If you were to organise some sort of Celebrity Death Match-style talk-off between Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers there is a high likelihood that the contest would be even more interminable than a Capital One Cup penalty shoot out. These gents like to converse on the topic of football. They like it very much. In fact, because both men are in possession of a very affable manner and can combine a winning eloquence with their natural garrulousness, neither of them is ever short of a well-reasoned argument to support their own particular agenda.
Rodgers v Martinez: The Speakening, for that is the name of this theoretical contest in your scribbler's addled mind, would be quite the event, with any compere likely to be spectacularly underemployed and struggling to get a word in edgeways. With the Merseyside derby approaching fast, the two talkative titans of the Premier League were always going to be asked to hold court and neither man disappointed, expounding on a variety of topics, a couple of which bear scrutiny here. It is interesting to note how, despite the disparate subjects, the two managers seem almost interchangeable -- both keen to give a cautious, balanced take on things whilst retaining a fierce pride and protectiveness when it comes to their club and players.
The loss of Luis Suárez has been banned as a reference point by some emotionally fragile types, who wish to place their index fingers in their ears and lalalalalalalalala their way to a safe point in the conversation. Brendan Rodgers, however, is not one to avoid a subject and he, more than any fan, would have a right to be thoroughly sick of discussing the outlandishly talented centre-half nibbler. This season, the Antrim man finds himself responsible for another controversy magnet in the form of hair terrorist Mario Balotelli. The recent signing is obviously going to draw comparisons with his predecessor but Rodgers adroitly deflects such talk, managing to simultaneously remove pressure from the young Italian, remind him of how little he has achieved at Liverpool and take a chunk of the credit for Suarez's evolution into a world class talent. This guy is good; really, really good.
"I think Mario is potentially world class," was his carefully measured reaction. "You can't compare Suarez and him, but Mario is coming in as an international striker and he's a talent, no doubt. Suarez elevated himself at this club, that was clear. He wasn't world class when he came in but when he left to go to Barcelona he had put himself in that bracket. He did that because of his consistency in scoring goals and keeping his performance level high. World class is about being at the highest level consistently, being at that level in your game consistently. That's what takes you there.
"There is no comparison between the two as players," he continued. "Luis was brilliant for me in his time here and developed to become a player who consistently delivered in terms of scoring and creating. Mario is different. He's got a lot of experience for 24, he has come here as an established international, so for him it is about being quality consistently. That is what can elevate him to that level."
Everton's young coach was not without tricky queries to deal with himself. His club's recent record at Anfield is wretched and almost gives the lie to the notion that the matches are closely fought derbies. Liverpool are unbeaten against their neighbours in a decade and a half of clashes in front of the Kop. The Spaniard, an aggressively receding hairline lending his youthful features the gravitas commanded an older man, calmly acknowledged his club's abysmal Anfield points return but typically refused to be cowed. He emphasised the mental side of the game and the preparedness of his charges. They are, the amiable boss insists, "ready."
"I think the psychology is a very important point because if you look at the stats, 15 years without a win at Anfield, then it needs to be a bit more than football," Martinez opined, not unreasonably. "It can’t always be a football reason why you haven’t won a game over that period. So I’ll accept that. We are ready to go anywhere. I’m not highlighting Anfield as a place we don’t look forward to. I think the mentality of the group is to go anywhere and focus on our performance. Will it be a difficult game? Of course. They are in a position where they need to perform well at home and get points, but I don’t see that psychologically we are not ready to go to Anfield and be ourselves, that is the answer to the question."
Much of how this game pans out will depend on whether Rodgers can manage to field a side which gels. Against Tottenham Hotspur, when injuries were not such an issue, all seemed rosy in the Redmen's garden. Alas, a combination of too many new faces and a cruel slew of enforced absences amongst key personnel have meant that the matches since then have seen an unusually faltering Liverpool, divested of the unity of purpose that had characterised last season's title charge. The last words then, go to Rodgers, as he articulates the significance of the upcoming match in the context of the upheaval in the squad.
"When you introduce a raft of new players and lose the core of players, that’s obviously a factor and then it becomes a little bit broken," the Liverpool gaffer insisted. "That’s how our game has looked for me for a big part of the season. Where I am fortunate is that I have a group of players here that identify with that. We are all in this together and we need to get back to re-focus on what has allowed us to win games consistently over the last 18 months to two years. That has been about the way we play and imposing our style and strength on our opponents. Derby games give you a chance to be a hero and the players here are well aware of that. It’s a massive game to the supporters, a very special game. But it’s also for me about getting back to performing well. It’s important we get a victory and that will give us confidence."
As kick-off approaches, there will be precious little acknowledgement of the reality of just how complex the issues facing Rodgers are. Many fans, perhaps understandably, are impatient for success and have no truck with talk of bedding-in and evolution. Over the course of those fifteen years, in which Everton have failed to register a win at Anfield, Liverpool fans have known sporadic highs and long periods of crushing frustration. One can relate to the impatience amongst supporters for an extended period of the kind of sustained excellence that last season hinted at. At Anfield on Saturday, we cannot know how the game will play out. Afterwards, however, we can at least be certain that neither manager will be stuck for words.