Liverpool: the Oldham debacle all too predictable
We should have known in advance how the weekend would pan out. From the moment Millwall defeated a dispirited Aston Villa 2-1 on Friday night, there was something in the air - something intangible yet impossible ignore - and the shocks in the FA Cup fourth round seemed to take on a life of their own. Luton Town’s 1-0 victory against Norwich City was the most surprising result on Saturday, Oldham’s 3-2 victory at home to Liverpool the most surprising on Sunday. There were also victories for Leeds United against Tottenham Hotspur and Milton Keynes Dons against Queens Park Rangers.
The weak seemed to be taking it in turns to embarrass the strong. By Sunday night, the weak were the strong and the strong were the weak. Giantkilling? This was a cull. Fairtytale? No, just what happens when people with the right attitudes play against people with the wrong attitudes.
For Liverpool, the defeat to Oldham evoked images of the worst days under Graeme Souness in the early Nineties, when there were FA Cup defeats to Bolton Wanderers (1993) and Bristol City (1994) and a League Cup defeat to Peterborough United (1991). Brendan Rodgers seems a more stable influence than Souness, who was neither rational enough nor healthy enough to continue Liverpool’s 28-year run of success. The problem for Rodgers is that, unlike Souness, he does not have a Robbie Fowler or a Steve McManaman to provide hope. Liverpool’s best two players now are Steven Gerrard, who is entering the final phase of his career, and Luis Suarez, who is the subject of interest among the likes of Barcelona and Manchester City.
Rodgers’ record in the transfer market so far has not been great. Fabio Borini does not seem to inspire joy among the Liverpool supporters, although, at aged 21, time is on his side. Joe Allen has not made the great strides that one might have expected, but, again, he is young and he could flourish with better men alongside him. The problem for now is that Liverpool seem in permanent transition, and all of the problems that have dogged the team under Rodgers this season seemed to manifest themselves in the defeat to Oldham.
Afterwards, Rodgers gave a press conference that seemed too familiar. (His quotes are in italics).
"I was bitterly disappointed with the young players as they had a chance to compete for a club that has to challenge for trophies.”
I was bitterly disappointed with the young players, too. The likes of Borini, Robinson, and Wisdom were poor. But I thought the more experienced players scarcely covered themselves in glory. Coates and Skrtel, two players who have done well at the highest level (Coates in the Copa America; Skrtel in the World Cup), both endured a terrible afternoon. Only Steven Gerrard seemed to have the right attitude, but he is merely one man. Oldham fielded 11 men, all of whom were more inspired, more stable, more enthusiastic, and more willing to put themselves on the line in the pursuit of victory. The surprise by the end was not that Oldham won; it was that they only scored three. Oldham were superb and deserved their victory. We knew in advance that Oldham would be physical and we knew in advance that the pitch would be heavy. So why did Rodgers pick a team that included Robinson, Allen, and Henderson but left out Gerrard, Carragher and Lucas?
"We lost our concentration and only had spells in the last 35 minutes when we were at the right level."
That seems to be the story of the season so far for Liverpool; too inconsistent, not just from match to match, but within each match, too. There seems to be inherent problems with concentration. A worrying pattern is developing for Liverpool. While there are the occasional signs of progress, this is clearly the least impressive Liverpool team since the dying days of the Graeme Souness era in 1994, but perhaps even the worst Liverpool team since the Second Division era in the early Sixties. Too many players are nowhere near the appropriate standard: Borini and Robinson are the most obvious candidates. Even players who have improved under Rodgers, Henderson and Downing, are not players around which you can build a strong team. Too few class players, too little shape, too inconsistent, too often the wrong attitude.
"The intensity of our game was nowhere near where it should be at the beginning. We gave the ball away too easily and were not strong enough physically.”
A lack of intensity at the beginning seems to be a Liverpool problem this season. On many occasions, Liverpool have begun badly and have put themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to play catch-up. Liverpool were not strong enough physically because Brendan Rodgers got it wrong tactically. Some of their most physical players – Gerrard, Carragher, Lucas, and Shelvey – found themselves on the substitutes’ bench. If you play the likes of Allen, Borini, and Sterling on from the start, you are going to struggle against physical teams.
"The FA Cup was a competition we wanted to have a go at and there is no excuse. We put out a strong team capable of winning the game but we didn't [win]. You have to take it on the chin, but there has been plenty of warnings throughout the weekend; if your application is not right you can get found out. Its not complacency. I've got good lads here. It's about strength in depth. We have not got enough depth here. We are trying to build a squad to compete."
Application comes from the top. When Rodgers employed Suarez as captain, the Liverpool manager seemed to be making a symbolic decision and, as it turned out, the wrong one. Liverpool did not have an obvious leader until Gerrard emerged as a second-half substitute. Skrtel would have been a better option. Late on, when Robinson sliced the ball wide from a good position, Suarez expressed disappointment that the left back did not square the ball. Robinson’s response was to swear at Suarez. No incident better summed up a depressing day for Liverpool. No incident better summed up the evocations of the Graeme Souness era.
It all reminds me of a conversation I had with John King a few years ago. He was the captain of Altrincham when they played Liverpool at Anfield in the FA Cup third round in January 1981. Liverpool won 4-1 and King was impressed. He said that Liverpool showed their class, not by winning the game, but by showing Altrincham respect. Liverpool put out their strongest line-up and took the match as seriously as they did every other during a season in which they finished up as European champions.
Few other Football League clubs, King told me, had treated Altrincham as equals. Bob Paisley's Liverpool set themselves apart. The Paisley teams were sophisticated in ability and in attitude. The Liverpool of 2013 have a lot to learn.