Much has been written recently about Arsenal out-Arsenalling themselves or reaching Peak Arsenal, the point at which the club becomes an unfunny parody of itself with its domination/capitulation dance. Last season we also saw Peak Moyes against Fulham when Manchester United slung in 81 crosses against a relegation-bound side, and this week came Peak Brendan as Liverpool leapt off a European cliff.
First came the talk of ‘great nights’ and ‘folklore’, coupled with a very public and very useful (to Basel) signpost towards tactics (“They don’t need to win the game, they can sit back, so we need to be able to move the ball side to side with freedom”) which centred on the stodgy selection of four central midfielders. The emphasis was clearly on patience rather than pace; Basel took the hefty hint and pressed Liverpool into mistakes before attacking with speed.
But even after all that talk of patience, we perhaps naively did not expect Rodgers to approach a must-win game with such a must-not-lose mentality. That line-up – featuring Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen, Lucas Leiva AND Steven Gerrard – screamed ‘keep it tight’ at a time when Liverpool needed ‘keep it up’. It also yelled ‘I have absolutely no faith in my rather expensive summer signings’ and ‘I really don’t know Raheem Sterling’s best position though everybody else seems to have worked out he’s poor on the right’. That line-up had an awful lot to say.
“Playing in that No 10 playmaker role can be very difficult once you are in your thirties,” warned Paul Scholes recently when discussing the future of Gerrard. “There is always a danger that things can pass you by, especially if the midfield behind you are not at the very top of their game.”
We’re pretty sure that no interpretation of that sentence – spoken by a man who played hundreds of times in both positions – could lead you to think that an ageing Gerrard playing in front of Lucas and Joe Allen would be a recipe for attacking verve and creativity. But then Rodgers was not seeking attacking verve and creativity, just rather a lot of ‘moving the ball side to side’.
So much of what went wrong in that first half carried the mark of Brendan – the pedestrian midfield, the dithering goalkeeper, the flawed defence – but Peak Brendan came at half-time with Liverpool needing two goals in 45 minutes. After all, Brendan Rodgers’ biggest mentor is Brendan Rodgers so when he asked himself ‘What Would Brendan Rodgers Do?’, the answer was obvious: Take off the only striker, bring on a £20m winger who currently looks like a £4m winger and play a 4-6-0. Peak Brendan.
He would argue that he had no choice. “Obviously we’re missing players through injury that are crucial to the way we play,” was his post-match analysis. Players, Brendan? Plural? We can count to one. Liverpool began the season without a viable alternative to an oft-injured striker. You could argue that Mario Balotelli was also missing but Rodgers has made no secret of the Italian’s status as a risky panic buy; Luis Suarez’s exit left all Rodgers’ eggs in one very fragile basket labelled ‘Daniel Sturridge’.
As Gerrard admitted, Liverpool did not exit the Champions League solely because of mistakes made on Tuesday night – the team selection in Madrid, the underwhelming summer business and the apparent lack of any defensive strategy all played a significant part – but Tuesday brought Peak Brendan.
The problem with reaching your peak is that all remaining paths then lead downwards. David Moyes lasted less than three months after his zenith; will Brendan survive any longer?