By Paul Tomkins.
Losing is a weird thing in that it hurts more as soon as you stop being used to it. And of course, it hurts even more if you’re 2-0 up, with the chances to have been 5-0 up, and then manage to throw it away; in other words, the Reds totally “Skrtelled it” today.
The previous eight games had seen no defeats, other than by a penalty shootout, against a City side who turned up that day (for a change).
Here on TTT we regularly question the existence of “momentum”, given that it’s hard to spot in long sequences of results. Graeme Riley once looked at the entire history of Liverpool’s results, and the odds of winning or losing a game seemed no different after winning or losing the previous game. Various studies have said “hot-hands” – the basketball term for momentum, or the success of shooting through confidence – doesn’t exist, although there are contradictory studies too.
But if momentum exists from game to game, and is carried over from one to the next – because we all see momentum shift within an individual game – it comes in the form of confidence, which lasts for only part of the game, i.e. until something goes wrong. A team on a good run may not react adversely to a setback, of course, but often they do. Games change on goals, after all.
Sometimes momentum lasts only a few minutes. And sometimes confidence becomes overconfidence, complacency, and so on, which is why momentum is a strangely stop-start concept, if it exists at all.
Then there’s a sense of injustice, or revenge, in terms of a strange motivator, where you can appear to be helped by having already lost to someone; just one more example of something that can get in the way of a good result, when you thought your team had ‘momentum’.
Liverpool recently beat Man City 3-0 in part because Man City had just beaten them, and Liverpool were wounded. City had the ‘momentum’ of a cup final success days earlier, so they should have won, right? But it counted for nothing by the midweek fixture, and of course, Liverpool were at home, and slight underdogs, which can free any team up. City were perhaps overconfident, or “hungover”, or just knackered. Liverpool were wounded, or maybe just fresher.
So how do you weigh up momentum versus the other factors, such as wounded pride, fresher legs, tactical variations, injuries crises, and so on?
We all remember that in 1990 Liverpool won the league (because it remains the last time), but also, months after beating Crystal Palace 9-0 at the start of the campaign, lost 4-3 to them in the FA Cup semi-final. These were seasoned pros – not at all a young side – and they’d won titles and FA Cups in recent seasons. The FA Cup was still a huge deal. This was a team containing Grobbelaar, Hansen, McMahon Whelan, Beardsley, Houghton, Barnes and Rush. This was not a bunch of shirkers or bottlers.
A few months ago Liverpool destroyed Southampton 6-1 at St Mary’s in the League Cup, then, this weekend, lost 3-2. It doesn’t mean an awful lot, even if it’s tough to take.
If anything, Liverpool made the first half today look too easy – playing with a freedom of movement and interplay that was a joy to behold – and Southampton might have crumbled had a third gone in (and it did go in, but was disallowed, somewhat debatably. That said, in a game of ebb and flow, Lovren had got away with a possible penalty and red card, after fouling Shane Long; with the only possible reason not to award a spot kick the fact that Long ran to the right of the ball, in his attempts to cut across Lovren and draw a foul. I’d have still given a penalty for it, mind, whilst obviously glad that it wasn’t awarded).
But the break in play meant a break in momentum, as half-times often do. Players naturally relax, and the same mindset and intensity can be difficult to locate after the interval, even if, ideally, every player would maintain a robotic level of 100% effort for 90 minutes of every game of the season. Alas, they’re human, and no amount of saying “but they’re professionals” can alter that. Everyone has flat days; the great old Liverpool sides used to, but they also had the supreme quality to win on bad days (and for all we mythologise the past, more games were drawn and lost by top sides then – most seasons, at least).
Players can’t be “up for it” all the time; they’d have to be psychotic. And sometimes, even if they are up for it, the other team will have greater motivation to be even more up for it. As far as I’m aware, Terry Butcher never used to headbutt the dressing room wall on England duty and scream “fucking come on lads, this is the big one – San Marino!”
Every game – and indeed, every half – players have to get themselves back to that level, and if just two or three can’t manage it the team may struggle to function.
I’m not saying that Liverpool lacked effort against Southampton, but maybe some sloppiness set in, with one or two also guilty of showboating. (I’m coming around to appreciating Adam Lallana, who was excellent in the first half, but please, lad, stop doing the roll of the ball with your studs thing; it serves no purpose and looks like showing off. And if you must do it, do it at 5-0, not 2-0.)
And of course, with Lovren clearly running the risk of a red card, on came Martin Skrtel, a beast of a defender in a couple of his seasons at Liverpool, and a living, breathing self-destruct button in others. Even though not fully fit, and even having been sent off in midweek for the U21s, Klopp could not have expected him to be quite so bad. The Slovakian showed a great attitude in travelling to London to play for fitness with the shadow side on Wednesday, but it might have been best had he stayed there. It’s starting to feel like the team improved in part due to his absence, and, heaven forbid, Kolo Toure now looks more reliable.
Then there’s fitness, and freshness, and the old Europa debate, and how they scupper the momentum narrative; the clear knowledge that if you have less preparation time, and have played just three days earlier, you are statistically more likely to lose games than if you’ve had a greater period of rest. Liverpool’s best player today was Divock Origi, who hadn’t started a game for a while, but who, unlike a couple of the strugglers, was also not just returning from injury.
Irrespective of form and momentum, Liverpool’s odds of being full of running late in the second half at St Mary’s was slim. On top of that, mistakes by rusty players – Flanagan and Skrtel – were punished. Behind them, Mignolet continued to simultaneously make great saves and cause uncertainty in and around his own box, often through poor kicking, and occasionally through indecision. The collapse was worrying, but it would have been more disconcerting had Liverpool not just given everything to thwart Man United.
Not that you get to pick or choose – ideally you want to win all games – but beating United with a strong team was worth it, despite this setback.
Spurs chose to rest their key players for their big Europa League ties against Dortmund, because they wanted to focus on the league. Mauricio Pochettino probably has the fittest team in the league. He’s had two years with them, and unlike Klopp, had a preseason to condition his troops, but he wasn’t going to waste a chance at going for the big one – the league title! – by going for a smaller one (the Europa League). That’s entirely understandable, even if it upset some pundits and patriots. They made it easier for Dortmund, but also made it easier for themselves to get a win this weekend.
Liverpool are in a different position. They had to put out a full-strength team in both legs against Manchester United – hugely emotional occasions – for three reasons: one, it’s Manchester fucking United; two, the Europa League represents Liverpool’s sole chance of silverware; and three – albeit scuppered a bit by being drawn against Dortmund so early (the final would have been nice) – a possibly easier route into the Champions League than scraping 4th place.
Liverpool could win five league games and still finish 6th or 7th; win five games in the Europa League and that earns the trophy, even if neither scenario is exactly easy. (Indeed, Liverpool may need to win just three more times in the Europa League to land the trophy, depending on what happens in the other legs. Hell, no wins, and five draws, again depending on how they occur, could be enough.)
As much as I see the importance of finishing in the top four, in order to increase the chances of the squad getting stronger (more money, more cachet), I’d rather Liverpool get into it by winning a trophy, with big clubs beaten along the way, than scraping in by finishing 4th.
Also, getting in by playing so many games in Europe conditions the players to the demands of playing so many games in Europe, and, on top of that, teaches them about European football. That said, I’m not sure about winning the Europa League if the Reds were also to have their worst league finish for over 50 years, but I’d still probably take it.
To do so having beaten United on the way would be pretty sweet, and add more meaning to the success. And even if the Reds don’t win the Europa League, beating United in a tie both clubs desperately wanted to win will live long in the memory.
Unfortunately, the “momentum” of knocking out United only lasted a half, and an increasingly tired Liverpool were overrun by Southampton’s pacy, and well-rested, players.
Without the running of both Milner (suspended) and Henderson (ill, and carrying a longstanding injury), Liverpool weren’t quite as indefatigable. Indeed, they looked distinctly fatiguable. And for all Alberto Moreno’s faults, one thing he brings is energy (allied to pace, too).
Liverpool have got a lot fitter under Klopp, but Southampton aren’t shabby, and if you have two fit teams, the one who played most recently will be the one more likely to tire; just as someone who just ran a marathon will be less fresh than someone who hasn’t.
So if Liverpool went into this game with Momentum +1, they went into it with Freshness -1, and Best XI -2 (with Roberto Firmino out injured, along with Moreno and Henderson, and Milner suspended. Two or three of those four would otherwise have played, and maybe all four. I’m glad Jon Flanagan got the new contract, but he’s only really a squad player, at least until he gets some proper fitness under his belt after two years out.)
If the Reds went in at half-time with Confidence +2 (which also equals Possible Complacency -1), Southampton came out after with Nothing To Lose +3, as well as a smart tactical change. (Pace +10 with Mane.)
If Liverpool got Luck +1 in the first half with Lovren’s foul on Long, they got Luck -1 when the ref seemed intent on giving something – anything – to even out his mistake. (Two wrongs don’t make a right – unless you’re a referee. Accusations of bias are worse than ones of incompetence.)
The weird thing is that Liverpool don’t look a 9th-placed team right now. The games in hand distort the table, and the bad start made under Brendan Rodgers, with a few early Klopp defeats (and an injury crisis), make it look worse than it is. The main issue right now is that the side still isn’t sufficiently ruthless – chances were missed at 2-0, and there was much fannying around to tee up team-mates rather than shoot – but it’s been a general trend of improvement throughout 2016.
I argued in 2012 that Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool were better than the league table suggested because they’d played so many cup games, reaching two finals, and a lot of effort went into beating teams like Man United, Chelsea, Everton and Man City along the way. You have to be good to beat those sides, but it takes a kind of toll.
Once a club is fighting for either 7th or 8th place in the league, and also has cup finals on the horizon, it becomes hard to put in a Herculean effort to finish 7th instead of 8th. Again, that’s just human.
This Liverpool side looks better than that one, although the problem of juggling competitions remains; fortunately the league form hasn’t tailed away like it did that year, albeit after a better start.
But if you look at Spurs bowing out of Europe, we can see that Man City, the League Cup winners and still in the Champions League, are now doing terribly in the Premier League despite having the best squad around. We can see the league form of Everton, Watford and Crystal Palace absolutely nosediving as they progress further into the FA Cup – three clubs for whom it’s clearly a big deal.
The link between cup runs and league underperformance is not new, and I can’t pretend to have come up with it. That said, last season I worked out that, on average, clubs finish one place below ‘normal’ when playing a lot of cup games and/or reaching finals. (‘Normal’ being an average of their league position the year before and the year after the ‘cup season’ in question, and the same applies to in terms of underperformance against financial “par”.)
To me at least, Liverpool feel like one of the best four teams in the country right now, based on how the team has come together under Jürgen Klopp in 2016, with most of the serious injury and adjustment problems left behind. This is progress, as they were nowhere near the four best sides throughout 2015.
Since January 12th (an arbitrary date, admittedly), Liverpool sit 6th in the league form table, having played eight games to everyone else’s 10 or 11; win those two in hand and they’d be 3rd on the form table. And while I appreciate that people don’t like arbitrary form tables, or calendar year tables, it can give a guide as to progress; perhaps in the way that Leicester ended last season, too. (Or is that momentum?)
In the same time the Reds have knocked Stoke out of the League Cup, drawn with City over 120 minutes in the League Cup final, beaten United 3-1 on aggregate in the Europa League, as well as facing West Ham twice in the FA Cup (losing away in extra-time), and also played Bundesliga side Augsburg twice. (Plus, there was a 3-0 win over Exeter – the only ‘easy’ cup game in that time.)
The only other club in the top half of that form table (since that arbitrary date of January 12th) to still be in a cup competition is West Ham, although obviously they’re not in Europe (yet). In the bottom half of the table are Man City, Watford, Everton and Crystal Palace, all of whom are still in the cups.
Those four, plus Liverpool, all lost this weekend. Maybe this is all merely coincidental. Maybe.
But look at Southampton: third in the aforementioned form table. Their last 11 games have all been in the Premier League. They last played a cup game two and a half months ago. Liverpool have played nine cup games in that time, mostly against teams in the top half of the actual league table, plus a German team. (I’m on italics overload tonight.)
Indeed, Southampton have played just one cup game since Liverpool beat them 6-1 on December 2nd, while Liverpool have played twelve. Leicester have played just five cup games all season, and none since January 20th.
This is not to say that Liverpool are doing as well as they could be, or that Leicester and Southampton are only doing well because they’re not in the cups. But Liverpool’s only good league season in six years came with just five cup games. If a lack of cup games doesn’t make a team better (otherwise the really shitty teams who go out of the cups because they’re really shitty teams would suddenly win every league game), it makes the scheduling easier, and there are fewer tiring encounters. It places less physical stress on the squad.
At the same time, the mountain of cup fixtures since Klopp arrived, while possibly making 4th harder to attain, has given fans a day out at Wembley, the possibility of a European final (and if not, some great occasions), allowed some youth players to get blooded, and has taught the manager quite a lot about the bunch of total strangers he met in October. The team has learnt to play better football, as part of an ongoing journey of adaptation.
Less preparation time hasn’t helped get the best possible league results, but the frequency of games has helped certain players get on the same wavelength within higher pressure situations than mere training, and will have given the manager a clearer idea about who actually performs, rather than who looks the best at Melwood. That will help him to improve the squad next season.
The way I see it, as a body of work, results since January 12th has been very good indeed, after a fairly horrible 2015. That’s eighteen games. It just happens that the 18th in that sequence had a terrible ending. Liverpool aren’t building ‘momentum’ under Klopp; they’re just, generally, getting better.
Momentum suggests linear trajectories: upwards and only upwards. Reality, however, suggests that within an upward trajectory you still get slip-ups, bad days, mishaps, and Martin Skrtel.