First of all, let’s take the gloves off as Liverpool continue to experience a crappy 2017.
On a brief personal note before getting onto the issues at hand, if you say that I “spin” things, I will block and/or ban you. I am not in the art of spinning things. I have my perspective, as a middle-aged man who played at a decent standard in his younger days; held a season ticket at Anfield for several years; who has written (and thought) about football every day for almost two decades, and met some key people within the game along the way; and who has had an illness that has diminished his quality of life for 18 years (and which, in return, has given me perspective; most days are a struggle, so I don’t get quite as pissed off about a football team losing as I did when I was dickish 17-year-old. I do however get pissed off about the fallout, and the tiresome “I want it all”/“I want it now” culture, which puts me off the whole game).
If my perspective is different to yours that does not mean I’m spinning something. It means I have a different outlook, and it may be that yours is warped too far on the negativity scale. As I’ve mentioned before, as humans we have a negativity bias – a tendency to see the worst possible outcomes, as it was evolutionarily prudent to worry about stuff going wrong (as stuff that could go wrong could kill us). But that doesn’t mean that negativity is correct all the time; indeed, it’s a bias because it isn’t. Appreciating biases is a way to see things more clearly. I may still be wrong, as only time tells us what will actually happen, but I try to see through my biases; and I accept that other factors can always crop up and alter the picture, for better or worse.
Not that 2017 is anything other than a big bag of shite, of course, but it’s poor form from a good team, and that happens. It even happens to great teams, even if Liverpool aren’t there yet. (Playing like a great team for four solid months isn’t easy, mind; how many teams do that?)
I saw “The Numbers Game” author Chris Anderson say on Twitter that winning runs are not necessarily self-sustaining; i.e. that there is no such thing as clear positive momentum (as also discussed on this site many times) but that poor form can be self-sustaining; which I found fascinating. There is a downward spiral that’s hard to reverse – good results don’t beget more good results, but bad results can beget more bad ones. So maybe momentum, in a positive sense, is just avoiding bad-momentum?
On the Leicester debate: data show evidence of vicious cycles in results, but not of virtuous cycles. So once you lose a few in a row, /1
— Chris Anderson (@soccerquant) February 24, 2017
you're more likely to lose again than team quality suggests. But no evidence reverse is true. Once you win a few in a row, /2
— Chris Anderson (@soccerquant) February 24, 2017
not more likely to win again than your quality would predict. /3
— Chris Anderson (@soccerquant) February 24, 2017
It happened in Rafa Benítez’s final year; I wrote a piece that season, in TTT’s debut year, saying that it was a “tailspin from the start” – losing two of the first three games after such a great season was a real psychological blow, especially after the loss of Xabi Alonso that summer, and with funds to reinvest in the squad denied the manager by Gillett and Hicks.
It happened for Brendan Rodgers from the awful end of his third season (which even to that point wasn’t anywhere near as good as his second) through to the 10 games of his final season. It happened for Klopp in the first half of his final season at Dortmund. Bad runs are like vortexes that suck teams in. Look at Leicester, for example.
With pace and ferocity, Leicester absolutely ambushed Liverpool last night, in a way that they hadn’t been bothering to do to teams since winning the title. Perhaps they’d been such bad defenders of their crown because the pressure had understandably got onto them, and maybe they also got lazy or overwhelmed in the process; and that pressure was only taken off when the manager was scapegoated. Jamie Vardy left his studs in on Sadio Mané after 20 seconds, setting the tone of defiance.
Without Jordan Henderson and Dejan Lovren, perhaps Liverpool lacked sufficient physically and also two mentally strong characters unafraid to get into battles. Liverpool’s “nice” players like Philippe Coutinho, Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana were bullied, as has happened before over the years; on this occasion, maybe they lacked a couple of experienced, meaty bodyguards. (While Roberto Firmino’s first-touch was terrible on the night.) The quality of Nathaniel Clyne’s crossing from in the first half of the season has regressed to the norm of last season, and as such wasted plenty of the chances Liverpool had to get back at them. But I expect a lot of criticism will be down to a lack of character.
However, a lack of character is an easy thing to bandy about. Leicester have been accused of lacking character this season; despite the same players having the character to win the league last season. Ditto Chelsea, who “totally lacked character” last season, but had the character the year before and again this season to win the league. So is character not a permanent state? Is it wrapped up in confidence like everything else in football?
Remember, for all Liverpool’s supposed lack of character since 1990, the club have never finished as low as Chelsea did last season, yet nor as high as this team either. So, does Diego Costa have character or not? Or does he have it only in alternate years?
Leicester showed character last night. But maybe it was circumstantial, too. Sometimes you can’t tell if the opposition was good, or you just made them look good, but here was a squad of underachievers (once the greatest overachievers) biting back with venom. Vardy broke his sprint record, and Danny Drinkwater scored a goal that Leicester only ever seem to hit against Liverpool. That tells you that the opposition were hyped up beyond belief.
The atmosphere was feverish, rather than the tentative nature seen from the place before the sacking. It can be hard to live with such aggression when you’re away from home; just ask Real Madrid about their first 20 minutes at Anfield in 2009, or Arsenal about theirs in 2014. Even top teams can be blown away by an insane tempo, and maybe the Reds’ warm weather break backfired in terms of immediate benefits. They looked ring rusty. Leicester looked angry, and wounded, as you might expect them to be. As ill-matched as Lucas was against Vardy, the pass from Mark Albrighton was almost as inch-perfect and out-of-nowhere as the freakish goal from Drinkwater.
Losing runs, and slumps, are hard to get out of, and even a victory now and then doesn’t alter everything, even if it should give you a chance to get back on the front foot. The Spurs result may have been more helpful if there’d been a game six or seven days later; after 16, it seemed too long ago. Better teams than this Liverpool side have had similar travails.
Mourinho’s Chelsea had an awful first half to last season, to show that even a squad of title winners can have irreversibly bad form (ditto Leicester this year, for all its complexities). Mourinho’s Man United (in the autumn) looked really poor, and struggled to win after a bright first three games. Guardiola’s Man City (after the initial 10-game winning run) were hugely inconsistent until fairly recently. Real Madrid had been on a bad run after a 40-game unbeaten run, losing a clear lead at the top of the table in the process, although came from 2-0 down at the weekend to halt the slide. Spurs had a run of one win in 10 earlier in the season. Barcelona had a short but insanely bad run last season when they almost threw away the title. Bayern were having a bad run recently, with a lot of dissatisfaction with their league form, until they won 8-0 at the weekend. The first half of this season was also not very good for Dortmund, who are now back up to 3rd, but well adrift of the top two, including being eight points adrift of RB Leipzig, a team they should be finishing above, all things being equal.
Some of these bad runs might just have been five or six games (others were longer), but these are all clubs with far better squads than the one Jürgen Klopp inherited – either because they’d spent more money (and continue to spend more money) or the squad had been put together over a longer period of time. Klopp’s project is still new, with just one summer’s rebuilding work so far, although it’s clear that additions are needed again in the summer. But surely we all knew that anyway.
The good news is that the first summer’s work improved things, with three key additions. (To have added twice as many players, to try and address everything at once, may have led to a worse start to the season, with too much unfamiliarity.)
We can argue that Mamadou Sakho should not have been ostracised, and that we’d be doing better with him in the side now; which ignores that the defence wasn’t always better with him in it (sometimes it was good; other times it was horrible), and that if a manager makes rules about discipline and a player breaks them repeatedly, the manager has to either sacrifice the player or sacrifice his own rules, with the latter not really negotiable in the real world. Good managers do not throw their disciplinary codes of conduct out the window once they need a certain player; as Guardiola proved at Barcelona by ditching Ronaldinho, one of the greatest-ever players, but by then coasting and living with his rules.
We can all argue that reinforcements should have arrived in January, and maybe they should; but people would quickly forget the wasted money – or rather, hold it against Klopp and co. – if the buys were compromises who didn’t work out. If better options are being lined up for the summer, it still makes sense to go for those instead, unless none of us has any concern about long-term thinking and this is all just game-by-game hysteria. (And yes, you can suffer long-term setbacks via short-term struggles, but panic buying is almost never the answer. Falling out of the top four is not the answer either, but that could also have happened with new players, too.)
Leicester – as league-winners – were on a bad run themselves, until the sacking of the manager gave the players the excuse to turn up again (“right, he’s been blamed, we’re off the hook”); or in some cases, they were trying to prove that Hollywood films were not as important, and that they didn’t stab the manager in the back. Sometimes sacking the manager – Mourinho at Chelsea, no less – reverses a bad run of form. But it’s not the only solution. And we never know what would have happened to Chelsea had they not sacked him; several metrics suggested they were improving in terms of performances, but maybe not getting the break of the ball that comes with confidence.
United didn’t sack Mourinho in the autumn, when I thought they looked a really average side going nowhere (y’see – you can’t always see the upward turn coming), and now they’re on a run of 20-or-more games without defeat (an offside goal helping them against us, mind; oh how things might have been different had that late equaliser been ruled out. And a wrongly-ruled out goal helped them keep the run going this weekend, and win a trophy. Luck, eh?)
Dortmund stuck with Klopp in his final season and they rose from bottom to 7th; he had already decided to go when May rolled around, but if he’d been sacked in December when the team was bottom and they rose to 8th or 9th with some new bloke (some random fat guy in an ill-fitting tracksuit), it would have been hailed as a masterstroke, and proof of why managers should always be sacked.
Guardiola has been mocked as clueless this winter, having been the most clued-up manager in the world for the previous decade; now, City are doing better again, perhaps in part because he laid down the law to Sergio Ageuro, who was too slack in training and too lazy on the pitch (and who was looking like surplus to requirements until Jesus broke his foot). Work for the team, Guardiola says, or don’t play. Who can argue with that? Against Monaco Aguero got two goals, but also tracked back.
Guardiola isn’t an idiot after all, just as anyone with a brain would have concluded. Spurs didn’t sack Pochettino after one win in ten games in late 2016, or get rid of all the players; Pochettino never disposed with all his tactics or benched half the side. They’re in a better run of form now. That’s form for you. And Arsenal – well, Arsenal do well for a few games, and then whenever they lose, all hell breaks loose. Negativity bias means the defeats get blown out of all proportions, even if there are issues at the club.
Indeed, last week I wrote about Liverpool and Arsenal, and the state of the league here. I think Leicester (last night, and last season) typify how hard it can be, backing up several points I made in the piece.
You have all these passing teams, so you need to be able to press them, and you need to be able to pass yourselves, if you have ambition to be successful (beyond the freaks of Leicester, winning the league with little possession). But last night Leicester hurled in long throw after long throw, to their giant centre-backs pushed up front. Do teams do that in Germany or Spain? I mean, from the first minute? If Leicester needed to do that, fair enough. But how can you play against a team of footballers one week and then play a team of rugby players the next?
As I noted last week, you still have to be able to battle here, despite the wonderful football that some (usually foreign) managers bring. You still need your thugs here. Which adds to the richness of the game, although sometimes it makes for flashbacks to Wimbledon in the 1980s. Both Klopp and Guardiola have noted how much more time the ball spends in the air, and how it’s often all about the second balls, which makes it harder for footballing teams (with the ball in the air it could bounce any which way). So you need big, strong players. They also need to be quick, as it’s such a quick league, pace is king.
How on God’s earth do you get all that? You need big, strong, quick, brave, skilful players; i.e. the kind that usually cost £50m a pop, unless you can find them early.
I think part of the Reds’ problems dates back to Brendan Rodgers, and his fascination with Barcelona in 2012. (Although some others problems predate his time: the advantage lost when Gillett and Hicks stopped investing in the team – actively denying the manager the funds he wanted for a striker – and the Reds fell out of the top four.)
I think Rodgers was rightfully impressed by Guardiola’s team, and they appeared to be the model we all wanted to see replicated – and I bought into this at the time, too. In came little Joe Allen, and little Adam Lallana, and little Alberto Moreno, and little James Milner, to join little Philippe Coutinho and a few other little ‘uns already at the club. Liverpool became a “nice” football team (with an utterly glorious bastard up front, mind).
But in England it’s much harder to play with too many nice little ‘uns, as Guardiola has been discovering. First of all, these little ‘uns are not as good as Barcelona’s little ‘uns; no one is. Those were a freakishly talented bunch of little ‘un. So that’s hard to reproduce.
Second, few teams in Spain just hoof the ball in the air and play into the channels just to win throw-ins, for fuck’s sake. Barcelona under Guardiola would probably have spanked Tony Pulis’ Stoke in Stoke on a wet Wednesday night, but Barcelona without quite the same level of players might also get blown away. (Indeed, I’d like to see Barcelona, with Javier Mascherano in defence, deal with long throw after long throw landing like missiles in the six-yard box, as two nightclub bouncers jump all over them.)
You can have some little ‘uns in England. After all, the best creative players are often little ‘uns, and the aforementioned Mascherano was a bastard of a little ‘un. Suarez wasn’t the biggest, but he was a headcase.
But too many little ‘uns, and you are more likely to get rolled over by Leicester, Stoke, West Brom, Watford, and co., if they make the game all about that – which, at their place at least, they can do with the fans behind them, as it all helps with the intimidation (just like the Kop have intimidated superior sides like Chelsea and Real Madrid in the 2000s, but will be silent for teams expected to be beaten). Sometimes you can impose your football on them, but it’s not easy; and the first goal can be vital.
Equally, you can’t just fill your team with big ‘uns at a big club unless they are good players too, or they’ll stick out like sore thumbs. While Man United shamelessly use Marouane Fellaini as brutish enforcer, he’s not the worst footballer in the world. But he looks it, around some of those glittering talents; but he’s amongst other giants too.
Note that Jose Mourinho normally adds several big ‘uns. Nemanja Matic, Kurt Zouma, Diego Costa, and a return for Didier Drogba, all arrived in his second spell at Chelsea; Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at United. (But of course, these are expensive players, too. Mostly big and talented, i.e. costly.) His teams don’t normally play the best football, but they have talented players, and plenty of brutes who aren’t too bad on the ball either (plus Fellaini).
In 2016 Liverpool added Joel Matip and Marko Grujic, as a clear indicators of needing more stature. Moreno was replaced by the slightly bigger and more robust James Milner.
Grujic is young, and has been injured. He seems a quiet type, but at least he has some size and strength. Matip has had some injury problems too, as have his partners in defence; and he’s not really a brute (but at least he is a giant). Alas, since last season, the hefty Sakho – a warrior – signed his own exit papers, and the club’s most physically imposing striker, Divock Origi, hasn’t rediscovered the form he had before being brutalised against Everton. (And also, he wasn’t needed in the first half of the season, with others doing so well, so he didn’t get into a rhythm. I have some sympathy for him, and for Klopp too, in how to get the best out of him.)
Gini Wijnaldum is strong, and good at attacking crosses, but not an enforcer and not an aerial presence. Sadio Mané can look after himself, but isn’t very tall. Add Matip, and all three key additions are very good on the ball (Gini’s unfortunate pass last night aside). Matip has the height, and a bit of the pace (but at 6’6” is understandably slow off the mark). Wijnaldum has some pace, and no little skill. Mané has tons of pace and tons of skill.
They’re all good additions, but this season was never going to be about a completed squad. It’s just not possible in such a short space of time. That’s not revisionism; we knew that in advance. Klopp is trying to build in stages, but if anything the first half of the season was so good that the pressure got ramped up; a bit like Rodgers in 2013/14, the title challenge came too soon, and led to a nosebleed.
Interestingly, Liverpool and City wanted to play out more from the back – an admirable ambition – so bought footballing goalkeepers (as well as footballing centre-backs), but neither keeper is the tallest, and both have had to be dropped. That’s all part of the learning curve. We mock them for wanting to pass out from the back; “hoof it, clear your fucking lines” is the traditional British battle cry. Maybe you can’t play out from the back in England after all, and what a shame that is. It’s something different from going long all the time, and it would be nice if it could be embraced. But it’s all part of the smorgasbord I mentioned last week.
So, Liverpool probably still need more height, more pace, more strength and more skill. (And a bit more bottle, although that often comes with age and experience; this is still a young side, and not the most physically imposing.)
The team/squad needs bit of everything, in fact. But it’s something two or three players could add; not necessarily five or six. It doesn’t need mass turnover; just a few players to help the best ones to do their jobs even better, and to protect them physically; and overlapping full-backs who can deliver into the box if they’re going to be the out-ball, but also defend as well.
Another problem for me is also the one-footedness, which I think slows down Liverpool’s moves. Coutinho will use his right-foot 99% of the time; he’s so good he can get away with it, but it also means a lot of wasted shots as defenders guess right and block them. (And like Vardy, he’d been on a goalscoring drought until last night. If players’ goals dry up, results can obviously suffer.)
When fit, Sturridge is the same – able to find the space to shoot with his left foot no matter what the situation, but he doesn’t feign to go on his right, or have swing with it, often enough. (Coutinho actually did this last night by going left in the first half, but in this instance did so clumsily and fell over the ball – but at least it puts doubt in the opponent’s mind all the same, and maybe helped him when he got the chance to shoot and made it 3-1.)
Milner is no longer going outside his man, since his confidence ebbed away, and while solid, never had the pace to start with. (But he has character according to those who have played with him.) Having no left-footed players in the team can be problematic, too. (But Sturridge is often injured, and Moreno isn’t good enough.)
But remember, square pegs in round holes – that thing you should never do – was great in the first half of the season: Milner at left-back, Henderson as holding midfielder, Lallana as central midfielder, and at times Lucas as centre-back (which also worked great versus Spurs, just two games ago, but which won’t last beyond this season). I’m always for players moving positions as an option. But it won’t work all the time; just as specialist players lose form too – when Sakho had a bad game at centre-back, no one was able to say “ah, it’s because he’s really a central midfielder and shouldn’t be playing there”.
Guardiola’s Barcelona was full of players in new positions, and if you are able to have “midfielders” in most positions you can be comfortable in possession all over the pitch. But of course, in England you need the physical presence too. You need the height, the bulk, the pace, the fight.
Adam Lallana is one of the few two-footed players at Liverpool, but his early season form – which merited the pay-rise – has to be replicated, otherwise he’s being overpaid. He’s earning more money now, so he’s a senior player; he has to step up and can’t afford to disappear too many more times in midfield.
But some square pegs aren’t working so well in their round holes as things stand. Right now, Milner is slowing down to cross on his right foot, when earlier in the season he was higher up the pitch and getting past the full-back on either side of him. Even the wonderfully prodigious Ben Woodburn only cut inside to pass or cross last night, perhaps lacking the confidence, as a 17-year-old, to take control of the situation; but another example of a player always going the same way (although he’s a kid, who will benefit from any playing time he gets, even if it’s not his preferred role). Nathaniel Clyne’s body shape when receiving the ball says “I can’t even use my left foot to stand on”.
The good news is that Trent Alexander-Arnold may be old enough next season to stake a claim; Clyne is very good defensively, but often a waste in the final third, and yet TAA can do both sides of the game – he can defend, and he can attack – and vitally, also has the stamina to do both; he’s just a little lightweight and raw, at 18. He might be exposed a few times before he nails the role, which is how educations usually work. (See Jamie Carragher’s early career, and how, by his mid-20s, he’d learnt all the tricks of the trade. To see him at 19 and 20 was not to be convinced. Similarly, people need to open their eyes to the importance of Jordan Henderson, who was unconvincing at 20 and now very much a top-quality player. The fact that he’ll never be Steven Gerrard is not his fault; because a player like Gerrard has come along once in 125 years so far.)
Will Joe Gomez – to me, the perfect all-round defender in terms of skill-set (height, pace, skill, strength) – be fully over his 15 months out with serious injury by the time next season rolls round? And at 19, is he ready for a role in the centre, which rarely goes to anyone under the age of 25? (You can also see what two years out did to Jon Flanagan’s career.) Danny Ings is another feisty, strong, hard-running player who has been missing for too long. How many points might have been won if he’d been there to send on from the bench and ruffle some feathers? Some, at least. Instead, the squad has been thinned by absentees.
These players would give the team a bit more backbone, just as Grujic could give the team a skilful big player, instead of all the skilful little ‘uns. But he has to adapt to the English game, learn the language, etc., and hopefully not be targeted by the boo-boys if it doesn’t go smoothly in the way Emre Can has (which helps no one). With Grujic, Alexander-Arnold, Woodburn and Gomez we’re still talking potential, but it’s some damned fine potential. It’s good to have such potential, even if you’re someone who thinks they’ll either go to waste, or if they come good in a couple of years, they’ll just be nabbed by predators.
Obviously the rest of this season is still a going concern, and it stings like hell to be falling out of the top four. But form is a fickle mistress, or something like that.
Form follows function?
Just before the piece on the brutality of the English game, I tried to look at form, and how Liverpool had two poor runs in Bob Paisley’s first season, with a team that had won the league 15 months earlier and the FA Cup three months earlier. Not many people read the piece as we’d just beaten Spurs, so it wasn’t seen as timely. Within a year Liverpool were champions again; within two, European Champions. Some players were changed after Paisley’s first season, but it wasn’t wholesale. Bad runs happen, as the piece shows in some detail. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad team.
Liverpool had a brilliant first half of the season, and are currently having a pretty terrible 2017. Remember, the highs of the first four months may not have been sustainable no matter who was fit or what Klopp did; there was always the chance of reverting to the mean, which is roughly the 6th-best team in the country. But once you start falling it’s hard to escape the sense of free-fall. And Liverpool played such good football up until the winter it was hard not to get carried away and start dreaming of glory.
Then there’s the scheduling. Liverpool went from 11 games in six weeks to no game for 16 days. From one ludicrous extreme to the other. Fatigue was not going to be the issue against Leicester; rustiness, however, was always possible. That’s not an excuse, just a fact of the rhythm footballers need to be in: the right amount of football. Leicester were too quick, to at it, for the Reds.
The difference with a proper midseason break, as seen in Spain and Germany, is that everyone comes back a little rusty and off their previous rhythms. And yet if Liverpool did not take a mid-winter break when given the chance then the risk was tiring in the second half of the season. By doing so, the risk was being caught “cold” for the first game back. Leicester reverted to the fighting spirit of last season, to further complicate the issue, and may have unsettled Liverpool no matter what the Reds’ preparations were. Equally, had Vardy not scored the other night, he might have continued to miss his chances against Liverpool. That’s life.
Still, lessons will be learnt from all this. But things are not always changeable at once. That doesn’t mean managers aren’t aware of them – just that fixing issues is not as easy as talking about fixing issues.
What you perceive as a manager or players repeating mistakes may be the manager getting players to learn how to do things; and in time they may learn to do them to the level required. Or they may not. But sometimes you have to go through the process, and in so doing, work out how to do it better.
Sometimes things click quickly; other times they need working at. Sometimes things work one week and don’t the next. Sometimes the best form turns into the worst form, for no apparent reason (or for too many apparent reasons). Sometimes random shit happens, like Danny Drinkwater turning into Steven Gerrard for 20 seconds.
And sometimes the truth is harder than the pain inside.