This originally appeared on ESPN FC
After another disastrous slip from his team, Brendan Rodgers could only sit there with a disbelieving smile of regret.
“We go top tonight as well, with 81 points with a week to go in the season,” the Liverpool manager said after this tectonic 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, shaking his head as he paused. “And we sit here devastated.”
That is the incredible truth after this incredible match. It also reflects the remarkable scale of the team’s collapse, both in this game and in the title race.
The Arsenal side of 1998-99 are the only other team since the Premier League was founded to go into the final week on top yet not win the title, but that scenario came fraught will all manner of fixture caveats and complications.
Here, just when it looked like Liverpool were going to make it as difficult as possible for Manchester City, they so clearly created complications for themselves. Afterwards, Rodgers conceded the title.
“Yes, for me it is [over],” he said. “Yes. We needed to win tonight to keep the pressure on.”
Instead, after all the justifiable talk of the psychological work with Dr Steve Peters, Liverpool themselves buckled under pressure. Rodgers also conceded that afterwards.
They were consumed by the cauldron of Selhurst Park, their title challenge swirling down it. After Damien Delaney hit his deflected 78th-minute strike – his first of the season, typical, and Palace’s first of the night – a ripple went around the tight old stadium. The roar started. “Then everything took off,” as Tony Pulis put it.
“It was amazing, the support. When the second goal went in, it was just a matter of time until we got the third. That’s as good as I’ve heard for a long, long time.”
Liverpool won’t forget this for a long, long time.
They froze. Palace seized the moment, most notably the irrepressible Yannick Bolasie. HIs breathtaking run past Glen Johnson before the second goal was the real moment when it all really started. His utterly ambitious stride opened up an entire tract of the pitch, and the game. In there lay all of Palace‘s remarkable abandon and Liverpool‘s apprehension.
Rodgers’s side were by then playing with utter fear, paralysed in the face of almost every frantic Palace attack. Dwight Gayle showed contrasting coolness, offering such a cacophony of a climax.
“It’s thinking clearly under pressure which is important,” Rodgers lamented. “Our decision-making in that period of pressure has to be better. That’s not just tonight. It’s something I’ve seen at times this season. We ended up getting a point when we should have got three.”
That will be just as galling as the deep disappointment of this draw. Liverpool had actually done the hard part, both in the title race and the game. They had broken down a side as notoriously durable as Palace, and got the early goal that set them up with a genuinely ingenious set-piece through Joe Allen.
After that, Daniel Sturridge displayed his divine touch for the second, before Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez interchanged so gloriously for the third. It all reflected the absolute brilliant best of their football this season.
Yet, just when they seemed at a peak – returning to the top of the table with a win that put all the pressure on City – they hit rock-bottom. They completely caved in.
Worse, it would be difficult to say this wasn’t coming. It would also be difficult to say there wasn’t a strong degree of arrogance, even hubris, at the root of it.
Consider the amount of games over the last 13 fixtures in which Liverpool have been on the brink; in which they’ve conceded so many to really put them in trouble; in which they have displayed nerves. There was the 3-2 win at Fulham that started the run, Swansea City, Cardiff City, Sunderland, West Ham United, Norwich City and even Manchester City’s initial comeback at Anfield.
On each of those occasions, their attack did just about enough.
It was understandable, then, that they banked on it again. Here, however, their greatest strength became their greatest weakness. It left them so badly exposed. And, just as an admirable arrogance powered their play through this season, it arguably crossed over into something self-defeating there.
Rather than just see out the game, they tried to make up the goal difference. There was a clear hubris there. Liverpool went for everything, but it may well have cost them everything.
Some of Rodgers’s comments on this afterwards were curious, particularly given that he otherwise so creditably fronted up to the media after such an evidently devastating disappointment.
“It’s game management,” Rodgers said. “That was the key. Players, no matter how fit they are, are going to look a bit tired at the end. Palace were dead in the end, but they got the goal and then a second. It was the management of the game that cost us.”
Rodgers was talking in general, and about a more abstract concept but it is a criticism that should be directed at himself too. His final 10-word sentence, when taken in isolation, is actually apt. On this occasion, after such a supreme season for him personally, Rodgers’s management did cost them.
Some decisions were odd, not least those to bring on Victor Moses and Philippe Coutinho rather than Daniel Agger.
Whatever about game-management, Liverpool looked like they didn’t know how to defend. There is also a fair question over whether Rodgers actually knows how to set up a team defensively, even if that appears reactionary right now.
It is deeply ironic after his post-Chelsea comments, when he said Jose Mourinho’s kind of negative play is “not difficult to coach”. It looked beyond Liverpool here.
At the very least, Rodgers now does precisely know what areas of his team he needs to improve from the future. He admitted that afterwards. That can eventually be perceived as a positive, even if it does not feel like it now.
This could be the true making of this team. It has happened to other great sides of the past. As Paul Breitner once put it about Bayern Munich’s 4-0 defeat to Ajax in 1973, “it was one of the most important defeats you can have”.
“Sometimes a defeat is very important for your future.”
On the other side, there are long-term negatives to this too, beyond the painful memories. There is the very issue of perception. Because, over the past few weeks, there has been an unmistakable mystique about Liverpool; a wonder at just how they were doing it, and awe at the way they were doing it. Teams feared them.
Now, that fear may give way to something else, especially since the scale of the collapse was – without being too blunt – such a joke.
Teams will know how to set up against them, frustrate early on then counter.
Rodgers, instead, must stand them up again. Steven Gerrard’s words after the Manchester City win are more relevant now than ever. Liverpool must go again. They must look to the massive brilliant strides they’ve made. They must try and use this as motivation, as a positive.
Afterwards, Pulis tried to offer another positive.
“Don’t write Liverpool off yet,” the Palace manager said. “It’s been that kind of season.”
That is true, and there may be another twist. This just felt like a defining one.