Losing to Chelsea over two legs in the League Cup semi-final hurt. And it wasn’t so much that a cup final was on the line, or that the opposition was Chelsea and Jose Mourinho, or even really about Liverpool deserving more. It hurt because for nearly two whole matches, Liverpool were the better side. They held more possession, created more chances, took more shots, and harried their opponents into mistakes.
Liverpool, the side that had struggled to do just about anything right over the first four months of the season, a side that at times appeared frustratingly incompetent by design, were better than the league leaders, one of the richest, most talent-stocked teams in the world. Or at least they were for nearly two matches. Towards the end of the second, though, the legs began to tie. The old cracks began to appear. And it all went wrong.
All the work, all the promise and passing and pressure and chances that had come before. All the thoughts of this Liverpool side being a striker away from being able to go on a run to match last season’s title challenge—though with the target shifted down a touch from title to top four this time around. Over the final minutes of regulation time at Stamford Bride and into extra time, all of that was suddenly yanked away.
What was left in its place was the frustrating Liverpool side that had struggled through September and October and November. What was left was static attackers and defensive gaps and a non-functional midfield. What was left was a pair of strikers who, while willing, aren’t mobile enough to play the way Brendan Rodgers wants his sides to play. What was left was an untouchable aging captain doing more harm than good to the side.
Liverpool had been the better side over nearly the entire two legs of the cup tie, at times looking downright dominant and never looking less than competitive. And then that Liverpool was gone, replaced by something that hadn’t been seen in more than six weeks and that the fans had desperately hoped would never have to be seen again. It was that regression more than the loss itself that hurt and leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Brendan Rodgers deserves a great deal of credit for the work he’s done finding a way forward for this collection of players, and for better managing Steven Gerrard’s minutes over December and January, even if that may have contributed to the captain’s decision to leave for MLS and a guaranteed starting role. Yet with pressure building late against Chelsea on the road, he reverted to hoping what hadn’t worked before would work now.
Gerrard put in a hard shift on Tuesday evening, running and pressing Chelsea in a more advanced role. By the hour mark, though, it was clear the captain’s legs had begun to go. By the 80th minute, there was nothing left. Yet instead of removing the captain and bringing on the creative and energetic Adam Lallana, Rodgers moved Gerrard into the holding role. It led to failure, just as it consistently had throughout the autumn.
The narrative may have demanded a late Gerrard wonder-strike, but the captain appeared exhausted. He was immobile and never looked likely to get anywhere near close enough to the goal to nab a winner, and of any goalkeeper in football, few are likely to be less bothered by the odd pop from distance than Thibaut Courtois. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s midfield, which had held the edge over Chelsea until then, was undone.
The possession and build-up play was gone. The organised defensive screening was gone. To make matters worse, Rodgers compounded the problems in his side’s foundation by throwing a pair of slow and horribly out of form strikers on as he searched for a late goal. More strikers mean more goals may be a popular theme for the Sky generation, but more strikers without anyone to get them the ball only tends to end badly.
Gerrard came deep and Henderson moved to play right wingback when Lazar Markovic was taken off. Rickie Lambert drifted about to little effect in something of an attacking midfield role, perhaps meant to fill the role Gerrard had previously filled. Mario Balotelli was brought on for Alberto Moreno and appeared to, if not be a wingback, to at least be playing as a winger. Raheem Sterling stayed up top. And it was a disaster.
Rodgers had brought on two strikers in search of a goal, but there was no longer a functional midfield to press and recover, to retain and recycle, to provide a foundation and build attacks. There were no longer players on the pitch capable of supporting from wide or firing in crosses for the two big strikers that had been brought on. And as an added bonus, the defence was left far more exposed to Chelsea counter-attacks.
Rodgers deserves a great deal of credit for getting this Liverpool side to the point where they could be the better side for nearly all of two legs against league leaders Chelsea. Sadly, he also deserves the blame for doing just about everything wrong at the end of it, for making a series of changes that abdicated midfield, left the defence exposed, and despite adding two strikers to the mix never actually seemed likely to lead to a goal.
That’s what hurts. Not the loss to Chelsea and Jose Mourinho and coming up just short of a cup final. Rather the return of everything that was so, so wrong about this Liverpool side—and Brendan Rodgers’ managing of it—in October. Having thought this squad and manager had put all of that behind them, it’s the regression that hurts.