Football Will Eat Itself, And Eat Us Too

Football Will Eat Itself, And Eat Us Too
December 24, 2008 Paul Tomkins

Soon, nothing in football will make sense. Chaos will reign supreme. Already largely bereft of logic and consistency, a sense of anarchy will spread like Paris Hilton’s legs during a roller-skating orgy on a puddle of Swarfega. 

Football will eat itself, and eat us too. Just you watch.

All-out war will erupt between the pessimists and the optimists, the purists and the pragmatists, the dreamers and the realists, the hardcore and the daytrippers, the thinkers and the feelers, the singers and the groaners, the modernists and the traditionalists, the trolls and the bait-biters, the locals and the out of towners – and that’s just the fans of one club. God help when others get involved.

In football there are rules (of thumb), and there are exceptions to those rules, and it’s often hard to say which is which. Despite this, we will argue and debate our points of view, and no doubt contradict ourselves on more than a few occasions. 

I’ve recently made arguments in favour of Benítez that I poo-pooed in Houllier’s later years. I make the distinction that while the arguments may be the same (‘defensive style’, ‘taken us as far as he can’, ‘never going to win the league’, ‘has his favourites’), the men in question, their ideas, and the personnel, are all rather different. 

But of course it’s difficult to avoid hypocrisy; I happen to believe in Benítez far more than later-years Houllier, and have maintained all along that if it took Ferguson seven years to win a title, then Rafa should have the same luxury. Year-on-year, there have been improvements under Benítez, whereas things tailed away pretty dramatically for Houllier after 2002; so I didn’t feel the Ferguson comparison was apt with the Frenchman. Others might find this hypocritical.

And yet, of course, there are no guarantees with any manager, whatever his pedigree, whatever his record. 

So how do you accurately decipher what the hell goes on each week? And to quote Florence Reese, Which Side Are You On?

The problem with football debates is that arguments can usually be fought from either side with a degree of credibility (positioned in between the extremist views that flank the discussion, which may just be tiny sparks of genius or, more likely, the ravings of the jibberingly insane). 

Yet in amongst it all, everyone thinks that they are right. 

The internet has bred a new kind of fan with the attention span and patience of a stillborn fruit fly. (Although as it’s my medium, I can’t complain too much, can I?) Everyone sees themselves as a realist. And everyone thinks they have the answer. Often, it’s the exact opposite of what the manager has done.

Nothing in football can be totally wrong if you win, or totally right when you lose. There are rarely ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ approaches to the game, just what works on the day, and what, on average, might succeed if deployed in the long term. But every team is different; what works well for the goose might not be such dandy dander for the gander. Or something.

The same eleven players will never play the same way twice. Each will do things differently, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, as a reaction to their colleagues doing things differently. Practice, training drills and time to develop mutual understandings help lessen the chaos, but cause and effect blitzes every game of football from the first second to the last.

And therefore no two opposition teams, even if comprised of the same players, can ever play the same either. No match can follow the exact same path as another, or get remotely close; if you rolled back time, and started a match again, and again, and again, it would have a different outcome every time, and indeed, take a different path from the very first touch, given the split-second, instinctive decisions that are made throughout. 

Despite this, we all make conclusive judgements about what would have happened ‘if only’. “If only we’d gone for it”, or “if only we’d sat back”, and we’d definitely have won.

A side can look to pick the lock with 25 aesthetically pleasing passes, and end up scoring from a goalkeeper’s boot upfield or a shot that ricochets off someone’s arse. Charles Hughes, he of long-ball game fame, noted that it usually only takes a couple of passes to create a goal. But often these may be in the middle of long passing spells, when the opposition are worn down by a possession-based rhythm. 

That said, there is of course at least some truth to it. Sometimes direct is best, even if only as an alternative or for the element of surprise. Meanwhile, Brian Clough said that it only takes a second to score a goal. And yet you can’t score 5400 in a match, can you?

Whatever way you pitch something, there’s usually an alternative take; an example that suggests to the contrary. Expensive players can be rubbish, cheap players can look world-class. But then expensive players can look world-class, and as for cheap players, ‘well, you get what you pay for’. 

Supposedly ‘rubbish’ players can turn good after a week, a month, a year, or several years. Great players can suddenly turn ‘rubbish’ or ‘lose it’, and some may never get it back. Others do.

There are no hard and fast rules. Just vague precedents. 

In football, as we’ve all seen, you can play brilliantly and lose. You can play terribly and win. You can play your best XI and lose, or field a scratch side and win.

Then there’s formations. Table football aside, how often does any side play in strict lines, like 4-4-2? It’s only a very approximate system. And one team’s 4-4-2 is another team’s 4-5-1. It also differs depending on if the team is defending or attacking, and the particular need (i.e. containment, attacking desperation) at any point in the game.

What works for one side may be dependent on a particular individual. Then there’s the fact that even trying to exactly replicate another team’s system will never work, because it’s not the same group of players. And players are different once transferred to a new team because they are affected by what’s around them.

Of course, you always need Lady Luck to be a benign benefactress. Ah, but you make your own luck. Except when you’re, well, just plain unlucky

Let’s be clear: luck has no real relation to logic. The better you are the less you will probably need to rely on luck, but if referees send off your players for nothing and linesmen rule out good goals for no earthly reason and players break their legs after tripping over divots, then you can struggle. And often it’s about luck at the right time, as games can often swing on it.

Obviously goals win games. Goals are king. But you can score three or four goals and still get no points. Concede no goals, and you get at least one. 

Meanwhile, football, and its rewards, will never make total sense. Djimi Traoré has a European Cup winners’ medal; his compatriot Eric Cantona does not. Stéphane Guivarc'h has a World Cup winners’ medal; Michel Platini, Johan Cryuff and Kenny Dalglish do not. Ian Rush never even played in a World Cup. Robbie Earl did.

Of course, these are individuals, tethered to the talents of their team-mates. But plenty of great teams have finished empty-handed too, such as the Holland of the 1970s, Brazil in 1982 and, er, Derby County in 2008. And while not many crap teams have won major trophies, a few average or less-than-spectacular ones have. Liverpool’s double-winning team of 1986 was considered by Alan Hansen the worst he’d played in up to that point. Better Liverpool sides before (1979) and after (1988) won less.

When it comes to top-level playing experience, Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Rafa Benítez have little. Between them they won precisely zero international caps. Paul Merson has 21. 

Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola, Gareth Southgate and Tony Adams possess 283 international caps between them, yet all have had their struggles lately. Still the obsession exists to appoint great players, rather than great managers. 

Then again, Cryuff, Beckenbauer and Dalglish were almost as gifted and successful as managers as they were players. It is also true that some crap players have made equally rubbish managers; because, well, they just have little talent for anything.

So few examples are foolproof. And hypocrisy is everywhere.

Managers moan about players not honouring contracts, but then break their own. Clubs want to keep players tied to long-term contracts when the player is in top form, but then when a player is out of favour they resent having to pay him as he rots in the reserves; and when he’s a valued commodity they may try to sell him against his wishes.

Everyone hates diving and those who dive. But every team does it – some more than others, but no-one is exempt. And yet, while forwards are castigated for diving, defenders aren’t given nearly as much stick for all forms of blatant cheating with off-the-ball infringements. 

The referees must be more confused than anyone else. “Keep the best players on the pitch”, we hear, if bookings lead to sendings off; the fans don’t pay to see lopsided games lacking the real stars. But what about setting an example to youngsters? – that’s always an option to trot out. And who wants the best players being assaulted and injured with ugly challenges?

“Officiate with consistency”, we hear. And consistency only really comes with strict application of the law, with every referee sticking to the letter, to avoid variation. Ah, but common sense has to be applied … and common sense comes down to individual interpretation. Who’d be a referee? (Having said that, I do wish they’d occasionally weed out the clinically blind.)

So, do you want entertainment or the points? Usually when you get one, it’s the other that is craved. Truthfully, you need both to come close to pleasing everyone, but that’s not a weekly occurrence for anyone. Playing badly and winning is the sign of a good side. Except when you’re not a good side. Because bad sides have won games playing badly, too.

Then there’s the hypocrisy from the top. Alex Ferguson gets indignant with rage over Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, yet various players, going back to Jaap Stam and possibly beyond, have been snaffled through tapping up, and United’s pursuit of Dimitar Berbatov was heavily criticised for those very reasons. Spurs spat feathers over United’s approach for Berbatov, but poached their previous manager in much the same way. No-one likes poaching, yet everyone poaches. Go figure.

As for fans, it seems everyone wants what everyone else has.

Through gritted teeth, Liverpool fans admire Alex Ferguson, because he knows what it takes to win the English title; despite the fact that it took him seven years to first prove that fact, up to which point he was pretty useless. 

Chelsea fans admire Wenger, as they want their football to be more attractive than everyone else’s, because their only successes after 50 years of relative mediocrity came without the swagger that the owner desires. Chelsea want to win hearts across the globe, and success alone hasn’t brought that.

Arsenal fans admire Benítez, because many of them are sick of their ‘over-passing’ and want someone who can organise the team and have a variation of tactics. They may not like Liverpool’s style of play as much as their own purist aims for pass-pass-pass perfection, but it mixes a continental style with a strong backbone to the side, and they’re getting sick of slipping down the table.

As for Manchester City fans, well, they surely don’t know what they want anymore – but they must be ruefully contemplating how, even with more money than any other club in the world, they are no more successful. Indeed, they are currently, albeit in the short-term, significantly less successful.

Bastard that I am, I’m loving City’s struggles, and yet as a club and a team I bear them no particular malice; indeed, at least twice a season I even support them. 

But as with Newcastle’s perennial implosions, it’s fun to see any big club really hit the crapper. It’s not necessarily personal, more a case of “but for the grace of God go [my team].”

My enemy’s enemy is my friend is a motto that gets more apt with time; we almost delight as much in a rival’s failure as we do in our own team’s success. But with the ribbing, teasing and outright abuse, perhaps it’s no wonder. So doing well is one thing, but doing better than a certain someone else is often sweeter still. 

The bigger a rival’s aims and ambitions, the more fun it is when they falter. So it’s only natural that there’s also some merriment from elsewhere when Liverpool mess up. While the success of the halcyon days remains just out of reach, it’s nice to no longer suffer many of the indignities of the ‘90s, when the Reds really were crap, and not ‘Yes, we’re top of the league but I’m unhappy because I don’t like Dirk Kuyt’ crap. 

If losing to Barnsley in the FA Cup has to happen, at least it smarts less when finishing as one of the top four sides in Europe. If drawing at home to Stoke and Fulham has to happen, at least it happens on the way to topping the league at Christmas.

So, football rarely makes sense. And as I noted recently, the larger squads mean there is even more scope to moan about managers and their selections.

And yet, technically, Liverpool could fail to win another game this season and still be champions, with 59 points. 

It would need the billion-to-one chance of every single game involving every team to end in a draw, but, bizarrely, it’s still theoretically possible. And the way recent results have been going for the top sides lately, it might just happen…

Of course, that really would would be a Christmas miracle. Right, I’m off to the insane asylum, from where I will wish you all the best for the festivities and the New Year from within my beautifully padded cell.

"Tomkins not only shows why he is a prolific, talented writer but also cements his status as very knowledgeable and passionate Red. In my opinion this is Tomkins' best work to date; a thoroughly excellent read."

Vic Gill, Shanks' son-in-law and former LFC trainee

“The project that Tomkins has taken on here is highly ambitious: assessing each of Liverpool’s managers since Bill Shankly. He does this in his own irrepressible style of analyzing in detail every area that falls within a manager’s remit. And whilst Tomkins has a talent for such a task, where he excels here is in approaching each manager without any apparent pre-conceived ideas.”

Paul Grech,

"A unique analysis of the club's managers, which is no mean feat given the extensive bibliography of the club… informative … another perspective on the last 50 years at Liverpool."

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