My brother and I played football incessantly as youngsters. For two inherently studious types, we had a tremendously cavalier attitude to our academic ambitions whenever the opportunity emerged to practice volleys for half an hour in the rain. We were the sort of country lads who, in the absence of a farm to, well, farm, determined that being outside in our garden, honing our skills for the ineluctable day we turned professional, was the only sensible course of action. Even deep philosophical debates on the notions of time-travel and nuclear war were often derailed by the trammels of simultaneously playing left-foot-only one-a-side games.
Inevitably, competition slithered insidiously into these idyllic intervals and, as the older brother, your scribbler always held a nebulous psychological advantage, winning every encounter, without exception. Until the day I didn’t. Looking on prostrate, as my younger sibling rolled in a finish for a 10-9 victory, the feeling that descended upon us both was so overwhelmingly odd that my brother didn’t even celebrate and yet it was a seminal moment. Long held assumptions were shattered, a status quo radically altered. The previously impenetrable wall of invincibility was breached and vulnerable and, much to my chagrin, remains so -- he beat me at table football on Christmas Day.
As Liverpool fans everywhere woke this morning to a delightfully unfamiliar feeling of calm contentment, they will also have had the pleasant glow of an indeterminate sentiment warming the desolate husks of their world weary souls. That almost forgotten emotion is hope -- hope for a season that appeared to have all but died amidst a morass of recrimination, finger pointing and unmet expectations. Now don't misunderstand me gentle reader. There will be no impetuous talk of corner turning in the addlepated ramblings of this column, but it would be nothing short of wanton miserabilism to ignore the élan and brio on display at Anfield last night, as Brendan Rodgers' charges battered the league leaders everywhere but on the scoreline.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1-1 draw, as this Irishman watched The High Priest of Self Regard, José Mourinho, spout guff from behind his snood about how his side had "controlled" the game, a thought was gnawing at my pitiful facsimile of a brain. Was this classic misdirection from the pompous Portuguese actually a sign that Brendan Rodgers was finally drawing psychologically level? Having been almost defined by the relentless references to his 'apprenticeship' under Mourinho, had the Carnlough native finally rolled the ball into an empty net? Can he now, finally, beat him when it matters? I must add at this point that my own accidental alignment with the Chelsea manager in this analogy has made me a tad bilious.
Never one to miss an opportunity to expound on the game and his part in it, Rodgers was on splendidly effusive form in the wake of the semi-final first leg draw. He was rightly proud of how "magnificently" his team had defended and who could begrudge the Liverpool boss a chance to revel in the newfound solidity that Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho have lent to the rearguard either side of a similarly improved Martin Skrtel? By accident or design, or most likely a serendipitous combination of both, his selection and formation has even started to make the previously ragged Simon Mignolet look quite solid.
Rodgers, a clever and informed man, will not have been unaware of the howls of derision emanating from all corners of the social and mainstream media whenever the topic of Liverpool's defence has been raised. He has been pilloried by rent-a-gob ex-players, rabid keyboard warriors and reasonable fans alike for his selections and tactics this season and unceremoniously informed that he is so bereft of knowledge that he must employ a defensive coach to address his shortcomings. It must have been quite the culture shock for a man who had grown accustomed to the plaudits. In his quiet moments he will no doubt lament the wretched form of the likes of Dejan Lovren and Glen Johnson but he will also, surely, understand that his decisions have been the key factor in his side's travails.
Many of you will, like myself, have a certain filter in place when Rodgers takes to the microphone this season. His innate tendency towards positivity has meant that quite often the manager appears to be commenting on a game I did not see. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to hear his thoughts on coaching and where he fits into the spectrum he has in his own mind. Although nowhere near the infamously egotistical protestations of last night's opponent during his unveiling as Chelsea boss in 2004, the Liverpool gaffer's words, and bottle-based metaphors, had this listener recalling that "special" press conference.
"There are different types of coaches. I watch a lot of the games and I hear the analysts talking about teams who are outstanding defensively, and who have defensive coaches. I am from a different bottle than that - I want to be creative and offensive, but always with tactical discipline in the game. I felt for two years we really worked towards that. In the first period of this season, we had been nowhere near that, firstly in terms of our pressure and intensity in our pressing, and then the creation of chances - it was non-existent, really. We got off to a really slow start, but we've been able to work well, analyse the team and the group of players we have in order to get the best out of what we've got. Which meant changing the system - the system can be whatever it needs to be.
"What is important for how I work is the style and the model of the game. Now you start to see that returning in the team, and that's the most important thing. The system can be 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3, whatever, but what is important for us and how we work is the level and the style of our football. That has shown that it can win games - and win a lot of games. We're starting to see that now, hence the reason results have picked up. We were able to lock them in to tight spaces and even though they have got players that are really gifted technically, that pressure and suffocation around the ball can be very hard to play against. Jose will be disappointed with [his side's] passing, but for me it was a great indicator of how well we pressed the game."
Be honest, at the very least you were shaking your head with a wry smile as you read those words about bottles and how, unlike other coaches, Brendan wants to be "creative and offensive" -- because nobody has ever considered that unique combo before. The thing is, I never doubt the manager's earnestness. Ever. I think he's a good coach, with the requisite amount of ego that it takes to survive as a top-flight boss. His judgement has been sorely awry for much of this campaign, but quite frankly, I'll happily write about his dodgy analogies all season if he can continue to coax performances like last night's out of men like the aforementioned Can and Sakho, as well as Alberto Moreno, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic, young and exciting talents he has introduced to the team.
By the way, I still practice the left foot volleys. You just never know. Us country lads are from a different bottle.