Gerrard's tragic stumble puts Liverpool in trouble

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.
21 comments about "Gerrard's tragic stumble puts Liverpool in trouble".
  1. Brian Something, April 28, 2014 at 12:58 p.m.

    No neutral likes to watch Chelsea play. And the number of s**ts Mourinho and his players give is zero. Go Man City and Atletico, I guess!

  2. Tom Symonds, April 28, 2014 at 1:33 p.m.

    What makes it even worse is how the broadcast media reports it. Veteran Martin Tyler described Chelsea's negative football at Atletico as playing with "pride and purpose." Arlo White called Chelsea's negative football at Anfield as "pragmatic." Apparently, to "tell it like it is" is no longer a tenet of sports broadcasting. Tell me, if Big Sam set his Hammers up that way to play Mourinho's side, would Tyler and White be as gracious in their description of West Ham? Ha! We all know the answer to that. For me, media's complicity is even more shameful than the negative football itself.

  3. John Soares, April 28, 2014 at 2:01 p.m.

    Ugly; No question. But in fairness both teams are within a point or so of winning the championship. Why would you not play to your strength and in a form that stops or at least slows down your (in this case) stronger opponent!?

  4. Mark Hardt, April 28, 2014 at 2:13 p.m.

    Well basketball addressed this a long time ago with the shot clock. Things you can do to speed up soccer.

    1. you only can have six players in the box any time except for corner kicks.
    2. Raise the bar and sides 2 feet
    3. Lower the offside line to 35 yard line (NASL did this I think).
    4. Narrow fields
    But seriously games unfold and each one is different. Is it negative baseball when a pitcher dominates? Did the Seahawks win a negative Super bowl by intercepting the ball and sacking the QB. No Playing defense is not negative at all and just how games unfold sometime. Other games may be 5-2 like Bayer Munchen against Werder Bremen. Trust me as a Werder fan I would have been happy with a 0-0 draw. Paul and everyone else on this board lets stop talking about negative soccer it does not exist. You play defense because it is a part of the game just as a 1-0 pitchers duel is a part of baseball. Nobody says the pitcher played negative baseball. They say he is a great pitcher. So why not say Chelsea played great team defense and the keeper made some brilliant saves. Hockey games can be 1-0 and nobody cares. Games range from high to low scoring and that is great.

  5. ROBERT BOND, April 28, 2014 at 3:18 p.m.

    Blues not exactly graced by high scoring strikers.......

  6. Millwall America, April 28, 2014 at 4:36 p.m.

    You know what's killing soccer? Teams having 73% possession and failing to score a goal. There is nothing more boring as a neutral than watching Bayern Munich and Liverpool spend 80 minutes passing the ball backward and sideways to no useful purpose. Hats off to Real Madrid and Chelsea - hats off to Mourinho and Ancelotti - for taking these ball-hogging do-nothings and knocking them on their @ss with some well-executed counter-attack. The best team definitely won - it's high time someone reminded Rodgers and Guardiola that the point of soccer is to score goals, not retain possession.

  7. Chris Morris, April 28, 2014 at 6:35 p.m.

    Milwall, I have always agreed with your astute comments (particularly when they refute PG’s argument), but this one time I will respectfully differ. There is a difference in style between Liverpool and Bayern Munich. Bayern’s possession rate is 73% for the entire season. Granted, Liverpool’s was the same for this particular game, but I would say that is more indicative of Chelsea’s tactics on the day than Liverpool’s ongoing philosophy. Even with this game Liverpool’s EPL possession rate is about 55%, hardly tiki-taka. In their notable victories against big clubs (Arsenal, Man United, and Man City), they averaged 46% possession. In their earlier loss to Chelsea away it was 48%. Also, Liverpool took 26 shots on Sunday, an unusually high total, and this runs counter to the idea that they were passing the ball around without going for goal.

  8. Andres Yturralde, April 28, 2014 at 9:56 p.m.

    Good take, PG. I'm a little sorry for Gerrard and Liverpool, yes, but that's the way it goes. It was one of those days--nothing was going in, they made a couple of blunders, and they got punished. I'll leave you with a little something from Mourinho I read a few months ago in a Spanish site: “No consigo disociar dónde comienza la organización, si en la defensa o en el ataque. No consigo analizar las cosas de esa forma tan analítica”.

  9. Gus Keri, April 28, 2014 at 10:20 p.m.

    I agree with Chris's comment. Millwall America, obviously you don't watch Liverpool. I am a Liverpool fan and I can tell you that the possession game they play is different from what Guardiola preach. They play possession with a purpose and a lot of attack. It's the most enjoyable attacking soccer I have seen from them since 2009, and much more entertaining than Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

  10. Gus Keri, April 28, 2014 at 10:39 p.m.

    Paul, don't be afraid. you can say it clearly. It was fate. The same fate that has been playing with Liverpool club's fortunes for over 25 years. The same fate that blind-folded the whole of Great Britain and prevented its people from seeing the truth in Hillsborough. The same fate that brought down Liverpool FC, one of the most feared team in European soccer, to its knee and prevented it from winning the EPL for the last 24 years. The same fate that knocked Liverpool down 0-3 at halftime in Istanbul, 2005, and brought it back to life again in the second half for one of the most historic come back win in soccer history. It's the same fate that has led to this now-famous stumble by the most reliable player in the recent history of the club, in his best season since the 2009. And this is not the last time we hear from fate this season. The feelings around Liverpool after the defeat are not different from those felt at half time in that memorable Istanbul match. there are still two more game and fate has yet to say its last words. What would they be?

  11. Tom Frank, April 28, 2014 at 11:57 p.m.

    I am confused. How can a FIFA referee be so tatically unaware as to allow a team, in this case Chelsea, to waste as much time as they did on dead ball situations? Looking at the lineups you could clearly see that Chelsea was going to play a defensive game. They statred time wasting -ball out of play- in the very first minute. That should have been a signal to the referee. Law 12 says that it is punishable by a caution. Referees can not control what tatics a team use while the ball is in play but they certainly can when the ball is out of play. Mr Atkinson certainly recognized a tactical foul and cautioned for it. But to not caution a player for time wasting until the 92 minute is a waste of a caution as it does nothing to control the time wasting that was balantant throughout the game. In this case he allowed team tatics that are outside of the laws of the game.

  12. Zoe Willet, April 29, 2014 at 1:20 a.m.

    Just answer me this, all you Chelsea nay-sayers who constantly yap about their defensive tactics: Then how come Chelsea has scored 69 league goals, 3rd in rank? (Liverpool 96, ManC 93, , Arsenal 62, ManU 60, Everton 57, Tottenham 52) Is this just sitting back and defending on the edge of the box? I think I am on the same page with Mark Hardt, in that soccer is defensive and offensive- to win both must be involved, and the analogy about a pitcher's duel is apt. Strange that we praise goalies for their saves, yet not others' important defensive playing. Of course Jose could thump his chest and jump up and down, after winning 2-0 (and without penalties) without Cech, Terry, Hazard, Eto'o, Oscar, Ramires, Luiz!

  13. Millwall America, April 29, 2014 at 3:14 a.m.

    Chris/Gus, fair points -- I let my loathing of Guardiola's style of play and PG's over-the-top love for it get the better of me. I don't particularly follow Liverpool (I follow a team that doesn't play pretty football of any kind and is desperately trying to survive in the Championship with one game to go), but I know that they are not a tiki-taka squad, so I was being unfair. As a neutral I'd actually like to see them win the EPL just to get some fresh blood at the top. Still, I tip my hat to Mourinho -- he read their tactics, knew how they would play, and deliberately set up to frustrate and beat them. Rodger's post-game comments did strike me as a bit of sour grapes.

  14. ROBERT BOND, April 29, 2014 at 8:48 a.m.

    Saurez still not so much against the others in the top 4........Zoe, they pretty much ruined American football by making it a TD's ger-RARD, btw......Bayern were set to beat the league goal record till fatigue & injuries took a toll, but they better score today or no repeat......

  15. Tim Schum, April 29, 2014 at 9:46 a.m.

    Fate (luck) does have a way of evening out over time. For every great moment for Gerrard (Istanbul) he will live with Sunday's miscue.

    In coaching there are certain principles of play that need to be constantly emphasized to players.

    One is to remind them that concentration is a must at all times. One can speculate that Gerrard's concentration lapsed and it played into his failed control of the ball. Teams also know that historically those minutes leading to half- or full-time have found teams vulnerable on either side of the ball. Gerrard knew this.

    Secondly, a coaching pet peeve of many is how square balls, if not properly played, leave teams vulnerable if intercepted. Were Gerrard to have offered a deeper angle to support for the pass, he might have recovered from his poor control.

    So between perhaps a moment of failed concentration when coupled with poor ball control and improper support for the pass, the match turned Chelsea's way.

    Reminded one of Italy's (Rossi?) interception of a Brazilian square ball in the 1982 World Cup that effectively ended the South American's chance for the title.

  16. Roy Patton, April 29, 2014 at 11:52 a.m.

    The recent Liverpool versus Chelsea game epitomizes many of the ingredients that fuel the burgeoning Sports Entertainment Industry. A pivotal game, presence of stars, media hype, joy, disappointment, uncertainty of outcome and ongoing analysis such as this!

    Despite the number of buses legally parked, I might add, Liverpool had an off day in terms of capitalizing on chances and in creating further opportunities with incisive passes resulting from their ample possession.

    No question, if Liverpool had have won, many coaches would be espousing the virtues of attacking football until.... the parked buses once again prevailed at the next big event!

    it is this uncertainty of outcome that keeps us all captivated and enthralled!

  17. Millwall America, April 29, 2014 at 4:41 p.m.

    If you think I'm smiling ear-to-ear because Real Madrid absolutely demolished Guardiola's tiki-taka, 70% possession Bayern Munich side... you'd be right. I think it's safe to say that the era of possession-based football is over. Like any other tactical innovation, it had its moment where it dominated the game. But now the top coaches (Ancelotti, Mourinho) have figured out how to play against it and defeat it, and it won't be long before the second tier of average coaches figure out the same thing. Passing sideways and backwards is not how you win the Champions League anymore, and for this football fan it couldn't have come a moment too soon.

  18. Gus Keri, April 29, 2014 at 5:57 p.m.

    Millwall, I disagree with you again. Just like you can't put the styles of Guardiola and Rodgers in one group, You also can't put Mourinho and Ancelotti in one group either. As a matter of fact, you are being unfair to Ancelotti whose style is one of the most wonderful to watch, while Mourinho has one of the ugliest style of them all. There are many styles of playing soccer. Not only two. Saying that, I also enjoyed the win by Real Madrid as much as you did. I am a fan of Ancelotti wherever he goes.

  19. Zoe Willet, April 30, 2014 at 2:09 a.m.

    Robert Bond- I said nothing about American Football; I only reference baseball.

  20. Jogo Bonito, May 3, 2014 at 7:28 a.m.

    Millwall - I think you may have it backwards. I feel that Barca's possession (now Bayern's) was born out of desperation. they simply got tired of trying to slug it out against negatively koached teams. trying to run at teams that always keep 9-10 players behind the ball. I always felt that Barca used all 90 minutes to patiently make these koached teams come out of their shell and go get the ball. So who's the boring ones? When they possess the ball 70 percent and lose 1-0 that's a shame and team that lost is now at fault but I'm not impressed at by Maurinho's ability to keep players in position. I praise the possession teams for trying to do something other than trying bang heads with stubborn robots that treat the attacking side of the field as place where they can only go if there koach says it's ok

  21. Ramon Creager, May 6, 2014 at 10:16 a.m.

    Two things. First, the statement "And he [Mourinho] is having great success." Is he though? This is the Special One. The One who was hired to win La Decima for Real Madrid. And failed. The one who was going to take Chelsea back to glory. But this season there will be no Champion's League or EPL trophy. His Real Madrid and Chelsea teams are both stocked to the gills with good players (how can you discard a player like Juan Mata?!?). His successor at Real Madrid is poised to win La Decima, having made the final in Lisbon. He may also pull off the La Liga title. All with a very similar team, but with a far more vibrant style. (And Ronaldo is no longer triste.) In the EPL one of his two main rivals will win the league, both playing a far more positive style. So, is this "success"? Is this the incentive for "anti-football"? Second, many, many a team is *forced* (not chooses to) play a defensive style. Teams like Levante UD in La Liga who have a mere 6-7 million Euro player budget (Real spent ~100 million Euro on Gareth Bale alone) cannot afford to stock up on dazzling offensive talent. They rely instead on strong disciplined play. They do what they must in order to survive. So you see the situation is not quite as stated in this article.

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