BRENDAN Rodgers must lead Liverpool to a English Premier League (EPL) victory over Chelsea on Saturday. Otherwise he is a failure as a manager, a disgrace as a Liverpool boss and a menace to the world of football.
Okay, the above sentence is exaggerated, but this could be how the Reds manager is feeling right now, after he endured a serious dose of criticism this whole week. And all because he dabbled in the "dark art" of football management -- squad rotation.
Again, this was another curious case of hysteria in a country whose contribution to coaching methodology has often been mocked as primitive. It was as if English football must be played at warped speed with players running ceaselessly, giving every ounce of breath to their team in every game, with fans cheering them on for their never-say-die spirit.
Entertaining? Yes of course. Inspirational? Occasionally. But this kind of player management will end a football career far earlier than any professional would have liked. And increasingly, the more savvy managers (in the richer clubs) are finding pockets of rest time for their better players, saving them for both the short-term goal of finishing the season strongly, as well as the long-term possibility of extending their careers past the mid-30s.
So Rodgers, a forward-thinking young manager, finds his Liverpool side floundering this season through a combination of untimely injuries (to Daniel Sturridge in particular), extended schedule (Champions League midweek action) and new players struggling to fit into his playing system.
He would know that last season's second-place finish was an anomaly, a combination of many factors that went Liverpool's way throughout the season -- Luis Suarez's finest season, the underrated support of Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard finding a new leadership role as a defensive midfielder, zero European action, early exits from the two domestic Cup competitions, and rivals going through transitional phases (e.g. Manchester United and to a lesser extent, Chelsea).
All these contributed to a exhilarating second half to last season, as the rampant Reds lost just once after Dec 31. Suarez scored, Gerrard dictated, and Rodgers was happy to keep on playing them without the burden of keeping them fit and fresh for those three-games-in-six-days weeks.
This season came the reality check. Suarez left, Sturridge got hurt, Gerrard lost form, and Liverpool are struggling for victories as they battle on both domestic and European fronts. Clearly, they overachieved last season, and their under-strength squad need to find some time to recharge.
So squad rotation seemed the logical move. And this is where Rodgers shocked the fans by resting Gerrard for a high-profile match against Real Madrid in the Champions League. The former England captain was dropped along with other regular starters such as Sterling, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson, as Rodgers put out a side of largely second-string players against the defending European champions on Tuesday.
That those second-stringers held their ground against a free-scoring Madrid side, restricting them to just a goal, was lost in the furore of Rodgers' rotation. "Rodgers is raising the white flag even before the Real match," said one English newspaper. "A disgrace to Liverpool's past European-Cup glory days," said another.
Rodgers was in a unfair, no-win situation. It was not as if the first-choice team were firing on all cylinders, winning every match; had he dropped the players, the critics might have a better case.
But the likes of Gerrard and Coutinho have not been at their best for several matches prior to the Real clash, as Liverpool stumbled through only two wins in six matches. With the upcoming Chelsea match on Saturday another crucial encounter, Rodgers had to decide whether to save these players for another tough battle.
No wonder he was combative when faced with further questions about his rotation decision. He said: “The only thing I showed the other night was the trust I have in the team and in this group of players. I never feared that if I play this team we are going to end up losing 7-0 or 8-0. I would never do that, I would never pick a team that I believe couldn’t get a result from a game.
“You have to be bold enough to make the decisions as a manager and that is why you are paid the money you are. It’s a big risk, but for me I’m happy with the decisions I make. The reward for me was you get the opportunity to trust the squad and hopefully that is the biggest thing that comes out of it for me with the players, because that is what I look to do."
And so it all boils down to the daunting encounter at Anfield against Chelsea, who are unbeaten still this season. Beat the Blues with a well-rested Gerrard and Co, and Rodgers will be hailed a genius. Lose, and all the rumours about Rodgers being sacked will surface.
That's how fickle the football world is, when in truth, it was a manager trying his best to manage his still-developing squad through the marathon slog of an EPL season.