Red heart still beating

Red heart still beating
January 20, 2009 Paul Tomkins

(Piece submitted to 20.1.2009 but not yet published.)

Well, this game had danger written all over it. 

Everton, with a great away record, were on a good run, and Liverpool had just been usurped at the top of the table. 

But despite the edgy nature of the match it looked there for the taking with five minutes remaining. Liverpool had ridden out the first half and broke through when on top in the second, only to experience heartbreak at the end.

The equaliser could have been better defended, but zonal marking remains the most reliable (if not infallible) system. Arteta’s deliveries and Cahill’s ability to ghost onto the end of them have flummoxed man-marking systems most weeks, too.

It was galling to then hear Evertonians sing about the Reds winning nothing this season, but the reality is that there are three trophies still very much attainable, and only one for those singing without irony (hopefully that figure will be zero come Sunday evening).

But the task has been made harder by the nature of this draw, in terms of morale and in terms of pressure. If a draw ever felt like a defeat it was this one.

I’m not going to come on here and do anything like throw in the towel in terms of my own beliefs, and nor would I expect that of anyone on the playing or coaching staff. I know some people won’t want to read some positives after a night like that, but equally, the death knell will be chimed on the Reds’ chances elsewhere, so I will offer my take on things. I may not be 100% right, but no-one can foretell the future.

(Having said that, in October I entered a competition on a Liverpool website to predict how many points and what goal difference the Reds would have by January 1st. I was one point out, having guessed one of the lowest totals, and spot-on with the goal difference, and ended up winning the prize; as it was a copy of my own book, naturally I let it go to 2nd place, but I also thought that Liverpool would be 2nd, not top, at that stage. So I’m not an ‘optimist’, I just don’t think we will win every game or blitz our way to the title.)

Winners have to focus on the positives, otherwise they will just give up. That doesn’t mean ignoring weaknesses, but you won’t find sports seminars on Negative Mental Attitude as a route to success. 

I always thought the point of this season was to make a challenge; and while there was the chance for it to be so much better, the Reds have topped the league for seven weeks over the mid-point of the season. That is progress, and that is an education for all concerned into how these things work. 

I’ve said over the past four years that no team has won the Premiership for the first time without having come 2nd (or joint-2nd on points) the previous season. Teams can no longer just jump from 4th (or further out) to 1st, particularly with the league’s top two last season also the top two in Europe. So if this isn’t the year, it can be seen as another building block. It will hurt, but it will also educate.

However, at this point the league table still doesn’t look too bad. It could be so much better, but I’m sure all teams can say that; after all, they’ve all dropped plenty of points of their own.

Whereas Chelsea and Manchester United won at the weekend against unfashionable opposition with goals right at the death (something United have started doing of late when not playing well), Liverpool hit the post in the dying seconds at Stoke. Sometimes the margins are that fine, whether you are on top form or not.

Earlier in the season the Reds were winning games in the 90th minute, this time they took the sucker punch square on the chin. The Everton support celebrated like they’d actually won a trophy. (It wasn’t that long ago that we had the same attitude to Manchester United, but now the Reds are genuine rivals and annually in the hunt for the same trophies.)

Liverpool have not become a bad team because they’ve slipped from the summit. But after some excellent performances over the festive period, a little edge has been lacking in the last two fixtures. Form comes and goes over the course of a season, no matter who you are. You have good spells and bad spells. Even champions don’t play like champions every week, and don’t win every week. 

The main positive is that the Reds have lost only once all season across 30 games in the major competitions. The main negative is that too many have been drawn. 

But in a bizarre paradox, people wouldn’t be focussing on the draws if Liverpool had actually lost a couple of those games; three defeats wouldn’t look too bad at this stage, and nor would six draws, which would be only one more than United – but one defeat, which is one fewer than United, combined with those eight draws, is somehow portrayed as a far bigger negative. 

So while I’m worried by the amount of draws, I’m also not losing sight of the fact that some of them have come in games that might have ended in the inevitable shock defeats that all teams seem to suffer at some point. Better disappointing draws than disappointing defeats.

Of course, part of the pattern of those draws has been down to the sharpness – or lack of – of Fernando Torres. He needs games to get back to his very best, but he is not yet fully into the swing of things.

It’s catch 22, and a bullet you just have to bite: each game will see him get fitter, sharper, stronger and more into his rhythm. There were signs last night that he was finding his old form, but also clear signs of rustiness. United struggled without Ronaldo for a few weeks earlier in the season, and then for a few games after he returned, so it’s not like Liverpool are unique in relying on the form and fitness of their best players.

A sublime piece of skill in beating three players, followed by the way he approached his effort that hit the post (even though he should have scored), highlighted both aspects of the Spaniard’s current condition: the great technique and acceleration (almost) of old, but the finish of a man who hasn’t played much football in a number of months.

It clearly gave Everton a lift when the Spaniard was inevitably replaced near the end; and yet the alternative gamble was to keep him on and risk further damage when at his most vulnerable. That’s why management is such a ludicrously tough job. Sometimes you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

It’s also peculiar how you get these weird, almost unexplainable patterns in football, which swing wildly between seasons. In Peter Crouch’s first year he couldn’t score in Europe; then in his second season he was the competition’s second-top scorer, behind some little-known fella called Kaka. Ditto Dirk Kuyt, who went until the last minute of his first season to nab a European goal, then the next season virtually all his strikes came in the Champions League.

And now we have Torres, almost all of whose league goals came at Anfield last season, and yet this time he has five away and none at home. However, had he been fit this season, it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have been approaching double figures at at Anfield, and that there’d have been fewer draws as a result.

We know that derby games will always be something of a lottery. Again, Manchester United lost both of theirs last season, and that to a team not as strong as the current Everton side. So it’s not like Liverpool are failing in areas where other teams have not.

Similarly, a lot is always made of Manchester United’s attacking prowess, and criticism is made, in turn, of Liverpool’s inability to put teams to the sword, but going into the Everton game, Liverpool had actually scored more league goals, and that without Fernando Torres more often than not.

I stated early on in the season that this is a Liverpool team showing the hallmarks of champions – but that other teams were, too. That remains the case; United are now favourites, and have the current momentum, but despite their game in hand, the two clubs are level on points and barely separated by goal difference.

The league as a whole is more competitive, and now only three points separate the top four. But the Anfield form has to improve soon if the Reds are going to keep challenging. Liverpool are very much in the race, as the league table definitively proves, but it’s getting to the stage where a couple more slip-ups will prove fatal.

The games against Chelsea and Manchester United (and Aston Villa) will give Liverpool the chance to turn the table back in their favour. Break a hoodoo like at Stamford Bridge in October with a win at Old Trafford, and everything could switch back. But Liverpool will almost certainly need to go there with the gap at a minimum.

To conclude, I honestly wouldn’t have expected the Reds to be anywhere near as fully in contention at this stage had I known that Torres would miss more games than he played. This means that so much more is right than wrong with the team. 

The aim now has to be to follow a couple of backwards steps with even more made in advance, and prove that the red heart still beats strong. 

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