By Paul Gardner
You wonder about the role of fate. Well, I do. My pondering of the matter doesn’t go too deep, and it never lasts too long. Because I’m not at all sure that I believe in fate anyway.
As an explanation for the way life works, fate seems to me to be the easy way out, an easy passing of the buck to the mysteries of the unknown. Illogically, I believe in luck. Both good and bad. Believe in? Well, I accept that’s the way things happen.
So which was it that descended on Anfield on Sunday at the 48th minute of first-half added time in the Liverpool-Chelsea game? The moment when Steven Gerrard lost his footing. As he stumbled, the ball ran loose to Chelsea’s Demba Ba, who stroked the ball into the Liverpool with almost nonchalant ease.
Whether it was fate or luck, the feeling was inescapable that Gerrard had been cruelly victimized, that something inexplicable had happened. Gerrard does not fall over, he does not stumble. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched Gerrard in action, how many games -- well over 100, I’d say -- and I’ve never seen, nor ever expected to see, anything like this.
Gerrard, the iconic captain of Liverpool, had gift-wrapped a goal for Chelsea. His terrible error darkened an Anfield afternoon when the Liverpool fans were gathered to celebrate victory, to cheer what would be a decisive step toward their team’s winning its first Premier League title.
The dreams of that title are now floundering. Because Stevie Gerrard stumbled. There is no way of escaping that way of looking at things. But it is of course, a massive simplification.
There is, for a start, Chelsea. Or Jose Mourinho. He is being cast as “wily” and “clever” because he chose to have his team play defensively, ultra-defensively. The current English buzz phrase for that approach is that Chelsea “parked the bus” -- a typically crude and unexciting way of putting things, another forgettable English contribution to the soccer vocabulary. Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers doubled the banality, claiming that Chelsea had “parked two buses.”
Maybe it was three. Whatever, Chelsea had the better of things, frustrating the deadly Liverpool attack (96 goals in 36 games) and -- this is a given for a team that plays defensively -- posing the occasional threat with counterattacks.
Those were Chelsea’s tactics. We had seen them in action a few days earlier, against Atletico Madrid, where they worked enough to produce a stalemate 0-0 tie. This time they worked even better. Rodgers praised Chelsea for its win, then had dismissive words for Mourinho’s tactics: “It is not difficult to coach, putting 10 players on the edge of the 18-yard box. I don't think it's a tactic. Anyone can ask a team to just sit back and defend on the edge of the box.”
Well, Rodgers lost the game, the most important game of the season, so that’s going to sound like sour grapes. But it is more than that. It contains an essential truth about modern soccer.
Someone once said, of some activity or other (it wasn’t soccer), that “It is a good way of killing time - for those who like their time dead.” Chelsea/Mourinho have proved they are good at that. Killing soccer.
Should soccer -- this lively, vibrant, exciting game - be that easy to kill? Of course not. But that is the way that the sport is currently set up -- with rules that seem to go out of their way to make goalscoring as unlikely as possible, with referees who are always ready to give any benefit of doubt in their decisions to the defensive side of the game.
Playing defensively, playing not to lose, playing merely to frustrate the opponents, playing to destroy rather than to create -- in other words, playing negative soccer -- can be logically seen as the easiest and safest way to success. And certainly a good deal less risky than putting the emphasis on goalscoring by playing open and attacking soccer.
Mourinho, busy killing off good soccer games (or giving “tactical masterclasses” as the BBC defined it), is merely doing what the current situation allows -- well, encourages -- him to do, (“not difficult” to repeat Rodgers’ words). And he is having great success. He could, should he choose, play attacking soccer. His most creative player, the Brazilian Oscar, did not play against Atletico or Liverpool. But when you’re relying on rare breakaways for scoring opportunities, you don’t need the intricate skills of an Oscar.
Rodgers, then, was out-coached by Mourinho? Yes -- but Rodgers’ sour-grape flavored “It’s not difficult” line cannot be dismissed. Because it is easier -- a lot easier -- to play defense than offense. To kill soccer rather than to play it.
But all of that will never wipe out the memory of Gerrard’s stumble. Maybe Liverpool was not going to beat Chelsea’s double-bus -- that’s certainly what it was looking like -- and a 0-0 tie was in the making. Until Gerrard stumbled and let in Ba.
Referee Martin Atkinson played an unwitting role in the goal. He had, during the first half (and that is surely unusual), let the Chelsea players know that they were deliberately time-wasting. By pointing at his watch he had made it clear that he would add extra minutes to the 45. He added three minutes -- that is a lot for a half that did not feature any stoppages for injury. And it was, of course, in the last of those fatal three minutes -- designed to penalize Chelsea -- that Gerrard stumbled.
In terms of club loyalty, I have none. I don’t give a damn if Chelsea or Liverpool -- or neither -- wins the EPL title. But in strictly soccer terms, I greatly prefer Liverpool’s approach to Chelsea’s. And I do feel for Gerrard. It wasn’t fate or destiny or even sheer bad luck. Gerrard brought on his own downfall by mis-controlling the ball. He stumbled as he desperately tried to regain it.
That is the essence of Greek tragedy, the hero -- always a man of note, of fame -- helps to cause his tragedy by his own actions. The gods help things along, of course. But today we don’t need them. The hero’s suffering is always more harsh than he deserves. That explanation sits better with me than sheer chance. Because there was always something ennobling about Greek tragedy.