Arsenal (6) v. Liverpool (7), January 30, 2013 (Match Highlights)
As a Liverpool fan, it’s an odd thing to be more enraged by an away draw to Arsenal than an away loss to Manchester United. Indeed, this week’s 2-2 at The Emirates inspired a level of frustration not felt since the days of Rafa Benitez’s circumstance-ignoring, clockwork substitutions.
Of course, trying to lure Liverpool fans to a blog by berating their manager makes as much tactical sense as giving Suarez defensive duties vs. Arsenal, so I’d like to preface this critique by stating that I was a fan of Benitez and am a very big fan of Rodgers. But to deny their managerial weaknesses would be self-delusion—a popular dimension of LFC fandom that I don’t [always] subscribe to.
Before I incite too much rage, let’s dive into the strengths of Brendan Rodgers. For instance:
His background in player development shines through the club. In his short tenure, we have seen him transition a handful of teenagers from the academy to the first team. He is instilling them with confidence and giving them the support they need—a tricky game, when you’re also trying to make them grasp the insane challenge of Premier League football.
In redeeming players he recently hoped to offload, Rodgers also shows a distinct lack of ego. He has repurposed discarded assets such as Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing. Every time they play, he is admitting he was wrong, while simultaneously showcasing his coaching ability.
However, where Rodgers has plenty of experience in molding players, he has very little (read: none) in leading them to trophies. Like Raheem Sterling, his potential, rather than his achievements, have earned him his position at the club.
As such, we often see him out-maneuvered by opposition managers. His naivety at this level is most obvious in games against “big” teams, in which he can’t rely in a squad talent gap to overcome the tactical nous of his opposite number. Pundits have enjoyed spotlighting this fact every week, noting before kickoff, at half, and post-match that Liverpool have yet to beat any team above them in the league*.
This week’s encounter with Arsenal was a prime example. After being soundly beaten by the Gunners earlier in the year, Rodgers could be forgiven for fielding a cautious team and playing on the counter in this match. For a few moments, I actually found it refreshing, considering that Wenger had already outfoxed his predictable possession-based 4-3-3.
While his initial caution could be forgiven, Rodgers’ failure to see the opportunity in front of him should not be. A mere five minutes into the match, Arsenal’s hilarious chain of slapstick defending gifted Liverpool their first goal, and should have given Rodgers the message: Arsenal were there for the taking. Note: This is even before the forced introduction of André Santos, a player that even Championship side Brighton could spot as a chink in the armor.
With Santos on and Szczeney looking very Almunia-esque, Liverpool should have adjusted to exploit the weakness. By moving Suarez to CF and swapping Henderson to an inside left position, Liverpool could have moved play into the opposition half without making a substitution. Instead, the Reds continued to sit deep. Luis Suarez, a player built to exploit fragile defenses, burned energy on defensive duties of his own. Daniel Sturridge stood completely isolated in Arsenal’s half as his teammates gave Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla the run of the park. Young center-back turned fullback Andre Wisdom was ravaged time and again by Lucas Podolski.
Early in the second half, Liverpool were gifted a second goal against the run of play. Again, the slightest bit of pressure (Jordan Henderson vs. the entire Arsenal backline) on their defense yielded results. At this point, a 2-0 scoreline might seem to vindicate Rodgers’ tactics, but in truth the gap could have been much wider.
When Arsenal rallied to score twice within minutes, Rodgers seemed more intent on keeping one point than regaining the lead. His introduction of Jose Enrique could have been the answer, except that Sturridge was withdrawn for him, instead of obvious choice Andre Wisdom. Moving Johnson to RB and placing Suarez or Sterling in front of him would have demolished Andre Santos, but as Liverpool moved an exhausted Suarez to Sturridge’s lone forward position, Santos was given a reprieve. He was even comfortable enough to join the Arsenal attack, a position in which he sometimes resembles a professional footballer.
In the end, Liverpool finished desperately grasping their single point. After the match, Rodgers did his best to frame it as a success, but even in his press conference, mistakes were evident. He admitted that Suarez had “Run out of steam a little bit,” begging us to question his choice to withdraw Sturridge and rely on the tired Uruguayan as a lone forward.
“We showed great resilience and actually could have won it,” Rodgers said. Ignoring the surprise implied by the word “actually,” it would have been more honest to say should have won it. He had been successfully bluffed by a paper tiger.
While Rodgers has earned a great deal of patience from Liverpool fans, he must understand that no matter the opposition, they will never see a draw as a positive result. And while his team grows in confidence and ability, he must grow with them. Acknowledging and learning from his mistakes will be a large part of that.
Though he is doubtless the man to take Liverpool slowly forward, Rodgers could do himself a massive favor by noticing a shortcut when it’s there. With 4th place Tottenham drawing away to Norwich, a win at Arsenal would’ve put Liverpool within spitting distance of Champion’s League football. And even if he is not expected to achieve that holy grail of qualifications, he should be jumping at any chance to surpass expectations. In short: Who Dares, Wins.
*(In fact, West Ham were in 10th place when 12th place Liverpool beat them to leapfrog above in December)