Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers may not have been wrong to point out the poor performances of his players following Sunday's loss in the FA Cup, but he deserves an equal share of the blame.
Following Sunday's loss to a struggling League One side in the FA Cup, Brendan Rodgers did something few would have expected ahead of the match—he publicly criticised his players for failing to perform. He wasn't wrong to do so. He was, however, wrong not to admit his own culpability in Liverpool's whimpering exit from the cup at the hands of Oldham Athletic.
"I have to give credit to Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen," he began, sparing his two often isolated midfielders on a day when most deserved the harsh words their manager had for them. "They came out with some sort of credit but there weren't too many other than that. Oldham may not have been a big enough game for one or two of them but, if they don't learn, they won't be here, it's as simple as that. The same goes for the older players too.
"The boy [Matt] Smith hadn't scored a goal at home in two years and he's come up against arguably two big units at centre-half. A boy who has come out of university football and he looks like Didier Drogba. We have seen it before with [Aston Villa's Christian] Benteke, who after our game has disappeared. You know what you are going to get at places like Oldham. You have to roll your sleeves up and fight but we were too soft."
Rodgers was right, Liverpool were inexcusably soft. Particularly in defence, where Sebastian Coates and Martin Skrtel often seemed unable to cope physically with the enthusiastic hosts. Yet as Rodgers also touched on, physical opponents have been a consistent problem for Liverpool throughout the year—and it hasn't mattered who it is lining up in defence.
That might not excuse Skrtel and Coates, both of whom had exceptionally poor outings, but there can be no escaping that after having one of the stoutest defences in the league last season with defensive guru Steve Clarke on the staff, Rodgers' Liverpool has struggled defensively against physical sides. With mostly the same players in the squad, in the end this has to indict the manager more than it does the players.
"Look at Steven Gerrard's impact when he came on," Rodgers continued, "not just his quality but his sheer enthusiasm for the game. Our young players won't have a greater role model to follow. If they're bright enough, they'll learn from him and then hopefully they can be here for a long time. If not, they might find themselves playing in League One later on and they'll regret looking at a world-class player every day and not learning."
As with his criticisms of the defence, there was some truth in Rodgers' criticism of the young players he gave chances to on Sunday. Rather than fighting to prove they belonged, too many came out as though they expected Oldham to roll over. Too many played as though they believed their opponents would simply hand them victory on account of their far loftier standing in the English football pyramid.
Yet it is the manager who sets the tone; it is the manager whose decisions play a key role in how his players will approach any given match. And unfortunately for Rodgers, his approach towards Oldham Athletic spoke of exactly the same complacency, the exact same expectancy for an easy victory, as could be seen in his underwhelming charges.
The issue came not from Rodgers' decision to select youth and fringe players. Moreover, it's worth noting that he would have been criticised had he included only more proven players in the starting eleven while keeping youngsters like Coates and Jack Robinson on the bench. Instead, the issue has to be his decision to select four attackers and only two midfielders against a physical side looking to crowd the middle of the park.
Perhaps the players Rodgers did select should have been able to overcome the struggling League One side regardless of the naivety shown by his team selection, but with Rodgers having spent his time at Liverpool attempting to instal a system built around possession, that selection made the task more difficult than it needed to be—and it sent a signal that Oldham weren't likely to put up much of a fight.
Given the gulf in class between the two sides, maybe a pair of relatively lightweight wide attackers in Fabio Borini and Raheem Sterling along with a willingness to concede the middle of the park shouldn't have much mattered in the end. Whether it should have mattered, on this occasion it did. Rodgers can talk of the players letting him down and not be wrong in doing so, but he also must accept the role his choices played in Sunday's embarrassment.
On this occasion Liverpool were punished. They were punished for playing as though they believed victory was secured before the match even kicked off. And that's something Rodgers deserves his share of the blame for even if it's easy to understand why he feels many of the players he gave a chance to let him down.