"We were the better team with the ball. We just could not unlock them."
So said Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers after their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Chelsea on Sunday.
Rodgers's comments reflect a larger feeling in English football that playing a defensive style means never being the better team, whatever the result at the final whistle. Win 2-0? Go out with a plan, play well-organised football and break your opponent's 11 match winning streak? Doesn't matter. If you try to win 'boring', you're morally weak and played bad football.
It's nonsense, obviously. As hoards of pundits will fight to tell you whenever a manager gets fired, football is a results-driven business. A scrappy 1-0 win is, ultimately, worth more to a side than a thrilling 4-4 draw. Aside from the "sport as entertainment/competition" argument (more on that in a minute), most observers outside of the deluded Anfield bubble could see that Liverpool rarely posed a genuine threat to Chelsea on Sunday, while being loose at the back themselves. How that constitutes being the "better team" is hard to understand.
Putting aside the specifics of Sunday's game, let's address the more general concept of 'parking the bus' being a sign of moral weakness.
No football fan wants to see their team lose and, when pushed, the aesthetics of your team are expendable. For example, you'll be very hard-pressed to find an example of a chairman deciding to stick with a manager after a season resulting in relegation because they refused to compromise their principles of playing attractive football.
In fact, such a stubborn refusal to adapt to the situation presented to them could well be what gets them fired. Indeed, it's Brendan Rodgers's unwillingness to consider a more conservative Plan B that may have lost Liverpool the title this year. They've conceded twice in each of their four matches against their main title rivals this season, resulting in them losing all but one of those games.
To lose one or two of those matches could be explained by the high quality of their opposition, but three defeats and the manner in which they came should really have alarm bells ringing at Anfield. It's all very well to want to give your fans entertaining football, but it seems reasonable to trade 90 minutes of dull, attrition based football against Chelsea for a first league title in 24 years. The decision to plough on ahead with an unchanged strategy on principle is, at best, hopelessly naive.
Footballers are paid, fundamentally, to win football matches. Managers are paid to facilitate that. The moment that the entertainment becomes more important than the result, it raises a lot of questions about the shape of the sport in general. Should teams, perhaps, play with a goalkeeper, two defenders and eight attacking players? They might lose a lot, but it'd be entertaining to watch.
That is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that the line between what is acceptably defensive and unacceptably defensive is completely arbitrary and ultimately a pointless concept. Chelsea have played defensively when the situation required it against their top three rivals this season, beating Man City and Liverpool home and away. Liverpool have stuck rigidly to their attacking, flowing football and have been beaten. From a footballing point of view, it's hard to argue that Rodgers and his Reds side got their approach right.
Another quote from Rodgers makes his refusal to adapt even more laughable - "Just putting 10 players right on your 18-yard box is not difficult to coach." So why not do it? He had, in his own words, an easy way to keep Chelsea out and take his side one step closer to their first title in 24 years. The fact that he didn't use it offers up two equally interesting possibilities. Either he's deliberately sabotaged the success of his side for aesthetic reasons or he knows that 'parking the bus' is harder than he's making out. The latter is a just about understandable attempt to shift attention away from him and his players, but the former would be simply unforgivable.
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