By Paul Tomkins.
In order to let in some light, let’s first study the darkness. The one thing that’s undeniably definite in life is also the thing we most stridently ignore: death. We distort reality in order to avoid facing that grim conclusion; facing our grim conclusion. We tell each other that life should be good, and fair, and that we should be happy, but shit happens. If you live a long life you will see a lot of death around you* … and that’s what happens if you’re lucky.
(*If you’re a football commentator, you will see a lot of death “in and around you”.)
Perhaps we cling to the myth of immortality – or simply ignore our inevitable demise – just as we cling to the notion that our club should be doing better than it actually is, which is a delusion shared by fans of approximately 92 English league clubs. Even fans of those who are top of the league think things should be going better.
Often when I confront fans with the realistic likelihood of what their club (usually Liverpool) will achieve they accuse me of destroying their hope. But hope can also be the denial of reality. If you want to hope that Liverpool will win the league, feel free to do so. But unless it’s 1988 again, you’ll probably end up disappointed. And when people get disappointed they lash out, and get depressed, and are irrational. And they never, ever seem to make the connection. Hope is great, in theory, but in practice it’s what drives you crazy.
Liverpool have some problems right now, which I will come onto. But much of my work the past few years has been about setting a realistic baseline, against which league performance can be judged. In individual games all kinds of crazy shit can happen, but more often than not the teams with the costliest XIs and the highest wage bills win those matches (maybe 60-70% of the time).
A team costing £1m can beat a team costing £200m, but it will almost certainly never finish above it in the league. This is a basic fact that people seem to misunderstand; the difference between the one-off shock and the 38-game season. On the day, tactics are important. But over the course of the season, player quality and the strength in depth evens things out, smoothing it into the natural order. Occasionally that order can bring about a surprise, but it’s usually the same old names in roughly the same old positions at the same old time of year. It never brings about a surprise like a team like Southampton being in the top three come the end of the season. The surprises mostly happen in the first few months of the season, when the sample size is smaller.
I wonder how people can say that Liverpool are regressing when last season wasn’t an accurate reflection of the quality of the squad and the strongest XI, but a mixture of outrageous talent (Suarez), super-positive football that at times rode its luck but deserved the rewards, a freakish number of set-piece goals, plus some circumstances in the team’s favour (rival clubs in turmoil, lack of hindering cup games, lack of serious injuries to key players, etc.).
You can’t take last season as your baseline. It was an outlier.
Liverpool have gone backwards? Or did they simply lose their best player and pick up a goal-killing injury to their other star striker, whose return, many months later, showcased clear rustiness? Was it not also the difficult, but inevitable phasing out of an ageing legend? And then, amongst other setbacks – and just as things were looking up – did we not see the loss of the 19-year-old who broke into the team to become its most exciting player?
If I recall correctly, we were hoping we could finish around 5th at the start of last season. But it all went a bit mental. Like a team that gets promoted to the Premier League “too soon”, the problem can be that you aren’t as good as one season’s data suggests. You outperform the model just once, and then you’re cast into a situation beyond your abilities and experience. You’re in too deep, and you flap about.
A few weeks ago I talked about negativity bias, and how an equally good and an equally bad event would result in the bad event feeling five times worse than the good. I pondered, after Liverpool won nine or ten games virtually in succession, if just two defeats would put the mood back down to where it was before the great run. Does two bad defeats cancel out ten good wins? Well, you can answer this for yourselves.
When Liverpool were winning lots of games I still felt the Reds were likely to finish 5th (I voted so in a poll on this site). Once you’ve gone on a great run of 12 or 13 games, defeat has to be lurking soon; only the best teams can beat those odds and go unbeaten for 20 or 30 games. Could a team that cost roughly half of what the best teams cost, and which has a very young average age, overcome those odds? Remember, winning 11 league games in a row last season was an event that occurs, on average, once every five years in a Premier League season. Only once every five seasons will someone win 11 games in a row in the same season. You can’t expect these things to be like buses.
And it would always only take a couple of defeats to kill off the chances this season, because when you’re playing catch-up you have less room for error. I spoke at length in the first half of the season about what was going wrong, but Rodgers rectified those things ahead of the u-turn in form that resulted in an excellent few months. However, Liverpool essentially needed to maintain title-winning form just to finish 4th; and with a team averaging around 24 years of age, you won’t get title-winning form over many many months, especially when the youngest Champions in the modern era (Chelsea in 2005) were over 25, and the average is about 27.
We all remember falling from 2nd to 5th under Houllier, and 2nd to 7th under Benítez, but while I felt that there was always a slight chance that Liverpool would improve this season (there’s always a slight chance of something unfathomable occurring), there was also the strong possibility of regression to the mean. And that mean is 5th. It’s the average position of the club in the two seasons before this campaign; and it’s the ranking of Liverpool’s team cost (£XI), it’s squad cost, and its wage bill. Yes, I got carried away after the 3-0 win at Spurs, when the new players looked great, but I was still being carried by the fantasy of last season.
If there’s one thing you should have expected this season it’s that Liverpool were likely to finish 5th, or thereabouts. Remember, if you beat the odds one season then unless you have some radical secret weapons you’ll probably struggle to do so the next season.
As it is, the hedonic treadmill means that after finishing 2nd we can’t even be satisfied with 2nd again; it always has to be better, otherwise it feels worse. We acclimatised to 2nd over the summer, and even then, people stupidly asserted that Brendan Rodgers’ tactics cost the Reds the title, when his tactics – or his approach – were part of an unforeseeable improvement, and indeed, radical over-performance. These critics put the failure in a couple of games down to tactics, and ignored how 26 games were won – almost always enough to win you the title – and 101 goals were scored; again, almost always enough to win the title.
And if you also happen to do well in the cups – which fans demand – you will probably suffer some kind of league hangover. It’s no secret that clubs want to avoid the Europa League because it’s shown to make life harder in the league.
Again, if you have the quality of side that usually wins 50% of its league games, then you play 15 cup games and win 10 – perhaps likely in a smaller sample – it seems likely to me that you might then win only 40% of your league fixtures. If you’re capable of winning half of your games, you’ll probably win half of your games; those victories may just be spread across different competitions. You may take wins out of one pot to put in another.
Unless your team consists of machines, players will feel the burden of a higher workload, and experience an increased chance of injury. Also, teams often lose a higher number of league games both before and after a big cup clash, as they may be a fraction less sharp after one, and perhaps a tad wary of getting injured (or exhausted) before one (and managers may rest stars for the bigger clash). You can talk about professionalism, but even the world’s elite athletes train to peak at certain periods of time; they don’t run at the same level for 10 months of the year. And football is a more complex psychological experience than, say, athletics, because you are competing against an opponent, in ‘combat’. Athletics would be more psychologically complex if rival athletes were able to hinder their opponents, rather than simply run in their own lanes. Imagine running 400 metres with Robert Huth bearing down on you from the side.
Odds, Odds, Odds
Liverpool are all about overcoming the odds: the odds of being the 5th-ranked team in financial terms, and being expected to fit into the top four, like a quart squeezing into a pint pot. In the summer they spent £110m (people add £10m as if Origi could have played a part this season), and my study of the odds (based on 3,000+ transfers) suggests that, based on the law of averages, maybe only £50m of that will prove to have been invested very wisely. Some will prove to be invested on players who neither fail nor succeed, and some of it will prove to be invested on flops. Very occasionally (such as 1987) you get a freakishly successful crop of signings, but it’s pretty rare for any club to do that.
My study of transfer odds also suggested that maybe only 25% of the spending would have an immediate and significantly positive impact this season. Now, this is based on a smaller sample, but it relates to the best 50 Premier League signings, according to my Transfer Price Index model. In other words, only one in four of many of the best players in our league since 1992 were clear successes over the course of their first season (some came good in their first season, but often too late to call it a clear success). Over time they became the successes that we remember, but more were slow or slowish starters.
Now, one of the main reasons Manchester United are doing better than Liverpool this year, despite not necessarily playing superior football (both teams have had long stodgy periods of the campaign, particularly early on, plus some good runs), is the greater costs of the squad, the XI and the wage bill. Overall, providing that they are not being managed by someone promoted above their station, their quality will out. Unless seriously mismanaged, they should be above Liverpool.
What’s interesting is that, as many Liverpool fans moan about £110m or £120m being “wasted”, United’s £150m summer spend hasn’t necessarily worked out any better for them, despite it being largely based on the kind of ‘world class’ players Liverpool supposedly needed. (Of course, United also didn’t lose their best player to poachers.) Angel Di Maria has looked worth only a fraction of the £60m he cost, and Radamel Falcao’s £16m loan has thus far been a waste of everyone’s time and money. Luke Shaw hasn’t even played half the games, and Marcos Rojo hasn’t worked any wonders. But Daley Blind has done an important job, and Ander Herrera looks increasingly impressive; statistically the best all-round midfielder in the league, I hear, despite struggling to get a regular game in the first half of the season.
In time, I’d expect high-quality young/youngish players like Shaw and Rojo to stand a very good chance of succeeding, and Di Maria’s pedigree is fairly likely to shine through, given that he’s still only 26. But if we took a snapshot now, we’d see that, at best, maybe half can be considered clearly successful, and only one – Herrera – exceptional. That’s £150m spent, for – to date – £30m of top-class return, but even the little cameos of players like Di Maria, even if underwhelming for the fee, can win games.
Plus, Falcao shows that even the megastar signings can still flop (before the start of this season, five of the 10 costliest Premier League deals, once inflation is taken into account, have flopped; had he cost £50m, rather than a loan fee, the Colombian would also have been in the top ten.) Give or take a slightly subjective disagreement here and there as to how well these United players are doing (and I’m only going on what I’ve heard, given that I don’t regularly watch them), it seems about par for the course according to my model.
If you look at how Liverpool spent their £110m (and let’s not include Divock Origi, whose stats are actually very good for his age, until he arrives), the odds aren’t out by too much; although perceptions fluctuate on how well these players are doing, which is coloured right now by two bad defeats against top-four sides.
Remember, even if last summer Liverpool signed the Suarez who arrived in 2011 they wouldn’t have had the Suarez they sold. It took the striker two years to become that lethal; he wasn’t a £75m player then (if he was, he’d have cost more than twice what Liverpool have ever paid, and of course, been out of reach). Perhaps Liverpool were always going to struggle given the age of many of their new signings, in that the budget (and individual wage packages) made it harder to sign top-end ready-made talents. This takes us into catch-22 territory, but first, let’s quickly look again at the signings made in 2014.
Emre Can, at £10m, is a mega-bargain. It’s probably fair to say that, given that he’s only just turned 21, he has the clear potential to be worth £40m within a couple of years. We’d all be happy with his performances so far had he cost £20m, so that’s worth bearing in mind, and parking the idea of him being worth more than that until more time passes.
Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana have had bright moments, and a couple of man-of-the-match displays, but haven’t yet looked worth their fees; at just 20 you’d expect Markovic’s exceptional pedigree – a regular international in his teens – to shine through by the time he’s 21 or 22, and fully adjusted to life in England. But nothing is guaranteed. Alberto Moreno has been a mix of good play with pace, and some terrible defending. And teenage loanee Javier Manquillo did okay when he was in the team earlier in the season.
So far, Lallana aside, these are all aged 22 and under, and in need of some patience; just as I demanded be afforded to Jordan Henderson after his first season.
For the fee, you could argue that Rickie Lambert has done okay; but he’s been a fringe player of little note. The problem for the club, which hasn’t changed from early in the season, is that Lovren, 25, and Balotelli, 24, just haven’t settled, and they represent a big chunk of the outlay, with the Italian – a late gamble after other deals fell through – also taking home a relatively a hefty wage. The ‘here and now’ buys have been the problem; the ‘ones for the future’ have been the ones doing more this season.
At 25 I wouldn’t write off Lovren, given his youth pedigree and the later-blooming nature of centre-backs, but his start has been so bad it may have irrevocably damaged his confidence, and his need for a quick partner to cover for his lack of pace limits the options. Balotelli has, at best, looked like the right player playing the wrong game; and at worst, like he wasn’t playing at all, even when he was in the XI. As disappointing as Balotelli has been, he’s fared no worse than the “far more reliable” Falcao, whose one-year loan fee matched the Italian’s entire transfer fee, and whose wages are more than £100,000-a-week higher.
(It’s worth clarifying here that high transfer fees improve the odds of success, but only by about 10% from average-priced transfer fees; the richest clubs succeed because they buy lots of expensive players and the flops are merely moved to the margins of a strong squad of 25-30. Like a gambler at a slot machine, they simply pay for more spins of the wheel. In Chelsea’s case, they’ve also used their wealth, in the build-up to FFP, to cleverly/cheekily stockpile promising players who other clubs in Europe then pay Chelsea for the privilege of improving them before they get sent back.)
The key is not to think that these Liverpool players are only as good as they’ve been this season; just as Henderson, aged 20, barely looked a quarter of the player he now is, and in his first 18 months Suarez was essentially only half the goalscorer he would become. Equally, Philippe Coutinho is better at 22 than he was at 20.
The problem has been that in order to finish in the top four again this season the Reds needed to exceed the ‘normal’ odds on signings, and that clearly hasn’t happened. But that doesn’t mean the money is wasted. Players often come good after their first season, especially younger ones.
But there’s no doubt in my mind that Liverpool are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to transfers. The owners are rich, but relative paupers when compared with those at City and Chelsea; and FFP means that the club cannot spend as freely as United and Arsenal, whose greater turnovers mean they can also pay higher wages. Liverpool cannot call upon the cosmopolitan glamour of London, which proved a deal-breaker over Alexis Sanchez, and which has helped Chelsea over the past decade.
Perhaps the only sensible alternative for Liverpool is to buy high-quality youngsters who are still underpriced in terms of fees and wages. They just may not be immediate stars, and of course, any club doing this risks losing them once the richer clubs come calling. And yet when ranking 5th in all the important financial measures, Liverpool can’t afford to build a squad big enough to tip the odds in their favour of continual top-four finishes; and continual top-four finishes are a virtuous cycle, with Liverpool left outside in the vicious circle, the catch-22.
Perhaps consciously choosing to play less cup football would help initially, until the squad is more complete, but how do you expect Liverpool fans to accept giving up silverware in the hunt for the finances that will improve the odds of better silverware? Liverpool weren’t entirely ready to be back in the Champions League this year (certainly once Suarez wanted out), but being in it complicated domestic matters. It may be simplistic, but last year there was virtually no cup football, and this year there have been 17 games already.
So, to be clear, FSG can’t pump money into the club for transfers, or the club will breach FFP. The club can’t pay more than the 5th-highest wage bill right now because they don’t have the turnover that comes from being settled in the top four, and would again breach FFP (and handing out five-year contracts based on top four qualification isn’t really wise after just qualifying for the first time in five years). They can’t attract the biggest stars unless they pay the biggest wages and become Champions League regulars; but they can’t become Champions League regulars without the money that comes from being Champions League regulars. And they can’t attract those who prefer would prefer London, because Liverpool isn’t in London.
(For those telling me that we should simply bring back Rafa Benítez, who I will always love and admire, it’s worth noting that the Reds were always in the top four financial rankings in England during his time; often ranking 4th out of the top four – and therefore expecting the title would have been unfair, as I argued at the time – but always competing with ‘just’ Chelsea, United and Arsenal as part of a top four that rewarded the top four; whereas now there are four richer clubs hogging those top four spaces. Rafa’s brilliance helped create European runs that attracted top names, but he never had the kind of squad depth – as backed up by how much it cost at any given point – that the title-winners had; those teams that can handle European runs and still win the Premier League. Rafa has done brilliantly with the cups with Napoli, but two extended cup runs this season seems to have finally scuppered their league form. While I think Rafa inherited a pretty poor squad at Liverpool, and worked wonders for five years, Rodgers has done more than enough in my eyes to continue in the job.)
Perversely, Liverpool are one of the ten richest clubs in the world, and yet only the 5th-richest domestically, when the odds heavily favour the four richest (the current top four, funnily enough; who says I just make this stuff up?). If Liverpool were only the 15th-richest club in the world, but the third-richest in England, things might be much more beneficial; they’d be guaranteed the regular Champions League income and the kudos of competing in it to attract better players. And there’d only be two richer teams in the country to try and overtake, even if only for one season.
With all this in mind, what do you do?
Seriously, what do you do?
One logical solution – as crazy as it seems – would be to try and bring through the best young players you can, over a period of a few years, with a manager who isn’t going to clog the XI up with hoary old pros.
I know, it’s nuts, isn’t it?
You risk losing those who want out before the project comes to fruition – or those whose agents agitate for too much money – but then you bring through the next starlet, providing that you have one (which is never guaranteed, but is the ideal scenario). Maybe that just leads to maintaining the status quo – running to stand still, as an ponytailed Irish rocker once said – but unless you can buy hitherto ‘unspotted’ great talent at cheap prices – at least a couple of Emre Cans a season that you smuggle out of Germany – then going down the youth route could be as good an answer as any, even if the initial phase with youngsters can be inconsistent.
As a quick aside before I conclude this sermon, two of the most famous ‘youth-based’ English sides of the last 25 years were the Liverpool and Manchester United vintages of the mid-‘90s. For a while the home-grown likes of Fowler, McManaman, Owen and co. looked as good as Scholes, Giggs, Neville and Beckham. Both clubs saved a lot of money by having such an unusually high number of exceptional youngsters. The difference was that Alex Ferguson spent the money he saved on an excellent backbone to the side – Schmeichel, Pallister, Keane, Ince, Cantona, Cole et al – whereas between 1989 and 1998 Liverpool barely signed anyone who was much better than average (I’d plump for Rob Jones as the one top-class signing, before injury struck, and with Jamie Redknapp, also a teenager when signed, another important player for a while. Patrik Berger was great in patches, and Danny Murphy proved a useful much later on, but neither were sensational).
Both clubs broke the British transfer record a number of times in those nine years, and both clubs made big mistakes in the market; but for a decade, most of Liverpool’s buys proved massive disappointments. Liverpool lost a lot of money on their buys, whilst United won a lot of titles with theirs.
I’ve mentioned the saying “it’s the hope that kills you” a few times before, but it’s a paradox that’s actually proven in studies to be true.
Two examples. People who had colostomies (the removal of part of the bowel) were found to fare better mentally if they were given no hope of further treatment than those who were told they might be eligible for further helpful procedures later on. And in a study of criminals given life sentences in America, it was discovered that those who stand no chance of parole – those who will definitely die in prison – fare better mentally than those who have a chance of possibly seeing the outside again. How fucked up is that?
To accept your fate – particularly when you can’t change things (and as individual fans we can’t really change things) – actually brings a sense of relief; to constantly crave an improvement in your circumstances, particularly when you can’t change things yourself, actually makes you unhappier. There are times when hope can be helpful, particularly as hopelessness is not a good state to be in; no one wants their club to be on the brink of oblivion. But I’m not sure unrealistic hopes actually help. By all means be positive at the game, but don’t go there (or onto Twitter) with a sense of entitlement.
And so I’ll say again: we’re all gonna die. So – and here I’m just spitballing – maybe just enjoy the experience of football rather than torturing yourself with hopes of great things; hopes that, if they ever get realised, will only wither on the hedonic treadmill and become stagnation. If you win 7-0 every week you’ll just find reasons to moan about why you’re not winning 8-0 every week. That’s how our minds work.
NOTE: I have already written a follow-up piece addressing some of the comments people have made about this.
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