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Liverpool 1 Chelsea 2 - "Three thoughts" by Paul Natton

1. These team selections are not acceptable


So I'm taking back my comments made in the aftermath of the defeat to Madrid last Tuesday: in the light of the eleven selected for this match, that team selection was a disgrace. I said we'd need to see the line up against Chelsea to gauge Rodgers' true motivation in picking that second string team for the Bernabeu and sadly, I was amazed that only Can of those controversial choices retained his place for the match against the champions elect (because let's face it - that's exactly what they are).


If I'm Kolo Toure, after my best game in years coming against the best side in the world and away from home, I'd already be angry about Rodgers' red herring that I could possibly keep my place for Chelsea. However, after watching the drivel served up by Dejan Lovren in this match, I'd be apoplectic.  Similarly, Javier Manquillo, having faced Marcelo, Ronaldo et al and largely faced them down, I'd be bewildered by the lack of a chance to forge a little continuity in this match.


For me, after Tuesday's hearteningly composed and disciplined performance, I'd say the grounds for retaining Toure, Manquillo and Can were compelling, Borini and Lallana very strong and even Lucas ahead of the captain by no means a foregone conclusion in Stevie's favour. That only Emre Can kept his place is a travesty as far as I'm concerned. It sends out all the wrong signals about what is required to get into the team and stay there: play the best game of your Liverpool career against the toughest of opponents and you're out, but continue the nervy, mistake-riven and further-deteriorating rubbish Lovren has been serving up and you're back in the team.


Don't get me wrong - I don't want this to sound like a diatribe aimed at the Croat; many a new player has initially wilted under the heat of Anfield's expectation and this lad won't be the last. Furthermore, I'm not writing him off either: he's a good player who just needs to find his feet at the club like so many others before him. So Brendan must stick with him, right? Wrong. Tuesday's team selection and its follow up was a defining moment and Rodgers has got it horribly wrong. In bringing back the players who've consistently let us down recently and not backing those who stepped up to the challenge, he's effectively said that we accepted defeat in Madrid before kick off and that he doesn't care about form. Well that's just not acceptable for me and this last week has badly damaged Rodgers' standing in my eyes.


A young and highly talented manager who was a massive factor in our brilliant (but ultimately fruitless, let's not forget) season last time round is making the kind of mistakes that, if not addressed will bring his Liverpool career to a premature end.


Yesterday was an utterly miserable experience for me: cold, wet and ill outside Anfield before kick off, coming off the back of terrible performances and/or poor results and then the slap in the face of that team selection followed by the inevitable defeat to an admittedly imperious Chelsea. Not good enough Brendan - not good enough by a long way.


2. Is this the inevitable LFC manager's medium term egotism or something worse?


Almost every manager who spends any time at Liverpool begins to react to the pressure to win the league eventually and, in the relatively recent past, that's seen the likes of Houllier and Benitez make a succession of ever more bewilderingly pig-headed choices that have ultimately led to their downfall. For me, the effect of that pressure on the ego is compounded by our love of deifying managers: if you are wildly lauded by 40,000 Reds every week then it will eventually go to your head and you'll start to think you can make ever-more credulity-defying decisions.


If you're Gerard Houllier or Rafa Benitez, with major trophies under your belt, there's some justification (if not ultimate vindication) for an egotistical approach. Indeed, most of the genuine managerial greats are/were raging self-regardists - including our own. In fact, the only truly humble men I can think of who belong in the conversation about the very best in the game are Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti. All the rest love themselves and think they can do no wrong and, for my money, Brendan is edging towards such self-regard way too prematurely.


One of the most heartening things about his Liverpool tenure prior to this season was his pragmatic approach that seemed highly attuned to the bleedin' obvious that we fans could see in front of us every week. However, this season the list of increasingly strange decisions is mounting: the purchase of Balotelli is foremost here, but I'd add to that the ditching of the diamond, the lack of two up front, the pushing of Sterling away from the focus of the attack, the blind faith in Lovren, the bizarre sidelining of Lallana, his self-confessed number one transfer - the list goes on.


Is this a case of Brendan being far too clever by half and thinking he can defy logic and find clever solutions to simple problems, or is it something far worse? That comment from the other week that he's up at 4am plotting what to do was worrying for me: you're only awake at that time if you can't sleep, on shift work or have a new baby in the house and, despite all his protestations to the contrary with regard to the pressure of the job, Brendan isn't a new dad working in a factory. I am very worried that he has signed a load of players who are either mistakes or ones for the future and he's got no idea how to get them all to gel whilst managing the inevitable expectations of playing for a Liverpool team that came within a whisker of the title last season.


I like Rodgers very much and will regard him with affection and regard for his talent no matter what happens from here on with Liverpool. However, he is reaching a critical point in his career and how he responds will define it, in my view. A simplified, form-first approach to team selection and shape on a game by game basis could see us limp though to the eventual return of our only real goal threat who then might be able to fire us to the financially crucial top four slot by the end of the campaign. However, a persistence with this "too clever by half" decision making we're seeing now has disaster written all over it, for me.


Swallow your pride Brendan by dropping the poor performers, reinstating the diamond and focusing on what made us so good last time around: a high tempo attacking game and bags of aggression. Anything else doesn't bear thinking about.


3. We're just not very good anymore


Refereeing decisions were a major factor in yesterday's result: it was not a corner prior to their first goal, it should have been a throw in to us prior to their second and we were denied a clear penalty when Cahill handled in the box. Furthermore, Taylor allowed Costa, Matic and Ivanovic, in particular, a degree of leeway in their approach to the laws of the game that favoured Mourinho's typically cynical strategising. All three could have left the pitch for accumulated incidents had the referee started the match in the way he finished it by waving the yellow card freely.


That all said, ultimately we were - and are - just not good enough to trouble a Chelsea team who will end up strolling to the title. Where they are all power, aggression and steely eyed-determination, allied to pace, class and clinical finishing we are supine and clueless, unable to keep clean sheets, score goals or even challenge for a second ball, never mind win the thing back. Is there a more heartening sight for opposing teams than the weekly farce of "catch the hot potato" played out by the centre halves and goal keeper when it comes to getting the ball forward? Oh wait, yes there is: it's the sight of a slow, non-goal scorer lumbering around to little effect on his own at the other end.


I could get quite angry about the signing of Mario Balotelli were it not for the fact that I don't think the lad himself is deserving of my vitriol and also that I got carried away in the warm glow of last season and ignored the evidence to the contrary when we signed him, preferring to dwell on the mythical positives a player of his stature would bring. Sadly, reality has well and truly bitten: he's just not very good is he? What exactly does he offer us please, because I cannot think of a single thing about his game that's of benefit to the team?


When Rafa Benitez persisted with Peter Crouch in the face of rampant criticism from without (and from some elements within, actually), many of us could see how the big man's touch, link up play and work rate were still making a contribution even as the goals were missing. The same cannot be said of Balotelli and the worrying thing is that I can't see how he'll burst into a purple patch of goals that mitigates against the rest when he's not even taking shots or getting within range of doing so. 


This isn't all about the keeper, dodgy new centre half and troubled Italian though: throughout the squad there's barely a player worthy of a place based on current form, and the constant changes of shape and personnel are compounding what was always going to be a difficult season, post-Luis. For me, this campaign now hangs entirely on the ability - and he does have ability; plenty of it, in my view - of the manager to turn it around. I'm desperate for him to do so but I have to confess that as things stand right now, I'm finding it very hard to predict. I can't even hang a few ridiculously optimistic hopes on the January transfer window because we all know that the one cold, hard fact of the post-title decades remains true as ever at Liverpool: we're useless in the transfer market - and that's without considering the fact that these owners will only splash out on one of either fee or wages thereby denying us the genuine top quality players we so obviously lack.


Maybe this is all just an overly emotional hangover from losing the best player we've ever had, but I don't think so. The eye test never lies - and we're abject even before you glance at the league table and fixture list. I just hope Rodgers can turn it around because if he can't, I think we'll be back to that depressing old square one yet again next summer, sadly. 


Paul Natton

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