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Nov 4, 2013

Expecting the unexpected with Liverpool

Catfishing. For those not familiar with these transient fads of MTV pop culture or even the story of Hawaiian linebacker Manti Te'o, an explanation: To catfish is to pretend you’re somebody else (traditionally online) by publishing false information, usually with the intention of making a person fall in love with you.

• Usher: Rodgers must resist urge to change

It’s about deception and surprise, reinvention and subversion of expectation. They are ingredients that not only make a good television show or compelling news story, but also a well-functioning football team. The intention is not to make the opposition to fall in love, however -- not even the intellectuals of the football world could make an argument for that. The sole intention is to win football matches.

The premise is simple. If a side plays as expected then it is far easier to counteract their threats and exploit their weakness unless, of course, that side become so good at what they do then it is problematic to do anything about it anyway. The examples of that, though extreme, are plentiful: the tiki-taka of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola was apparent to all, but all teams struggled to repel it; the sheer rhythm of Jose Mourinho’s counter-attacking Chelsea in his first few seasons at Stamford Bridge was football’s most obvious trap, yet the opposition were powerless to fall into it.

When Brendan Rodgers joined Liverpool, this appeared his intention. Death by football, pass and move, flipping triangles -- all quirky phrases, not all uttered by him, to essentially promote the ultimate, unilateral goal. Liverpool would become a relentless machine, not allowing teams to even touch the ball; teams would be powerless as his side passed around them, through them, and towards the table summit. Football could do just two things in response: nothing, and like it.

But it didn’t work, the implementation of the style so exalted at Swansea far more difficult than expected. It did not help that the effervescent Luis Suarez and instinctive Steven Gerrard, their two best players, did not possess what was necessary for the measured, methodical style of play. Rodgers changed it, dodging the barbs of criticism that claimed he was too stubborn, and eventually adding Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge to create a side that relies more on instinct, on flashes of individual brilliance and simply allowing good players to play good football.

With the history lesson over, it is now time for the fun part. On the television show, when the love-drunk victim is presented with the sobering realisation their partner is not who they think they are, there is an element of amusement. The victim usually stands, open-mouthed and frozen, as realisation gnaws at them.

So it is for football, too. When a side does not play as expected, it can confuse the opposition and leave them disjointed and frozen. For Liverpool alone -- indeed, under Rafael Benitez alone -- there are a number of occasions when that has happened.

Consider the high-tempo start against Juventus in the Champions League quarter-final of 2005 when, after half-an-hour, the Italian champions were on the floor after Liverpool essentially adopted a 0-0-10 formation when a tight, defensive outlook was expected. Consider the 3-1 away win at Newcastle in March 2006 when, for no reason, Liverpool played the (wonderfully relevant) 3-4-1-2 formation - -they were 2-0 up within 35 minutes.

Praise is deserved for Rodgers, then, for making Liverpool the Premier League’s biggest catfishes of the past calendar year.

It’s about deception and surprise, reinvention and subversion of expectation. No side has done that more than Liverpool since January and, unless Stoke City suddenly begin their homage to Barcelona quickly, it will remain that way.

It is one of the reasons they have performed so well this year and won 50 points from a possible 84 with just five defeats. One of the greatest unknowns every week is of what football Liverpool will produce -- that is not to cry of inconsistency or a lack of long-term direction, though they are criticisms that will be levelled at both manager and players. Instead, it demonstrates their versatility and ability to play different styles of football when it suits; flexibility is something Rodgers is clearly keen on, as evidenced by using the 3-4-1-2 system in recent months.

When it works, it can be devastating. Signs began away to Arsenal and Manchester City within four days early in January. Liverpool opted to play so attacking against Arsenal in the first hour at the Emirates when confidence appeared so low after the FA Cup exit to Oldham; Arsenal were flummoxed and only a quick second-half burst saw them take a point. City, meanwhile, did not think the away side would be so confident on the ball and strive to retain possession as they did; only a Pepe Reina error denied Liverpool the three points. Later that season, Newcastle did not expect such adventure from Liverpool in their first game after Suarez’s ban and eventually lost 6-0.

It has continued into this season. Who would have thought Liverpool, so free-flowing towards the season’s end, would take 1-0 leads and hold them so dearly with defensive displays so resolute? After nine points from the first three games, they then decided to go toe-to-toe with Swansea and were rewarded with a well-earned point.

The problem with this, as evidenced with their 2-0 defeat to Arsenal on Saturday, is knowing when to catfish the opposition.

Though last season’s Arsenal result was founded on a quick start with attacking endeavour, this is a different Arsenal side: Olivier Giroud has become one of the most complete strikers in the league, Aaron Ramsey is transformed and Mesut Ozil is, well, Mesut Ozil. The expectation would have been for Rodgers to send his side out to contain, to play as they did against Manchester United at Anfield with a 1-0 lead; instead, Jordan Henderson and Gerrard remained advanced, leaving Lucas Leiva isolated. It was not expected before the game, but the decision brought the expected result: Arsenal’s mobile midfielders (and even the not-so-mobile Mikel Arteta) relished the space and dictated play.

There must be balance to this. It is unfair to herald Rodgers and his side for their ingenuity and then deliver disparagement when it does not go all to plan. But knowing when to do it, and maintaining a high ratio of success, is vital -- not since the 3-1 defeat at Southampton in March have Liverpool got it so wrong. Moving onwards, knowing when to surprise and when to execute an expected plan perfectly should ultimately dictate whether it is a season good or bad, and management good or great.