x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lack of respect cost Liverpool in FA Cup

Liverpool's players adopted the wrong attitude at Oldham Athletic and need to deal better with direct football writes Richard Jolly.

Brendan Rodgers was let down by his Liverpool players in the FA Cup defeat to Oldham Athletic on Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers was let down by his Liverpool players in the FA Cup defeat to Oldham Athletic on Sunday.

It amounted to a eulogy. Brendan Rodgers spoke at length about Oldham Athletic, about what an excellent job their manager Paul Dickov was doing in difficult circumstances, what a fine young player Jose Baxter is and how Cliff Byrne and Lee Croft had carved out fine careers for themselves.

Not after the most embarrassing day of his reign, however, but 48 hours before Liverpool were knocked out of the FA Cup by a League One team who have taken one point from their last eight games.

With a student's knowledge of the game, Rodgers appeared quite the expert on Oldham. He would not make the mistake of underestimating the underdogs.

But his players did. With the notable exceptions of Steven Gerrard, a dynamic, determined substitute, and Luis Suarez, who possesses a street footballer's willingness to take on all-comers, they acted as if Oldham ought to stand back and admire their illustrious visitors.

Teams with passing principles should not make mistake of thinking that makes them morally superior. Publicly, the purist Rodgers is always careful to say there is no wrong way to play the game. Yet too many of his charges acted otherwise.

They were irritated that Oldham had the affront to challenge them. Martin Skrtel shoved Robbie Simpson needlessly when the Athletic striker collided with Brad Jones when going for the ball.

Daniel Sturridge shaped as if to throw a punch at Byrne before recoiling when, wrongly, he seemed to think the Oldham defender had elbowed him. Raheem Sterling resorted to fouls that could have brought two cautions within the first 20 minutes.

But to borrow the phrase the Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas used about his conquerors Leeds United, Oldham were "extremely competitive" yet rarely unfairly.

Rather they adopted the approach that a side with lesser footballers have to: a mentality that whatever the differential in ability and resources, they will not be outworked. By refusing to be intimidated themselves, they cowed Liverpool. Rodgers is a progressive manager who tends to coin new phrases, invariably revolving around a system or style of play.

At Boundary Park, he reverted to old-fashioned rhetoric. "You have got to stand up and be counted," he said. Too many of his players did not and were not.

They were 20th-century words from a 21st-century manager. The Premier League's advances in talent, tactics and technique mean FA Cup matches can be throwbacks.

It is a different game these days and - on the pitch anyway - a better one but just as football should not forget its past, nor should players ignore lessons their predecessors learnt: how to deal with a more basic blueprint.

Set pieces can be a great leveller. So, too, direct football. And while Oldham did much more than simply aiming long balls forward, their outstanding individual was a 6ft 6in target man, Matt Smith.

And it is here that Liverpool get an uncomfortable sense of deja vu and that Rodgers's criticisms of his young players, poor as several were, appear a little misplaced.

The trio charged with subduing Smith are 30, 28 and 22 respectively. Sebastian Coates, the youngest, is a Copa America winner but was an abject loser in his duel. It is no knee-jerk reaction to say his days at Anfield appear numbered.

Jones, a goalkeeper whose frailty when crosses come in was signposted earlier in his Liverpool career, erred badly for the striker's second goal. The Australian had been a reliable deputy to Pepe Reina this season but lacks conviction too often. And yet it may reflect worst on Skrtel.

It is partly because he has been a regular for much of the season. As he lacks the distribution to play the role Rodgers envisages for his defenders, it is imperative he excels as a stopper.

Yet he has not. The Slovakian is the common denominator in defeats where Liverpool have been bullied, usually legally, by imposing strikers.

Aston Villa's Christian Benteke and Stoke City's Kenwyne Jones performed similar demolition jobs on the Merseysiders.

Besides encouraging other opponents to adopt similar tactics, it makes Skrtel seem a plastic hard man, raising the question of what is the point of a sizeable centre-back who cannot cope with physical forwards and explains why he has lost his place in the Premier League side. Instead Jamie Carragher was rested ahead of tomorrow's trip to Arsenal. Rodgers had restored the veteran, he said, for his powers of communication. His character played a part, too; Carragher has the sort of resolve Liverpool lacked at Oldham.

His legs have slowed but his relish for a battle has not diminished.

Yet with Carragher's career in its final throes, that is scarcely reassuring. Another familiar theme for Liverpool is that too many have relied on a handful - Gerrard, Suarez, Carragher - to lead and then looked to cruise along in their slipstream and, after a distressing few years, perhaps the most damning detail was the post-match talk that Dickov might be sacked despite beating them.

It transpires he has a temporary reprieve but while Rodgers's reign at Anfield should be rather longer, the idealist and his inexperienced players should have departed Boundary Park with a reminder of an age-old truism. You have to earn the right to play.


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