Heart of football: Red alert as manager fine-tunes team culture

Heart of football: Red alert as manager fine-tunes team culture
Familiar faces encounter unfamiliar surroundings as Liverpool’s new signings Mario Balotelli (second right) and Adam Lallana (second left) watch their team’s performance during their English Premier League match against Manchester City at the Etihad stadium in Manchester on Monday.

Brendan Rodgers heads to his 100th game as Liverpool's manager back at the scene of his most significant triumph last year.

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Liverpool 5 at White Hart Lane last December had repercussions and rewards. For Andre Villas-Boas, it signalled the end of his short tenure as Spurs' coach. For Liverpool, it was the springboard to an all-out assault on the EPL title for the first time in the Premier League era.

It wasn't to be. Liverpool missed out to Manchester City at the end.

But a huge part of what took place at The Lane that afternoon is still reverberating now.

Tottenham had sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for £85.3 million (S$176.8 million), typically bartering to the last minutes in the window to squeeze the best price.

They had attempted a wholesale redistribution of the cash, and the team were like strangers to one another when they were exposed by Liverpool and Manchester City. Chairman Daniel Levy not only dispensed with Villas-Boas but also promoted, and then dismissed, Tim Sherwood as stand-in coach.

With Levy, you never say never until the transfer window shuts on his compulsive buying and selling.

But it does seem this time around that the Spurs' dressing room is less of a revolving door.

And, reassuringly, under Mauricio Pochettino, the Argentinian coach procured from Southampton, Tottenham have begun with four wins out of four.

It doesn't mean the fiddling is done. Spurs expect to sign defensive midfielder Benjamin Stambouli from Montpellier in France before deadline, and are negotiating to get Manchester United's Danny Welbeck on loan.

Federico Fazio, signed in the week to replace centre-back Michael Dawson, could make his debut today.

But these are ripples on the pond compared to the frantic buying and selling of last summer.

If Fazio is ready to face Liverpool, he will at least not have to try to do what no defenders managed last season - to tie down the Pimpernel, Luis Suarez.

The Uruguayan led the slaughter of Tottenham in a game that the Reds won without skipper Steven Gerrard and striker Daniel Sturridge, both injured that day.

And for all that Suarez was both beauty and beast in the EPL, his 31 goals for Liverpool in a season that he started late because of suspension was compelling. To most of us, anyway. Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, doesn't agree.

He said good riddance to Suarez. "An accident waiting to happen," Scudamore opined. "We won't miss him because there is only so long we can go on defending the indefensible."

Maybe Scudamore should stick to what he is good at, selling the TV rights to his precious league.

His judgment on Suarez ill befits an administrator who has skeletons in his own closet. And it misses the point about box-office players.

Suarez deserved to be punished for his biting habit. But for his talent, his perseverance, his refusal to take defeat lying down, he is close to being irreplaceable.

Liverpool have done a Tottenham this summer. They have spent the £75 million that Barcelona paid for Suarez, and a whole lot more, trying to recruit in all areas of the field.

Rodgers is where Villas-Boas was last season, trying to integrate and blend new players in defence, midfield and attack that Liverpool have bought from different leagues and cultures. Pochettino will recognise some of the new Reds because he had Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert (all new Liverpool signings) at Southampton last season.

But if there is one new Red purchased to fill the hole left by Suarez, it is surely Mario Balotelli.

For goals, for box office, for good and for bad, this is the news that chief executive Scudamore must have dreaded.

The league says good riddance to its mischievous star Uruguayan, and it gets, for a quarter of the price, a mischievous star Italian.

Balotelli's reputation is left on the EPL after his short, volatile, good-bad-and-wasteful Manchester City period.

Rodgers wouldn't say whether Super Mario is intended to go straight into the attack against Spurs today.

In effect, when he was asked for the 15th time in successive TV and newspaper press conferences about Balotelli, the coach tried to turn around that famous Balotelli line "Why Always Me?"

"I will tell you now, this won't be the Mario Balotelli show every week," Rodgers said. "He is going to be treated the same as every player here, that's for sure."

Rodgers is credited with persuading Suarez to be a team player at Anfield, and has earned the time it will take to have a go at getting the best out of Balotelli. "There are different conditions at Liverpool," the manager insisted on Friday. "You have to behave yourself in a certain way. Simple."

When he said that, my mind went back four decades to a time when I discussed man-management in the Liverpool boardroom together with manager Bob Paisley and chairman John Smith.

It was Smith, a consummate businessman, who observed: "What we're trying to do is the most difficult thing in the world - trying to get 11 different individuals to think and act as one at any given moment."

That, said the quiet man Paisley, is the aim. Most of the time, Liverpool achieved it, sometimes it got away from them.

And those were less pretentious times. There was less money, less foreign cultures to knit together in one dressing room and, dare one say it, less egotistical multi-millionaires around the place.

During his first 100 days in the role that Paisley (and before him Bill Shankly) held at Anfield, Rodgers has re-established the principle of team-first at Liverpool. He managed, in the short term at any rate, to integrate Suarez into that.

His next challenge is Balotelli. No matter what outsiders, TV experts or league officials included, say on the matter, the coming months will show whether Mario is a team man or not.

stsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on August 31, 2014.
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