Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has harmed his players this season thanks to his poor man management, especially after Penaltygate successfully overshadowed what was a fine win over Besiktas on Thursday.
The controversy surrounding who would take a match winning penalty against Besiktas on Thursday has divided a fan base that has been pointing fingers at Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard and Mario Balotelli in equal measure. Given that the manager is at the top of the pecking order of authority within the club, Brendan Rodgers has strangely escaped all attention when in fact, he could have done a lot more to prevent this situation in the first place. To be fair, Rodgers rightly pointed out, on Thursday, that a stand-in captain would pass on the armband to a captain were the latter to enter the field as a substitute during a game. However, it is not the same with penalties though, as not all penalty takers are captains.
Rodgers’ lack of preparation
The controversy surrounding this incident would surely have been avoided had the rules been decided in advance. It is not too hard to lay down a pecking order of penalty takers for Liverpool at this point in time – Gerrard first, then Balotelli, Lambert and Henderson. Publicly saying that it is Henderson’s responsibility to decide who should take the penalty is nothing short of passing the blame to a player who isn’t even captain at this point in time. Decisions like these ought to be part of Rodgers’ preparation for a game; instead, he first dodged questions on the penalty at the post match press conference, and then ended up making both Jordan Henderson and Mario Balotelli look bad. Given that Liverpool fans recently witnessed Joe Allen attempting to mark Romelu Lukaku at Goodison Park, it is clear that lack of preparation has not been a one-time occurrence.
Brendan Rodgers has been setting a few dangerous precedents of late. What happens when both Balotelli and Lambert are available on a day when Steven Gerrard is absent? What happens if neither Gerrard, Balotelli or Lambert are available for a penalty at any given point in time? How does Rodgers decide how Liverpool put into practice the zonal marking system that he has favoured during his tenure as manager? Another Penaltygate will be highly unlikely, but Liverpool supporters cannot be made to watch Joe Allen marking players nearly a foot taller than him, or lack of cover in defensive positions when substitutions are made. Not all footballers are stupid, but asking them to make decisions on the fly is not exactly a good idea.
Football is not like cricket, where a captain is required to make the majority of on-field decisions. A captain’s role is often limited to ensuring that that players don’t cross disciplinary lines in, and at times ensuring that players maintain positional discipline. The latter is often meant to be supported a defender or goalkeeper if the captain is an attacking player (as is the case with Liverpool). Gerrard has been at the club for far longer than Rodgers, and hence things are easier when he is around, but Henderson isn’t even Liverpool captain full time, and hence taking decisions like the one in question is Rodgers’ responsibility and not his.
Undermining Balotelli while still letting him have his way
Rodgers has gone on record in the recent past to indicate that Mario Balotelli was not his first choice of striker to buy late in the summer transfer window. It may be have been evident given that Liverpool were linked with others before the Italian, but feeding the media is not the right thing to do. While he has been right to point fingers at Balotelli on multiple occasions due to his lack of work rate, it is not as if he had no knowledge of Super Mario‘s inability to play the high pressing game. Rodgers has been praised for getting the best out of his players in the past, yet rarely paired Balotelli with another centre forward up front despite it being the Italian’s preference.
Mario Balotelli successfully got away with undermining Henderson on the night. Given that the wind is blowing in a different direction over the last fortnight and the fact that some Liverpool supporters still do not fancy the club vice captain, he will have the support of the Liverpool fanbase despite not having done squat for the club over his first 6 months at Anfield. What happens if Balotelli does the same while being in a poor run of form? If Balotelli continues to grab headlines for his off-field behaviour, is Rodgers going to continue letting him get his way? The manager has made the decision to bring Balotelli into the club, and is playing a very dangerous game while he is around.
The shadow of Steven Gerrard
To be fair to Brendan Rodgers, he has steered clear off the Andre Villas-Boas School of Football Management in alienating senior players like Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. Instead, he has been respectful of the contributions made by Gerrard and Carragher to the club, and has pointed out how Kolo Toure’s presence in the dressing room is still important, even when he isn’t playing. Hence, credit must be given where it is due.
The order of authority at a club, however, is always manager first, then captain, vice captain, and other players. Rodgers, however, has recently been deferential to Steven Gerrard off late. That being said, Rodgers near apology for dropping Steven Gerrard on the 16th anniversary of his debut against Stoke City was embarrassing. Gerrard has seen far worse managers at the club (yes, Roy Hodgson, we are talking about you) and yet has supported every manager at the club. Rodgers does not need to alienate Gerrard, but his comments post match at the time were indicative of a man who was not using his position to exercise authority over the playing squad. Irrespective of what others think of him, he needs to be the man calling the shots.
Coming back to Penaltygate, in addition to laying down hard and fast rules over penalties, what Rodgers has done about Steven Gerrard’s role in this controversy is a mystery. Gerrard is a refreshing change from fellow footballers who often have the personality of a corpse, but he still is an employee of Liverpool Football Club and hence puts his club and teammates in a difficult position. Gerrard was obviously present at the studio with the permission of Brendan Rodgers. Hence it is Rodgers’ responsibility to do something here. He either needs to ask Gerrard to mind his comments, or he must not allow Gerrard to do commentary duty until he leaves the club. A managers’ role is not to be babysit his players, but he must not ask expect his players to make decisions on subjects that materially affect a club on and off the field.
Rodgers has rightly received credit for taking brave decisions in the past with young players (Sterling, Flanagan, Ibe) and is the only manager in the Premier League who has made 3 at the back work well. However, as with his poor team selection earlier this season, poor management of his players has at times hurt rather than helped them. Everything that he says and does makes a difference to the club, and hence Rodgers needs to be careful moving forward.