March 21, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Pragmatism and Plan BS


After the slip-up against Southampton, Liverpool fans espousing the need for a ‘Plan B’ have been out in full voice once again.

The assumption in such calls is, of course, that the default strategy has not worked, but it’s simplistic to assume any loss is due to a failed approach, as opposed to players having an off day, bad luck, or simply the fact that even the best teams and most effective strategies are not foolproof.

Unfortunately, fans today seem increasingly susceptible to the reductive rhetoric of vacuous television pundits, often repeating lazy cliches and shoddy thinking. So perhaps it would be more sensible to look to the world’s best club and international teams – Barcelona and Spain respectively – for clues as to the best approach.

Both teams stick religiously to their philosophies of short, patient passing on the floor, even if things aren’t going their way, but few would criticise them for lacking pragmatism. Often the argument here is that Liverpool do not have players of the same calibre, but that is the case regardless of what tactics are employed, and assumes there is no link between strict adherence to a philosophy and the development of world-class players, when the architects of both Spain and Barcelona’s success insist that there is.

That isn’t to say that a team must try to score the same way every time. On the contrary, a highly technical passing game is the approach traditionally favoured by many of the best sides precisely because it allows for a variety of attacking moves in a way the long ball game or a focus on crossing does not. Defending against long balls and crosses is fairly straightforward provided you have the right personnel, but stopping Barcelona in their pomp is almost impossible, despite everybody knowing how they are going to play.

We’re rarely told by the Plan B ‘pragmatists’ what the alternative they desire consists of, and this lack of any detail suggests that “we need a Plan B” is actually code for an admission of cluelessness.

While more insightful tacticians might suggest we increase or slow down the tempo, play wider to stretch the defence, or defend deeper to draw a team on or higher up to box opponents in, demands for a “Plan B” are usually de facto calls for a big striker and long balls. Some even go as far as suggesting Andy Carroll as the secret weapon to solve our problems, but he can hardly score in a team set up to play to his strengths for the full 90 minutes.

All this, however, misses the point, because the premise that Brendan Rodgers sticks rigidly to one way of playing is an entirely false one. In the games against Man City and Arsenal away – and Spurs at home in the first half – Liverpool sat deep and played on the counter-attack in stark contrast to the usual possession-heavy approach.

With the pace, creativity and tenacity of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez, Liverpool certainly have the attacking players to adopt an effective counter-attacking strategy, but the defence and midfield appear too brittle to invite long periods of pressure, especially against the top teams when such a game plan would make most sense.

Despite good performances and results against Arsenal and City – with Liverpool unfortunate to only draw both games – two goals were conceded each time, and it wasn’t until Joe Allen came on and the defence pushed up higher against Spurs that the game was turned around.

It’s also something of a myth that Rodgers has stubbornly kept to just one approach. This season has seen Liverpool use all of 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3 and what is ostensibly 4-2-4 with Suarez playing in the hole.

Whatever the set-up, the emphasis on an attacking, passing game remains, but is that such a bad thing? Did the great Liverpool teams of old start lumping the ball forward if the were behind in games? No, like all top teams, they persisted with patience and faith in their ability and that the Liverpool way was the right way. After the stylistic horrors that were the reigns of messrs Houllier and Hodgson, Rodgers’ high-minded approach ought to be thought of as a blessing.

The manager’s priorities this summer will be to bring in (at least) two central defenders who won’t be bullied by physical strikers, as well as a defensive midfielder to stop opposition midfielders running at them from deep. That will give him solid foundations to play the counter-attacking game he has experimented with this year. Those calling for a ‘Plan B’, however, would be right to say counter-attacking is no use when chasing a game, because the opposition can simply drop off.

So what about when we are trailing in games, and what of this notion of ‘pragmatism’? Perhaps a definition might help: An approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. If we accept that the most successful style of play is that utilised by Barça and Spain, which Brendan Rodgers aspires to, it is most pragmatic to stick with it, to the bitter—or glorious—end.

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