Thursday 6 November 2014

Nothing More Important Than the Game After Next?

One of the most promising fixtures of this week's Champions League was at the Santiago Bernabéu, where Real Madrid would be hosting Liverpool. What may have slightly tempered expectations of a great game to come was that Liverpool had lost 0-3 at Anfield. At the same time, the Reds could thus be deemed to be out for revenge. Not so Liverpool’s manager Brendan Rodgers though: he baffled friend and foe by fielding a “B-team” in the most high-profile club competition, against the reigning champion. The rationale: Liverpool would be facing Chelsea in the league on Saturday, a game with a higher expected value for Rodgers. The Champions League qualification, Liverpool would compete for in its final two group games, against lesser opponents. Was this “strategic weakening” of his squad a clever move by Rodgers? I am quite convinced of the contrary and mainly for two reasons.

Source: independent.co.uk

First, the move is demonstrative of no less than two reasoning errors. The first error is to conceive of football as purely – or at least almost exclusively – a physical game, with a team’s performance being determined by the physical fitness of its players. A second and related error is “either/or” thinking, which has little or no solid ground in this case.

Let it be well-understood that physical fitness naturally determines for a great part how a team will perform. Thus, resting one or two players – even star players – in case they are showing clear signs of fatigue, e.g. as was Steven Gerrard ahead of Tuesday’s game – is quite granted. Deliberately weakening one’s team, as by replacing half the squad, is quite a different thing. As a result of the latter, those players who were put to rest – meaning they were not to play in the Bernabéu against Real Madrid, which they may or may not have enjoyed – may indeed be fresher, physically, when comes Saturday’s Chelsea game.

What is more, these players now also know that their coach is so convinced of their skill he is willing to accept defeat against a team such as Real Madrid already beforehand. A team’s manager should also be its leader and thus always the last man standing. Nothing more demoralising for players and fans than a leader who no longer believes in Sepp Herberger’s truism that the ball is round, i.e. that anything can happen on a football field. Furthermore, Liverpool is not just any club. It is the club whose fans are famous for it never having to walk alone. And the club that won the very Champions League in 2005 following the Miracle of Istanbul, recovering from trailing 3-0 at half-time against AC Milan. No miracle in the Bernabéu though. For miracles can only happen if you believe in them.

I like to link this experience to three separate episodes I witnessed in the past, in Belgium. In 2010, SV Roeselare was playing the semi-final of the Belgian Cup, against Cercle Brugge – not the strongest of opponents. Roeselare is a very small team, also for Belgian standards, and they were struggling not to relegate that season. For coach van Wijk it was very clear that remaining in the first league was much more important than playing the cup final – which, otherwise, for fans and players of a team as Roeselare tends to be a once – or never – in-a-life-time experience. And that he would not hesitate to keep his players fresh for the former challenge. Apparently, for van Wijk, it was “either/or”. Roeselare lost the cup’s semi-final first leg with 0-3. And it got relegated to the second division, where they remain up till today. Go to Roeselare and I challenge you to find a fan convinced s/he will ever make it to the King Boudewijn stadium to see his/her club compete in the cup final.

Another eye-opener for me was KV Mechelen’s home game against Club Brugge in the 2013-2014 season. Despite disappointing league positions in recent years, KV Mechelen is a team with a strong home reputation, in part thanks to the proximity of its fanatic supporters. In August ‘13, all signs were pointing to it again being “one of those nights”: with twenty minutes remaining, KVM had recovered from being one goal down and, five minutes after, when a Brugge defender was sent off, was left with ample time to bring the game home.

KV Mechelen's coach at the time, van Veldhoven, had initially approached the game very conservatively, playing with a sole striker. Even with Brugge being one man down and with the momentum of the late equaliser, he did not make any attacking change. As a result, Mechelen’s ample defenders were left so idle and with such a drive forward that they constantly ran out of position, leaving the team most vulnerable on the counterattack. Even playing at home against ten men, the coach did not believe we could beat Brugge that day. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy: we lost after Brugge got a penalty on the counterattack. Even more contagious than a manager’s relentless belief in his/her squad's ability is his/her lack thereof – and more so when it shines through in the tactics.

A more joyful example of contagion: shortly after my team, KV Mechelen, won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1988, by beating Ajax in Straatsburg, they were to receive archrival Anderlecht in the domestic league. After three days of non-stop celebrations, it is generally believed that the state of KV Mechelen’s squad at the time of kick off against Anderlecht is best described as “half-drunk”. KV Mechelen went on to beat Anderlecht 3-0 and the festivities could recommence.

From left to right: Erwin Koeman, Michel Preud'homme,
captain Lei Clijsters, Marc Emmers
Source: stamnummer25.be

Before getting carried away, on to the second reason why Rodgers’ move was in error. A football game is always played against an opponent. Thus, strength, weakness and fitness make most sense when considered relative to the opposition. The game Rodgers was saving his men for was against Chelsea. Chelsea would be playing in the Champions League one day later than Liverpool, away in Slovenia. Following their respective CL matches, Chelsea would have only two days before the league game; Liverpool 3, or 50% more than Chelsea. But then, if Rodgers believes his players could never get a result against Real Madrid, they probably need to be much more rested than Chelsea’s to stand any chance against them.

Let’s see what the physically fresh Liverpool players will do against Chelsea this weekend. And how and if Rodgers will be able to convince his team that the coming games in the Champions League are important – and that they surely have what it takes to win them.