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On the futility of glory

If Liverpool's title challenge was derailed by Chelsea, they only have their own hubris to blame.

Clive Brunskill

"Congratulations to Chelsea for the win, they probably came for a draw. We were the team trying to win but we just couldn’t make the breakthrough."

Liverpool went into Sunday knowing that a minimum of seven points from their next nine would be enough to secure themselves a first-ever Premier League title. A draw against Chelsea at Anfield would have set them up nicely for their trip to Selhurst Park next Monday before an abject Newcastle United rolled into Merseyside for a last-day beating. Granted, it wouldn't actually have won the Reds anything, but it would have left their destiny firmly in their hands.

Instead it's been wrenched away thanks to their 2-0 loss against Chelsea, an odd result against a team that "probably came for a draw". Said draw, had it happened, would have helped Liverpool and not done the Blues much good (although it would have mathematically secured a place in the top four and therefore Champions League qualification). And that raises an important question: Why were Liverpool trying so hard to win?

It's plausible that there's a probabilistic explanation for this. If Rodgers believed Chelsea were there for the taking and that three points would be in the bag with a push -- and that's not a silly thought, with the weakened lineup Jose Mourinho fielded at Anfield -- he'd have virtually secured the title with two games to play. It may well have been a risk worth taking, even though quite obviously the more one's team attacks the more vulnerable they are to a sucker punch.

But Rodgers' post-game press conference implies that there's something else at work.

"Jose has got his result today, credit to them. It's the opposite of how we want to play. It's not difficult to coach. Jose will show me his CV and say it works but it's not my way."

It's not entirely clear how much Rodgers believes his own words here, but if he's even slightly serious, he's merely the latest manager to succumb to the most insidious malaise in football: the belief that winning is not all that matters.

I'll leave former Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower to sum up the case for the opposition:

"The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom."

The pursuit of glory is what motivated Liverpool to come at Chelsea when they didn't need to on Sunday. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to go for a win you don't need and in the process risk the title, but for some, glory takes precedence over ignoble anti-football, no matter the result.

It's tempting to call this a peculiarly British perversion, but it manifests itself elsewhere as well. As Chelsea know all too well, Barcelona are a prime example, and their determination to stick to a philosophical identity probably cost them a pair of Champions League wins when they were far and away the best team in Europe.

This thinking doesn't just apply to football, either. For thousands of years, Western thinking (particularly testosterone-heavy Western thinking, which is most of what survives) has been dominated by ideas of glory and honour, with chivalric ideas somehow surviving virtually every monstrous setback they've received. And for thousands of years, commentators have been poking fun at the empty edifice that is glorious conduct. Here, for example, is Homer's Odysseus meeting Achilles in the underworld.

But you, Achilles,
There is not a man in the world more blest than you--
There never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see
You Lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.

I reassured the ghost, but he broke out protesting,
‘No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man--
Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—-
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

For Achilles, honour and glory count for little following Paris' cowardly shot from the battlements of Troy.

What does this have to do with football? For me, nothing at all, but for those who think there's an honourable way to play -- and therefore a dishonourable one -- it's everything. In truth, as Homer slyly has Achilles point out, honour and glory are farcical constructs, while winning and losing are real. And there's a major downside to letting pride rule your thinking: blindly playing for glory makes your side utterly, utterly predictable.

Dogma is a weakness, and it's a weakness I'm surprised a manager of the calibre of Brendan Rodgers possesses. If you're set to play one way, it gives the opposition warning of what exactly you have in mind almost every time. For Liverpool, Chelsea knew they would come at them with an early blitz, they knew that both Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling thrive on through balls into space and they knew that the Reds would grow increasingly desperate to score the longer the match went on.

A pragmatist would have accepted the point from the beginning and made Chelsea work for a goal. The Blues were the ones who needed the win and their lack of attacking impetus was only playing into Liverpool's hands. But glory took precedence, and the hosts pressed the attack. Even Steven Gerrard's calamitous slip was the product of a certain temerity -- placing a midfielder known for his exuberant attacking game in a deeper role means that any mistakes he makes will be punished severely.

Chelsea, of course, have an arch pragmatist on their side. Everything Mourinho did was calculated to disrupt the opposition. The 'timewasting' was designed to keep Liverpool out of their attacking  rhythm as long as possible rather than as a mechanism to hold out for a draw. The defence sat deep and narrow to force the Reds into doing what they're not good at, and by the end of the game they were being funneled to the top at the box to take frustrated looking long-range shots.

I also wouldn't put it past Mourinho to have instructed his players to deliberately exploit Gerrard's state of mind after his first half error. That's not a slight on Gerrard's mentality but rather his discipline -- he seemed hell bent on winning the game by himself after his slip on Demba Ba's goal -- and Chelsea offered him just enough glimmers of hope that he felt obliged to go it alone. To minimal effect, of course.

When one side plays the way the other team wants them to, they're in trouble. When the team pursuing glory is met by opposition intent on denying them the space they need to play their game and deliberately winding them up at every opportunity, the result often looks a little like what happened at Anfield. I'd compare it to the 2012 semifinal against Barcelona -- the second goal in particular had a very familiar ring to it -- but in truth Liverpool were a) nowhere near the Catalans' level on Sunday and b) didn't actually need to win.

A pragmatic Liverpool take what an inferior Chelsea lineup give them and secure what probably would have been a title-winning point. Rodgers' side went for glory and got burned for no other reason than stubbornness. And while the situations don't exactly parallel one another, Liverpool's plight reminded me of a poem from Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It starts like this:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward...

In this league, in this sport -- in every league, in every sport, in fact -- the ends justify the means. Forget that and you're shooting yourselves in the foot. Going for glory is seductive, but ultimately futile.

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