The banner unfurled on the Park Lane before and after yesterday’s Spurs game read: ‘Enough is Enough’. One side red, the other blue, it symbolised the unity of the two sets of supporters campaigning against extortionate seat prices for away fans. After this diabolical performance, it could just as easily be Andre Villas-Boas’s epitaph.
This was a benchmark match. Liverpool and Spurs have much in common: youngish managers making their way in the game, teams with an illustrious past but uncertain future as they build new sides, contenders for a possible top four place. Now Spurs know where we stand: we weren’t beaten, we were totally outclassed. One of our main rivals is not just a few places above us in the league, they exist in a different dimension.
If there is any consolation to be had from this wretched, dismal afternoon, as bleak and foreboding as the chilly drizzle that seeped into the marrow, Liverpool’s performance makes the perfect training video. AVB should take a long look before he shows it to his players. Where they were quick and agile, we were dull and ponderous. They continually burst forward at pace and in numbers. We drifted around aimlessly. They pounced on our players on and around the halfway line like young panthers eager for the kill. We played with all the menace of charity-shop soft toys with half the stuffing hanging out. Liverpool were everything Spurs should be.
Rodgers and Villas-Boas have both faced criticism as clipboard bosses who have been given their demanding, prestigious jobs too early in their careers. At the end of last season, the Guardian ridiculed the Liverpool manager in a quiz listing ten absurd management-speak comments and inviting readers to say which was said by Rodgers and which by David Brent, the boss in the Office.
Now, the only guy who looks absurd is AVB. Never mind a parlour game, judge him from the way he put this team out. We were simply swept aside, utterly inadequate. We is Us, collective responsibility. Players and manager were poor but the manager must take the blame for this one. Time and again we were caught in possession, no one to pass to, players ambling forward so they could be easily marked by the Liverpool defence, separate from each other, Soldado isolated, strangers not a team.
Last season in late November we beat them 2-1 at the Lane. it was my favourite game from 2012-13, two teams who went at it from first to last in a thrilling match. Then, Rodgers was under pressure. He’s moved his team forward, we are lost. They made runs from deep, three or four at a time, early pass to feet or into space, simple but devastatingly effective. Simple but beyond us.
Villas-Boas has been criticised for not changing. As I’ve said in this blog many times, that’s not quite accurate because he has tried different things. Lately I’ve been asking a different question: not why doesn’t he make changes but can he? Is he able to find the right formation? Soldado is the example. I assumed we paid that money for top class striker knowing that we also had a plan, players and tactics that is, to play to his strengths. I’ve asked that question a lot recently – I am a patient, generous man but the answer is ‘no’. AVB does not know what to do. Bobby is flotsam up front, drifting on the tide, far from safety. Suarez starts deeper, leaving space to run into and in touch with his team-mates.
Liverpool got stuck in from the first whistle. We ambled on the ball and never imposed ourselves. After sustained pressure where we failed on several occasions to cleanly clear the ball, they finally scored when Dawson dallied and Suarez pounced.
We were hanging on, mistakes everywhere, unable to hold on to the ball, as if we were puzzled at Liverpool’s temerity at not allowing us to play. Ironically, we then had our best period. Chadli gave a rare glimpse of why we bought him, an imposing figure on the ball who crossed three or four times from the byline. Soldado and Holtby put the ball wide.
Then further calamities in our box. Lloris all arms and legs like an agile version of Kasey Keller, saved twice. In that moment, and this sounds crazy but I will share, in that moment I thought, the luck is with us, a turning point, we’ll muddle through to half-time, undeserved but only one down. Funny how the mind plays tricks. A split second later Henderson rammed home the fifth rebound and we were sunk even before Paulinho, who was awful yesterday, was sent off for a high tackle.
A feature of the first half was Sterling’s performance. Like an old-fashioned winger, an old-school phrase should sum up his day – he took Naughton to the cleaners. His control, style and speed were dazzling and in stark contrast to Lennon’s haphazard, stumbling afternoon. Naughton was hauled off at half-time, hopefully for the sake of his sanity to spend the rest of the afternoon in a darkened room with soothing music in the background.
If so, he won’t have heard the cheers that greeted Fryer’s arrival. That’s hardly going to help him. Naughton was poor, no excuses, but he was no worse than the others and he was hung out to dry. He’s a right-back played out of position because his manager saw fit to have no cover at left-back, to the point where he sends our first-team regular out on loan. Chadli gave him no protection whatsoever – imposing going forward he may be but he can’t be bothered to come back and double up on the winger, which is basic tactics. Basic. Other chickens are coming home to roost. Why sell Caulker knowing Kaboul is not fit, so we have a midfielder at centre-half. The manager’s responsibility. And Sterling would have given any player in the league a mare on that showing, make no mistake.
It ended up as five, should have been eight (they hit the woodwork twice), could have been double figures, but I would have said exactly the same if it had stayed at two.
At the finish, Holtby slumped to his knees and repeatedly pounded the turf with his fists. The others slunk away into the dressing room. If we are to recover from this, Holtby’s spirit and willingness to face up to the crowd is the place to begin.
The debate about AVB has been rendered irrelevant by this game. Levy will not tolerate it. Villas-Boas’s sacking is inevitable, only a matter of time. So here we are again. New manager, new ideas, players brought in to support the old ways. Good players will leave without European football. One step up and two steps back. Change when only continuity will bring results.
But there is continuity – Levy is still here. A financial wizard, he has no idea how to choose a decent manager. He’s still here and we’re down the toilet, stuck in the u-bend. A decade or more of opportunities flushed down the pan.
The effort to stay behind for the post-match protest against ticket prices was superhuman, let me tell you. I doubt if anyone noticed. We were the last on the Shelf before shambling home in the rain. Off to find a darkened room of my own.
Postscript: this was written before I heard the news of Villas-Boas’s dismissal. Good luck to him elsewhere but sadly elswhere is where he should be. Epitaph it was then.