Manager's philosophy is fundamental to the revival at Liverpool but his defence requires new leaders
Roy Race had no choice but to end a 40-year playing career that had defied earthquakes, assassination attempts and the ageing process. His left foot was amputated following a helicopter crash. Brendan Rodgers may be feeling similarly bereft following Liverpool's nine-minute epic collapse at Selhurst Park, but drastic surgery is the last thing he requires. Why remove from Liverpool the traits that transformed them into title contenders in the first place? The Premier League does not require another Roundhead.
"We thought we could play Roy of the Rovers football to make the goal difference up but tonight was about winning the game," said Rodgers in the aftermath of Liverpool's still scarcely believable 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace on Monday. His players tried to hunt down Manchester City's superior goal difference when leading Tony Pulis's side 3-0 and contrived instead to concede three goals between the 79th and 88th minutes to leave their rivals needing four points from two games to win the league. It is not over, Aston Villa and West Ham United will be insulted at the suggestion City have sealed their second title in three seasons, but the embarrassing tears at Selhurst Park confirmed that Liverpool think as much.
Let us not waste energy on the fence. Liverpool blew it spectacularly at Palace. They did not choke against Chelsea's two buses in defeat the weekend before but ran out of patience, ideas and game-changing options from the bench. The Palace draw, however, was as clear a loss of nerve and defensive composure as the Premier League is likely to see. From being six points clear of Manuel Pellegrini's team having played one game more at the start of play on 27 April to one point clear after the close on 5 May is a dramatic slump. A deeply painful one should City take full advantage.
And, in keeping with this spirit of bluntness, Liverpool have enjoyed a magnificent season regardless under Rodgers, who has agreed in principle a new contract that is expected to tie him to Anfield until 2018. Seventh last year, top of the Premier League with six days of this campaign remaining – theirs has been a staggering improvement that has re-energised an entire club. Liverpool would have happily taken a post-mortem into their defensive frailties in exchange for this position in August, arguably for the best part of 24 years.
At the start of the season only Steven Gerrard and the owner, John W Henry, expressed belief in qualifying for the Champions League following a four-year absence. A modest advance was the general consensus. The gap between Liverpool and the European elite appeared to grow each year and with every aborted transfer bid – Willian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Diego Costa last summer alone – while January came and went with Yevhen Konoplyanka stuck at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Liverpool unable to build from a position of strength.
The improvement continued nevertheless. Champions League qualification never looked in doubt once Arsenal were dismantled 5-1 on 8 February and Liverpool, to borrow from a banner that has recently taken up residency on the Kop, made supporters dream again in style. An adventurous, penetrating and indeed Roy of the Rovers style at times. No one was distancing Liverpool from the realms of fantasy when Luis Suárez struck four magnificent goals against Norwich City or when Everton, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur were taken apart this season. It would be a desperate shame for Rodgers to change course now and, thankfully, highly unlikely. His football philosophy is ingrained and so too is his vision for bringing sustained success back to Anfield. Two matches that have brought despair cannot alter what has been taking shape at Liverpool for 18 months.
Regret may well prove a lingering emotion from the season but, as Rodgers said when discussing Liverpool's lack of ingenuity against Chelsea last week: "We are not perfect. I have always said that. It will help us going forward. One of my strengths as a coach is to learn and the players here are great learners." Palace will provide a rich source of learning material for the Liverpool manager. Once he can bring himself to look at it.
Blame was put firmly on the shoulders of Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho in the immediate post-match analysis of Monday's game. Jamie Carragher, leading the inquest in the Sky studio, struggled to contain his anger at his successors in Liverpool's central defence. Defence has been Liverpool's vulnerable spot all season, exaggerated at times in comparison with the brilliance of Suárez and Daniel Sturridge in attack but exposed with calamitous timing at Selhurst Park.
Rodgers' irritation at what he perceives as a lack of leadership in Liverpool's defence is no secret; he called for "more men" in the team last year and is behind the omission of the vice-captain, Daniel Agger, at key moments in this campaign. It also led to Skrtel losing his place and heading towards the exit last season before his subsequent reinvention as Liverpool's most consistent, although not consistent enough, central defender. The summer purchases of Kolo Touré, the £19m Sakho and the £7m Tiago Ilori, who was loaned to Granada in January, have not remedied the problem and the back-line remains in serious need of repair this pre-season. Not that central defence is solely responsible.
Liverpool's two full-backs against Palace, Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan, looked exhausted when the marauding Yannick Bolasie inspired the home side's outstanding recovery. That was a factor in their fellow defenders' reluctance to push out and also a consequence of Rodgers' limited options in those positions. The opportunity to give Johnson or Flanagan the occasional rest has not presented itself with José Enrique injured all season, the loan signing Aly Cissokho a steady source of palpitations and Martin Kelly struggling to recapture his best after serious knee problems.
Risk is inherent in Rodgers' approach and increases the pressure on Liverpool's defensive unit, irrespective of their individual quality, but it is an approach that has brought unforeseen dividends. His defenders were not assisted in the dying stages against Palace by the Liverpool midfield, with the freedom Glenn Murray had to divert the ball into Dwight Gayle for the equaliser made worse by a similar, unchallenged pass played into the feet of the substitute moments earlier. Jordan Henderson's three-match suspension was an afterthought in the emotion and drama of Liverpool's seemingly defining win over City three weeks ago. Its consequence has increased with every passing game.
The Liverpool manager issued mixed signals against Pulis's team. Rodgers accused his players of not "managing the game" and the sight of seven inside the home penalty area when Bolasie broke ahead of Palace's second goal underlined his point. But, having stated Liverpool could pip City to the title on goal difference before the match, the introduction of Philippe Coutinho for Raheem Sterling plus Victor Moses for Daniel Sturridge, with Agger on the bench throughout and Palace scoring shortly after both Liverpool substitutions, suggested the manager's intent was for more goals too. Rodgers, in fairness, has handled the expectation of an unexpected title challenge expertly for several months. His confidence in, and intelligent use of, Liverpool's attacking options is a fundamental reason why his club currently sit at the Premier League summit.
It may have sent greater confusion through the ranks had their manager turned arch-pragmatist at this late stage. It would be good for Liverpool and the Premier League if that metamorphosis never happens. And a shot in the arm for Roy Race.