In the field of sports, fear is one of the most detrimental emotions which can take hold of an athlete, writes Andrew Ronan.
All of a sudden, natural mechanics and thinking can no longer be relied upon; fear has created tension and anxiety, and the brain and body are no longer in sync. Coaches and managers, too, can be prone to bouts of fear. Thinking becomes scrambled, judgement clouded, and indecisiveness takes hold. Brendan Rodgers has a bad dose of the fear right now.
His Liverpool sides have always shipped goals, and a tightening up at the back was always necessary. He seemed to have finally got around to it at the beginning of the season with three consecutive clean sheets – including a fine one at Arsenal. Only two goals from the opening three games was passed off as the result of new players bedding into the team, and finding a way to get the best from Christian Benteke.
A home fixture against West Ham in which Liverpool were expected to win comfortably ended up in disaster, though. Slaven Bilic and his men outplayed and out-thought Rodgers and his team. Some said it was a blip, others said it was proof that nothing has changed this season under Rodgers.
However, the following game at Old Trafford against one of the worst Manchester United sides in 25 years offered Rodgers a chance to redeem himself. United weren’t exactly there for the taking, but they weren’t far from it.
A great opportunity was there for Rodgers to send his side out in the belief that if they played the right way they could take three points from their bitter rivals. They didn’t have to exactly play like Barcelona, even a performance similar to the one from the same fixture last season would have surely seen Liverpool come away with at least a point.
Rodgers, though, is a man living in fear of defeats and in fear of losing his job.
The circumstances before the United game this season are different to those before the same game last season. Before last season’s game the effect from Luis Suarez’s departure coupled with Daniel Sturridge’s absence was reason enough for Liverpool’s poor start to the season. While there was some criticism being aimed at Rodgers, there wasn’t an enormous amount of pressure on him.
That was evident in the way he set his team up to go out and try to win the game. Had Raheem Sterling had his shooting boots on that day, Liverpool would have gone home with three points. Now, Rodgers knows there is huge pressure on him to win football matches.
He can’t use Suarez’s absence as an excuse, he can’t use Sturridge’s absence as an excuse, nor can he say that the integration of the new players is the reason behind poor performances. He knows he’s been backed by the club’s owners, and he knows that the patience of supporters was worn down long ago. He knows the buck stops with him. He knows that any defeat is seen as a crisis.
The loss to West Ham was hardly a crisis but it obviously knocked the wind out of Rodgers. He watched as his side who were so solid in their opening three games wilted under the pressure from an average team.
Individual errors which were rampant last season made an unwelcome return. Any ideas he had in mind for the trip to Old Trafford were shot to pieces by the West Ham defeat. He probably imagined a win against the Hammers would send his players into the United game full of confidence.
Instead, confidence disappeared. The players retreated into the shells they spent the best part of last season in. They needed their manager to get them back on their feet and fill them with belief – but he froze.
He worried about the pressure a defeat at the home of the most hated enemy would bring. The philosophy of playing attacking football which Rodgers has stood by through good times and bad since he came to Anfield was thrown out the window. He opted for a half arsed park the bus approach.
Those three clean sheets from the opening three games clouded his judgement. He believed that the West Ham debacle would have no effect on the fragile minds of his two centre halves and his goalkeeper.
Parking the bus has never been part of Rodgers’ plan, which is why he doesn’t have the personnel to go along with it. Throwing caution to the wind and attacking teams is more associated with Rodgers. If he had a gung-ho attitude towards the United game, his players could have easily won the game.
Will Rodgers have the same cautious approach going forward? The upcoming league games, at home to Norwich and Aston Villa, offer a chance to relieve some pressure – but only if Liverpool play attacking football and try to win both games. If Rodgers adopts the same mentality as he did against United the two games become potential banana skins.
Fear doesn’t always have to have a negative effect – it can also be used as a great motivator. Rodgers needs to decide whether to use it to his advantage or not. He desperately needs a run of good results to relieve some of the pressure, especially with a trip to Everton on the horizon.
If results don’t turn around before the Merseyside derby, and Everton beat Liverpool, it could be the beginning of the end for Brendan Rodgers.