a red card for an ill-advised swing of the arm toward Behrang Safari. The latter acquitted himself well getting forward and did what was necessary defensively as part of a collective effort down the stretch that almost won it for Liverpool.
But Rodgers can't rely on the almost won it part, because that's not sustainable and doesn't afford the opportunity for any lessons learned. They need to draw on an hour in which they were bettered by the opposition technically and tactically, not a chaotic and emotionally-driven ten minutes that almost saved them. An hour that saw Liverpool swung to the opposite end of the spectrum from last year's side, one that likely would have gleefully traded goals with the likes of Basel and Ludogorets and maybe even a few with Real Madrid, to this year's, one that was set up to avoid failure on a night that demanded they actively secure success.
Maybe it's a good thing that the rest of Liverpool's season won't provide more situations like last night's. Late heroics and wild scrambles to keep hope alive teach us little, and the time that's left will surely give us a better idea of whether or not Rodgers have learned any lessons from what's been an underwhelming three months. Big fixtures against United and Arsenal loom on the immediate horizon, but the League Cup tie at Bournemouth, the Friday night at Burnley, and the home fixtures against the likes of Leicester and West Ham will provide just as much, if not more, in the way of evidence for growth.
Those lessons need to be ones of balance between hair-on-fire aggression and a selection that neuters Liverpool's pace and creativity going forward. Ones that are more inclusive of promising, effective squad members and those who can provide something different when the status quo isn't working.
And, ultimately, ones that see Liverpool far more successful than they've been of late. Their season--and Brendan Rodgers' tenure as manager--will depend on it.