“There is nobody in the squad who has a God-given right to walk straight into the team”
When asked in the pre-match presser for the FA Cup quarter-final tie against Blackburn – which finished a goalless draw on Sunday night, meaning the Reds face a tricky replay Ewood Park – whether or not, if he was fit, Steven Gerrard would be back in the side, Rodgers responded:
“The team is playing very well; but it will be important just to get Steven back and available for selection. That’s the most important element. There is nobody in the squad who has a God-given right to walk straight into the team. I’ve shown in my time here that, if players are performing well – irrespective of status or price – they play. Simple as that.”
Bravo. But, as obvious as it sounds, it is often tough for managers to do. Squad politics, player reputation, fear of losing, hero worship and fan pressure (especially from fans who rate themselves after taking Rushden & Diamonds to Champions League glory in Football Manager) all make playing one’s best players less simple than it ought to be. So, how well has Rodgers lived up to his claim of running a footballing meritocracy?
Not knowing what goes on in the dressing room, it is difficult to say, but two key trends support the claim: 1) his man management of Henderson, Skrtel, Mignolet and Balotelli; and 2) his integration of youth players into the side.
Henderson, who has since become a wonderful player, spent much of the first part of Rodgers’ reign as an observer. Skrtel (off in the third minute of Sunday’s tie with a concussion) was benched for all of second part of Rodgers’ first season. This season, Mignolet was dropped for Brad Jones, and it looked like he’d lost his place for a while until Brad Jones picked up an injury. Balotelli, well . . . .
The first three benefited greatly from their treatment by Rodgers: Henderson is vice-captain now; Skrtel has been the first defender on the teamsheet since coming back into the side; and Mignolet showed again against Blackburn – with a magnificent strong hand to tip Alex Baptiste’s well-placed header over the bar – that, if he can stay on track, there could still be future for him at Anfield.
We’re still to find out about Balotelli. Despite starting a number of games in the early part of the season, he has found himself sometimes on the bench and sometimes out of the squad entirely.
Rodgers, it seems, is not willing to sacrifice the hard-working ethic of his side to accommodate the very talented Italian. While he worked very hard in attack against Blackburn, he could still sometimes be seen languidly drifting into space behind Rovers’ midfield when they had the ball. That might work for some teams but, with the high-intensity press Liverpool play, an inattentive player can leave teammates stretched and, therefore, allow the opposition space.
Rodgers does seems to be getting through to Mario, though – he is working harder than when he first came into the side – but it’s not yet clear how much the Italian is willing to change his style.
Rodgers has also integrated youth-system players into the side. Sterling – superb against Blackburn at left wingback – is the obvious example, but right-back John Flanagan, who played so much under Daglish and in last season’s title chase, was also carving a place in the side before an injury set him back. Whatever Flanagan’s future at Anfield – in doubt with Jordan Ibe, another youth-system talent, making such an impact at wingback – the progress of these players sends a message to talented youth around the world: if you can contribute, you’ll get game time.
There is, however, one potential fly in the meritocratic ointment: Steven Gerrard. It is difficult to say whether Liverpool’s poor early season form was down to Rodgers’ attempts to accommodate Gerrard – who regularly looked off the pace and whose Hollywood balls found opposition players more and more often – or down to the departure Suarez and the bedding in of new signings.
Still, it is a warning that, from the games Gerrard has not started this season, Liverpool have taken 28 of a possible 30 points. Goodbyes are tough, especially with heroes, but, if Gerrard stays in the side and continues to look as dazed as he has by the team’s high-intensity tactics, it will be clear that Rodgers is paying mere lip service to his principles.