It was coming. Liverpool going out of the Champions League, that is. Thank heavens for the brutal honesty of Steven Gerrard. When asked if Liverpool deserved to qualify from their group his answer was as straightforward as the player himself. “No” he replied. How I wish more footballers were so candid.
Liverpool were simply not good enough to progress in the Champions League. Time was a team playing in red at Anfield would have swept aside visitors from Switzerland. But not now. The goalposts have moved and the current Liverpool squad have great difficulty in spotting where to.
Basle deserved their draw at Anfield last night. I would argue that they actually deserved to win. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said that a draw was “the least we deserved for our effort in the second half.”
Liverpool didn’t beginning play until the 70th minute. They weren’t denied victory because their impact substitute Lazar Markovic saw red. It was a ludicrous decision, but I don’t believe his sending off made a difference to the outcome of the game. Indeed, as Robbie Fowler said post match, Liverpool only began playing when they went down to ten men.
Someone needs to tell Brendan Rodgers to judge his players on what they do over 90 minutes. His lads giving effort over 20 or 30 minutes is not good enough. Basle are not the classiest of football teams. But they were not intimidated. They did not come to Anfield and play for the draw they required to qualify. They played their way out of defence with largely accurate passing and had they possessed more of a killer instinct in front of goal, Liverpool would have been on the receiving end of quite a heavy defeat. Basle cut through the Liverpool defence like a scimitar through butter.
I’m not a Liverpool supporter, but I am old fashioned. Not burdened by club rivalry at the Premier League level, I simply want to see British clubs progress on the big stage. But not for a moment did I expect this Liverpool side to emulate the one of 2015 and go all the way to the final. The club has signed too many average players for that to happen.
I tipped the draw at odds of 3/1 to members of VG Tips. I knew Basle were a decent side going forward. In past seasons they had beaten Manchester United and Chelsea. Earlier in the campaign they beat Liverpool at home and, although they don’t tend to travel well, I expected the Swiss side to get something on the night.
What I did not expect from Liverpool was the following.
For them to not seriously test the Basle goalkeeper until the dying stages of the game.
For Raheem Sterling to be so comprehensively hustled and so easily barged off the ball. He was blown over easier than a sapling in a hurricane. The boy is young, so I would not pick on him. Suffice to say he has plenty to learn at that level and, a bit like me, he needs to get down the gym and beef up.
I’m all for a goalkeeper rolling out the ball to defenders and trying to play the game from the back and on the floor. I much prefer to see sides doing that rather than the ‘keeper just hoofing the ball long. But you have to have a goalkeeper and defenders capable of doing that. Liverpool goalie Simon Mignolet did not look confident when rolling the ball out to his defenders. They in turn looked petrified to be receiving it. Incredibly, when needing to attack late on in the hope of getting a winner, the goalkeeper was still rolling the ball to the feet of his defenders. That was a time to hit a long ball upfield.
And another thing. The atmosphere at Anfield. I was glad Basle fans attended in such large numbers and were in such good voice. But for them the game would have been played in an atmosphere as quiet as a morgue.
Why did the Liverpool players not put their visitors under the cosh early on? They were at home. They knew only a win was good enough. As David Pleat said post match: “Why aren’t players more proactive rather than reactive? Players have to be more positive early in the game. I believe you try and get in front. I think it’s important to play the first 20 minutes at a tempo. Go and get the first goal and put the other team on the back foot.”
I feared for Liverpool the moment they didn’t do that. And I knew that the sound of silence emanating from the Liverpool fans would grow ever more deafening. For so many years the noise Liverpool fans made was their 12th man. Last night, for 80 minutes, the only vocal encouragement came from the travelling Basle supporters. And it wasn’t only on the terraces that Liverpool were second best.
From what I can see Brendan Rodgers has signed some mediocre footballers for anything but mediocre sums of money. There were several players last night who are not fit to wear the Liverpool shirt. I wouldn’t trust Brendan Rodgers to spend a quid of mine in Poundland. But he is not the only man to blame. He was not alone in deciding which players the club should sign. It took six men to make some truly terrible decisions. A committee no less. Any of you who have worked in a large company will know what committees do. They cock things up.
Time to name and shame the five men who joined Rodgers around the table. Ian Ayre (Chief Executive), Mike Gordon (director), Dave Fallows (head of recruitment), Barry Hunter (chief scout) and Michael Edwards ( head of performance and analysis).
Six men decided that Simon Mignolet was a goalkeeper worthy of being the last line of defence. It took six men to build a midfield that is second to every ball and lightweight in the challenge. And it took six men to sign defenders who are an insult to the memory of Tommy Smith and Alan Hansen. It says everything about the state of the Liverpool back line that Glen Johnson is not the worst defender in the Liverpool team.
For so long Steven Gerrard fuelled the engine. Now he’s running on empty. He’s played in other below par Liverpool teams, but he was younger then. He literally won games for Liverpool that would otherwise have been lost.
Gerrard scored a great free kick last night, but his precise passing and potent pace are now but a distant memory. It’s like watching your dog grow old. He or she is unable to chase after a ball as was the case when a puppy. You don’t want to take your dog to the vets and have him or her put down. You want him to die in his sleep.
If I could say one thing to Steven Gerrard – one of the consistently best players to perform in the Premier League – it would be to plead with him to retire at the end of this season. Your body is telling you the best days are behind you. He will know his days are numbered. It’s just that hanging up your boots can be the hardest decision for any footballer to make.
A fit of body and mind Mario Balotelli might have made a difference to Liverpool’s fortunes against Basle. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Gerrard said post match that they must get Balotelli fit. I’d get shot of him in January. That’s if they can find a taker. Cut your losses on a signing that I said at the time was an expensive folly. Will Balotelli want to play in the Europa League? No. I expect he has his agent looking for another club right now.
David Pleat said last night: “Some managers try and prove a point that they can manage certain players other people can’t cope with. I cannot see Balotelli returning to anything like the form that’s going to be required to justify the move they made for him. When he signed Joe Allen he (Rodgers) suggested a new vision at Liverpool, as though they were going to do something different. I thought that was a strange thing to say. There was a kind of a suggestion that he would reinvent the game. When he talked about starting a new way of playing I thought back to Dalglish, Rush, Souness and Hansen – they were as fine as any team that we could ever play against.”
Pleat went on: “When you’re doing well you mustn’t get over confident or arrogant. You have to plan for the next season and build on success. They haven’t done that. They’ve gone out and spent quickly and sometimes you don’t do your homework well. The temptation when you have all that money available is to make too many signings, and it’s just not possible for all those signings to click. It’s better to buy quality rather than quantity.”
Pleat summed up the mistakes made behind the scenes at Anfield: “If you recruit five players and three of those players turn out to be relative failures, that is the black mark that gets the manager to see the door. Recruitment is so important. Chelsea bought so well. Mourinho bought three outstanding players at good prices. Liverpool have square pegs in round holes. Suarez was something special and they haven’t replaced him.”
Having awarded Rodgers a new contract last summer there is reported to be no mood for change at Liverpool. Despite Rodgers being responsible for the club missing out on their first League title for decades (his tactics at home to Chelsea and away at Crystal Palace being those of a pub team boss), he may well be given longer to formulate the new type of football he came in promising.
Frankly, the more I listen to Rodgers speak, the more I think he is in a world of his own. He has an air of superiority not matched by his credentials, and a command of the English language more suited to the text message generation.
All he needs to buy is a goalkeeper, a defence, a midfielder or two who can get stuck into a tackle and a goalscoring striker. And the money so to do. He had the latter and, together with his five colleagues, he wasted it.
It’s time to rebuild yet again. I would begin with employing the following qualities. A sense of reality, humility, passion and honesty.
If John W. Henry insists on the cheap option of keeping Rodgers in his job, then appoint on Steven Gerrard becoming his assistant. Allow Gerrard to do the post match interviews. Have him get across to those who wear the shirt what doing so should mean to them. Tell Rodgers to concentrate on coaching and don’t permit him to spend another penny. Bring someone in to the club with a proven track record of purchasing the right players at the right price. And get as much as possible when selling those already proven to be not good enough.
It seems to me that Steven Gerrard is almost alone in realising that all is not well. He is honest and in touch with reality. He knows Liverpool wasted the millions they received for Suarez. They replaced a world class footballer with a misfit and the inadequate. The very people who made those mistakes remain in their jobs and in denial.
Liverpool will rise again. One day. But not until the errors made have been acknowledged and rectified.
It’s time others at the club followed the lead of their skipper. It’s time for mea culpa.