Never the most naturally gifted student of numbers, I struggled to keep my head above water in the crashing rapids of higher level maths class. A quietly stubborn individual, however, your scribbler clung to the edge of the dinghy until the death or, y'know, Deliverance. It wasn't that the concepts themselves were particularly esoteric, although the theory of imaginary numbers is still a source of befuddled amusement to this day. No, it was more that this student was incapable of applying the methodologies when the problem became complex. In such scenarios one requires an inherent ease with the bigger picture, an ability to improvise based on a robust grasp of the larger network of ideas that connect to form maths.
For comparative dullards such as myself, the temptation was always to see the few brilliant students as some sort of savants, who were constantly surrounded by a cloudy aura of floating symbols and equations, from which they could blithely cherry-pick the appropriate solution. Of course, this was mostly a defence mechanism against the deeply understood reality that these guys simply worked harder and wanted it more. Sure, they were talented, but their industry was what marked them out as the best.
It's hard not to make similar observations about the coterie of gents currently managing England's top clubs. Clearly, all are talented coaches with a penchant for tactics and systems and an ability to command the respect of their charges. However, even within such rareified company, one finds a clear hierarchy. Likely to lead his side to the title at a canter, one cannot argue with the notion of José Mourinho as the most preeminent of England's football mathematicians -- the Professor Gerald Lambeau of the Premier League, all preening self-confidence and scarves worn with a rakish insouciance. Mourinho, will enjoy the lustrous glow of another bright trinket at the end of this campaign, just as Good Will Hunting's MIT professor treasured his Fields Medal.
Many of us had hoped, based on the impressive evidence of last campaign, that in Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool had their own brilliant young problem solver. His ability to improvise and adapt saw him guide his side to a very close second place in only his second season in the Anfield dugout. However, the Matt Damon-esque Hollywood sheen has dulled considerably in the eyes of many as this campaign has proven to be very inconsistent and problematic.
At times, Rodgers has looked like a man who could not find the formula and in recent weeks, despite a massively impressive run based to a large extent on the manager's work, that impression has taken hold. The knives are out and the tenuous grasp the Antrim man had on majority fan approval has slackened, but the manager himself prefers to focus on numbers and the facts as he sees them.
"We are still trying to find solutions at the top end of the field," Rodgers helpfully told the Echo, knowing that this piece would rely on his use of such terminology. "When everyone is fit and available we are able to compete with this squad, but our top goalscorer is on six goals. Three players on six goals. That’s the reality of where we are at, and we have to find solutions for that. It’s about finding what suits the players. We have obviously got a number of players out now and when we changed the system it suited them. We are always looking to find a way."
"If you look at the game the other day, we created important opportunities at the beginning of the game, but you have to take them," he continued. "As a whole, I think in terms of the efforts on our opponent’s goal, we need to increase that level. Our possession just hasn’t been good enough, that has been the key to it. We have to build the game quickly, but the ball has been so slow. It wasn’t just these two games, it was the Swansea game in the first half as well. The speed of our game hasn’t quite been there, the speed of our passing.
"When we play the game quickly, that allows us to get into position. And the key for us is that when you’re in position you can press better as well because if the ball breaks down you’re there. Against United we were only in half positions, we were trying to build the game, get into position but we gave the ball away and there was too much space. In the Arsenal game we didn’t start well, got back into it but then defended poorly. I don’t think it was anything to do with the system, whatever system we were playing, we just didn’t pass the ball quick enough.
In the opinion of this scribbler, these are very heartening words from Rodgers. He is open and honest about where the failings have been. Many fans have previously wondered if the manager could see the issues that they saw. It appears as though he can. Aside from a little strategic shifting of the focus onto the players and a few typical Brendanisms like his observation that his players were in 'half positions,' it his hard to quibble with his hypothesis.
We may have valid issues with the coach's methodologies for addressing these problems but at least we know that he is trying to balance the same equation as us -- more goals + more of the ball + a higher tempo = victories + happy Liverpool fans. When he has got it right, Brendan Rodgers has got it very right, imbuing his team with some bewitching alchemy, a perfect balance of aggression, tempo and cutting edge. Alas, there have been too many occasions on which the balance has been missing. The result has been that even the almost belligerently positive Liverpool boss has had to admit that his side are unlikely to make the hoped-for Champions League finish.
"I think after the game (against Arsenal), I gave an answer which was logical; it's mathematics in terms of the difficulty we would have - but it's certainly not a mindset or an attitude," he insisted. "The attitude of the team is to go right until the very end, as we've done in every single game we play in. It was purely mathematics -- it's going to be difficult for us if the teams above us don't drop the points. We would have to win our seven games, but it's certainly something we're going to go into in order to do that. We want to go and win every single game we play in."
Purely mathematics, eh? Oh dear. This may not go well for some of us. There's every chance this season will end with less solutions than it started. The question then will be how to find one's own emotional balance in the event of that less-than-palatable reality. There is a quiet insistent voice in the back of this writer's battered brain pan that urges calm and faith in what Brendan Rodgers is doing. If you are not quite so convinced, allow me to play the bearded and be-cardiganed shrink to your troubled soul and let's hug it out. Remember, your distress is okay and it's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault.