Dread, Despair, and Must-Win Insanity 

Dread, Despair, and Must-Win Insanity 
August 28, 2016 Paul Tomkins

Before the Spurs match I found myself engulfed in a pall of dread. Like most fans I get nervous before games, but this was different: this was more than the potential disappointment of losing a football match.

The build-up to the game – in my brief forays onto social media – had been about dread; indeed, ever since the defeat at Burnley there had been almost nothing but dread. The dread of Alberto Moreno costing Liverpool everything. The dread of no change from last season despite the new signings (most of whom were actually absent versus Burnley). The dread of the low net spend, even though Jürgen Klopp doesn’t want superstars but young players on the road to being elite.

And this in turn gave me a sense of dread: the dread of fans driving out a top-class manager, as they had helped to do in 2010, after a poor start to the season.

I felt the dread of a certain section of the fanbase that exists in a permanent state of anger, and how they can be hard to get away from, and the noise they make. I felt the dread of knowing that unless the Reds win, and win in style, the anger of those disappointed will get ugly. Some of it will come my way, which is rarely pleasant (but never the end of the world, and occasionally actually quite amusing), but it’s more the weight of the fume: the sheer numbers, the sheer unhinged mass venting and spewing.

You see, I can handle Liverpool losing, or dropping points, even if it galls and is hard to shake off for hours, if not days. But I cannot handle the new type of fallout that now follows.

I need social media to keep up to date with news and a select few valued opinions – and also to remind people of my existence, and drive them to this site, to help make a living and support our other writers. But in the process I feel deluged with angst, dread, fear, loathing and yes, kittens (the latter mostly on Facebook, admittedly).

We’ve seen just four games, all away from home. The first three league games, all away from home. The league table won’t reflect the quality of this Liverpool team as all the games have been away – which is totally unbalanced and unrepresentative – and two were at last season’s top three (plus a newly promoted team, which is often a battle at their ground, particularly early in the season).

But here’s the kicker: the only time you’ll get a happy fanbase is when the Reds play really well and win by a large margin. Play poorly and draw or lose: moan. Play well and lose: moan. Play well and draw: moan. Play poorly and win: moan. That doesn’t leave a lot of scope for happiness and joy.

People will tell you they’re happy when Liverpool win, but if it’s a lucky or narrow win, then they’ll still moan at the performance, and tell you that it means impending doom. If it’s an unlucky draw, like at Spurs, it’s moaning about the finishing, or the defending on the goal, even though it was an excellent performance with little to pick fault in. The mistakes within the match will be the focus and the fixation.

When I noted on Twitter that it had been an excellent first 70 minutes, someone said “a game lasts 90 minutes” – which it indeed does, but you will almost never see 90 minutes of domination away when two evenly-matched teams are playing. To be excellent for 70 minutes away at last season’s title contenders (when you’ve also had a midweek match and they haven’t) is a genuine positive, and yet it wound some people up when I said so.

What drives me insane is that every game now is “must win”. It used to be a rare phrase; now anything less than a victory in every single game is a disaster. It’s must-win at the start of the season, must-win in the middle, and must-win at the end. This level of pressure and expectation is only going to lead to angst.

People said Liverpool “should be beating” Burnley away, but the randomness of football means that you won’t win every game that you should win, no matter how you perform. “Deserving” to win, as at Spurs (the Reds’ third ‘expected goals’ league win in a row), doesn’t always mean you actually do win.

Luck plays a part, with how shots ricochet and with how officials make tight calls (onside or offside at both ends when it’s minimal, and grappling at corners under the new ruling – another reason to have sold Martin Skrtel), and the fact that sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. Yes, brilliant finishing and brilliant defending and brilliant goalkeeping can obviate the need for luck, but that’s not always possible (even with the best players) and sometimes you also need the breaks.

My rule of thumb has always been win most of your home games and then average a point on the road – winning more of the “easier” games and losing a handful of the tougher ones – and you’ll be in pretty good shape (although the mix will obviously fluctuate).

On paper, defeat at Arsenal and Spurs and a victory at Burnley wouldn’t have “outrageous” or against all odds, but in the season as it’s panned out, with it’s bizarre programming, Liverpool have actually done better than that; and the Reds have also limited the points picked up by the north London duo to just one in two games. Instead, people will fixate on what happened at Burnley, which sucked, but which happens.

Liverpool also scored five in the week at a Championship club, in the type of game where slip-ups can also occur. Bearing in mind that it takes most teams a few games to settle into a rhythm, and Liverpool have had a few injuries (particularly missing most of the new players at Burnley) plus have been bedding in different new centre-backs (and new partnerships) in all three league games (as well as trying to solve the left-back issue), then you have to be realistic in your expectations.

Indeed, add that the two most suited to the holding midfield role – Emre Can and Lucas Leiva – have been out, and Kevin Stewart is still only emerging, and you can see that it might take time for the side to function at its highest level. I’m not sure you can just skip the part where things are knitted together. Against Spurs, with no natural defensive midfielder, it was up to the front six to chase and press, and to defend that way; which they did well.

No one else has had a start this tough, and even when the home games come along at the revamped Anfield it begins with the champions, then away again to the previous champions and current league leaders.

Happiness?

It strikes me that there’s almost no scope for happiness and enjoyment now.

During the Premier League era, Liverpool’s league win-rate has consistently hovered around the 50% mark; rising to the high of 56% under Rafa Benítez (but not in his first season), and dropping to 40%-ish under Roy Hodgson and Graeme Souness.

Otherwise it’s almost always around 50% (Houllier, Evans, Rodgers), with a season-high of c.66% in four of the past 25 campaigns (2002, 2006, 2009, 2014) – i.e. between 24 and 26 league wins out of 38 games. Some of those four seasons involved bright starts, but 2005/06 certainly didn’t.

To get to a realistic 70 points tally, Liverpool probably need to win a fraction over half their games: 20 of 38, with ten draws and eight defeats. So that would be roughly 47% of the time when the Reds don’t win, and the fume will arise.

But … maybe a third of the wins will be lucky, or far-from-perfect, and involve some errors to moan about, or evidence of why everything will collapse very soon. So that’s another 20% where a win would still lead to moaning, because it’s only “papering over the cracks”.

That would mean that two-thirds of the time these types of fans will be unhappy, and often raging, despite winning 20 games and drawing 10, to leave a tally of 70 points (which is better than all but one of the past seven seasons).

Admittedly it’s not the highest possible bar to set (70 points), but it would represent a big step in the right direction. And yet you’re looking at most of the fans – certainly the ones I encounter on social media – being happy only one-third of the time. Even a fairly good season would lead to the almighty fume.

And even in that third of a season, in which games are won by a comfortable margin that theoretically should please everyone, someone will be moaning about the left-back, the striker left on the bench, the talented player not even making the 18, and so on.

But it gets worse. If you add the games that are comfortably won when rivals also win, then you might be down to happiness 3% of the time, at a totally random but perhaps unerringly accurate estimate; not least given that it will be rare for Man United, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Everton to all have a bad weekend at once.

If Liverpool win 7-0, and Everton, City, Arsenal and Everton all lose on the same day, someone will say “yeah, but it means fuck-all as Man United won”. Or they’ll say “but it’s totally pointless, as we lost at Burnley x-number of weeks/months ago”.

Even if Liverpool won 15-0, and every single rival got thumped, there’d still be someone posting onto my Twitter timeline that “we r fucked, we still got Alberto Morono, lol”.

Don’t get me wrong – this site isn’t without critical thinking (and I have my own negativity biases to deal with), but I want it to be a haven from Twitter and phone-in culture. Indeed, I want to understand why there’s so much of the dreaded fume, and find out how to combat it.

As I’ve said on here before, studies have shown that if you are in a bad (but not life-threatening) situation surrounded by panickers, you are much more likely to panic; but that if you’re surrounded by calm people, you are more likely to remain calm and rational. It’s rare that panicking is ever helpful, even if things are going horribly wrong.

That is my aim for this website. It doesn’t mean ignoring faults (ostrich behaviour is not rational, either), but avoiding hysteria. Avoiding black-and-white thinking. Avoiding compare-and-despair. Avoiding confirmation bias. Avoiding “why can’t the manager see…”.

Do Liverpool have a great manager and good players? Yes. Can they get better? Yes. Is four points from a tough start the end of the world, or indeed the season? No.

Is questioning the manager and changing the players going to help? It would just mean a greater turnover of players, which could easily mean more uncertainty and unfamiliarity, and another period of adjustment. Klopp was the right man for Borussia Dortmund, but success wasn’t overnight. (And the fact that he’s now had a preseason with Liverpool doesn’t mean every game should therefore be won.)

As I’ve previously posited on here, I think that when fans of a certain disposition craved Klopp – when they hounded John Henry with every tweet – they were actually just wanting his Dortmund team, and his Dortmund success. They didn’t want the process where his Dortmund side went from average to outstanding over two-to-three years, probably because they didn’t even notice it – unless they were keen Bundesliga aficionados. They just saw the exciting team Dortmund had become and thought “want that”. Sure, but how did Klopp make it?

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