Well, Liverpool’s form stinks. It reeks like rotten eggs left in the sun in the back of a Cadillac parked in the Mojave desert, with a month-old corpse rotting in the trunk and a dozen diarrhoea-suffering skunks spraying over the seats.
There is nothing good that can be said about Liverpool’s form. But the club has a top-class manager and some top class players. There are issues to address, but there’s also, I wholeheartedly feel, the core of something special.
In amongst a series of problematic displays were two bright performances against Manchester United and Chelsea – but it’s been a horrible 2017 so far. And defeat at Hull is the latest hammer blow.
The return of Sadio Mané provided some much-needed pace and thrust to the Reds’ attack today but pretty much everyone else fell below acceptable standards. It was another low moment in a terrible year, but if the title is most definitely gone (and it is!), the chance of Champions League football next season has not.
However, obviously if there’s not an upturn in performances and results that will be in question too. But form changes. Sometimes it seems to spin on a key moment in a game; other times it just gradually alters.
In particular, Philippe Coutinho has been poor since returning from injury (and getting a new contract), and Adam Lallana had his worst game in midfield for the Reds straight after winning the England international of the year award. Both Coutinho’s pay rise and Lallana’s award were richly merited; but maybe praise can make you soft. Or maybe both just had stinkers today – Coutinho hasn’t rediscovered his mojo yet, and Lallana got bogged down on a bumpy pitch – and neither a reasonable amount of praise nor criticism alters too much.
(See: Daniel Kahneman and the Israeli fighter pilot study. Elite fighter pilots who were criticised after a bad flight got better in their next flight; and those who were praised after a particularly good flight got worse. So people assumed that the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’ work. But rather than the praise or criticism altering their performances, they simply regressed to the mean: whatever they did in a previous flight, good or bad, they were likely to revert to their normal performance in the next one. We can, of course, argue whether or not Lallana is ‘elite’, but Coutinho certainly is, within Premier League standards, even if neither is an Israeli fighter pilot.)
For the first half of this season – i.e. a much bigger sample size than eight or nine games (20+) – numerous opposition managers and players noted that Liverpool were one of the best teams they’d ever faced. Ever! Go find the quotes, they exist. The Reds’ displays were that good.
Merely ‘good’ teams can’t spend half a season wowing everyone. Poor and mediocre sides can have a day when it all clicks, but Liverpool were seriously good between August and December. Goals, points, performances – all high-water-mark stuff.
But that all seems forgotten, as if it was from bygone area, and not just the four months up to December.
Liverpool were flowing back in the good old days of 2016, and no one could live with them. The movement was off the charts. Now: players are hesitant, giving the ball away and shooting into crowds of players, or crossing into the massed ranks of tall opposition players. If there’s an anti-Viagra, Liverpool are overdosing on it.
Of course, it’s clear that that kind of special form, and movement, is hard to carry across a whole season. And it relied on the best players being fit and in form. When anyone dropped out early on (bar Mané at Burnley) there was no noticeable affect. But once two or three players were out, the spell was broken.
Mané has returned, and Coutinho and Matip are no longer injured, but they’ve come back into a team that’s not fresh and confident – and they’ve got caught up in the slump. Mané started his first Liverpool game since Senegal were eliminated from the African Nations Cup, but by then Simon Mignolet had already lost his nerve (yet again) and the team were undermined by goalkeeping problems. When things start going wrong it seems that if it’s not one thing it’s another. However, if your goalkeeper is essentially giving the opposition a one-goal head-start when you’re already struggling for form as a team, then it’s hard.
We didn’t know if the first half of the season was some new permanent superstate, or the Reds just happened to be all on song at the same time. It seems it was the latter; but that doesn’t invalidate just how good the team can be over a sustained period of time (four months) rather than a whole season (the much trickier task of ten months). That it couldn’t manage the latter should come as no surprise, even if the current form is far worse than expected; just as the first four months were far better than expected.
And no matter who you are, you’ll almost always have a poor spell; Barcelona even had one near the end of last season’s title hunt, when they suddenly couldn’t do anything right. They totally lost the plot for a few games. That’s Messi, Suarez, Iniesta, Neymar, et al. Real Madrid recently broke a club record by going 40 games unbeaten, and then won only one of their next five games, losing twice. Iago Aspas put them to the sword. Liverpool’s current bad run is longer than Barcelona or Real Madrid experienced, but they are obviously much better teams.
Now I’m being told that Klopp must go; he’s been found; that Liverpool are rubbish in every position; that a dozen players should be sold; that there’s no Plan B.
I used to go on about a Plan B, in my younger, sillier days, but aside from the occasional use of Peter Crouch, that kind of Plan B fell apart with Andy Carroll and Christian Benteke. Plan B is a cliché. Surely the best teams just keep going with their Plan A – their best players, improving them as a team, and as individuals; learning to make better decisions (i.e. Barcelona).
Liverpool didn’t need a Plan B when scoring more goals than anyone else in the first half of the season. Plenty of teams still defended the way as they are now against Klopp’s side, but confidence was high, and the Reds were passing it around with ease, and taking the right efforts at goal (Burnley aside). They weren’t just aimlessly lumping balls into the box; almost as a default reflex, out of fear.
Against Hull, it was only at 2-0 down that the Reds really started playing without fear: there was nothing further to lose. In came shot after shot in a frantic final few minutes, but the game was already up by then.
That’s a mental issue, and part of the pressure of being at a big club expected to win things despite 30 years of not winning that many things (but still winning a few things). And it comes when on a winless run, when the pressure seems to cripple even top players.
Of course, if the Reds are going to panic and throw crosses in when they come up against a packed defence, an aerial threat would be handy. But then you get back to the limitations of most big strikers, and how moves break down at their feet, and how they can’t run in behind or be as mobile as you’d want, or how, in panic, everyone starts hitting long balls to them. Brendan Rodgers got to that point where he went for Benteke, at all costs, but the team rarely played well with him in the side, even if the striker has his qualities.
And when the Plan B doesn’t even work, everyone says “why resort to that?”, and “why not stick to what you do best?”.
None of this is to say that Liverpool don’t have to be smarter, and calmer, in the final third, in order to get out of this slump. It needs the clever, defence-breaking players to get back to doing what they were doing (although the issue of the Reds’ goalkeeping is more worrying).
Teams who sit back are hard to break down, no matter if you’re Liverpool or if you’re Burnley; the parked bus frustrates all top managers because it’s often a way for inferior teams to gain a point (or three, on the break). Even the greatest managers will then use it as a tactic when away to a big rival, like Chelsea did this week, and Man United did in October.
But this run of form has exposed some limitations, and players have to be added in the summer; there’s no doubt. That was always going to be the case. Whether it could also have been done in January, or if it would have just been a compromise, I’ll leave Klopp and co. to decide, as they know what exactly went on.
(I will repeat this from a recent article, however: As I’ve noted before, people want Liverpool to sign players for the sake of it – get the 4th choice if they can’t get the 1st, 2nd or 3rd, yada yada – but then moan when the player is not good enough. See: Babel, Ryan – a player Rafa Benítez didn’t really want but went for after other options fell through. Football management is full of catch-22s. Sometimes a fall-back option will succeed, but fans calling for the signing of them never admit when their suggestion goes pear-shaped.)
I have been told on numerous occasions that about a dozen players should be offloaded this summer. Yeah, chuck ‘em all out! – even very promising younger players like Divock Origi and Emre Can, because obviously no players ever go through bad spells, and no young players ever go on to improve. Personally, Origi and Can – two of the best players last season – would be two of the last to be sold, unless they wanted out. Their form is not helping, but they are not the problem (but I will come onto those in a moment).
People will say more business should have been done last summer, but integrating a host of new players is chaotic. It can work, occasionally, but it can also disrupt the harmony of the dressing room, and no one in the side knows what his teammates are ever going to do; all the lessons learned and experienced last season, as a team and as individuals working to Klopp and co.’s instructions, would count for nothing. Add ten new players, and maybe Liverpool would not have started the season so well. (Who knows?)
And as I always say, on balance only half your signings are likely to work out; you may buck those odds with a good (or lucky?) window, but equally, you can have none work out.
Liverpool integrated Mané and Matip almost seamlessly. But Loris Karius struggled (albeit being dropped and reappearing in the cups has helped him, and, for a while it seemed, Simon Mignolet). There’s more to come from Gini Wijnaldum, and he wasn’t exactly cheap, but he’s done well, and will hopefully work his way into the “resounding success” category.
At 20, Marko Grujic was one for the future, even if the outside chance he was ready for “now” hasn’t come to fruition; in part due to injuries. Ragnar Klavan is a decent back-up defender; you’re not going to find the new Franz Beckenbauer as your 3rd or 4th choice. Next season, if Joe Gomez is fully fit and strong, Klavan falls down the pecking order.
Two clear hits – and one “pretty good” – from five arrivals last summer aged over twenty (if we discount Grujic for now) is good going. The key this summer will be to repeat this trick, without losing any of the key players. (And as I’ve noted before, no key players are getting old. Whether Liverpool can keep their better players is another issue, but we have to assume that, tied down to contracts, they can.)
To have Philippe Coutinho rediscover his mojo would be a huge step towards a solution. He’s fit enough to play, but not to be the wondrous thaumaturge that runs games and sees things no one else can sees. But with more time to regroup due to the end to the gruelling midweek-weekend schedule (that Liverpool haven’t coped well enough with), there’s a chance to think clearly about what has worked this season, and what still needs working on.
Whatever happens, Simon Mignolet almost certainly has to go in the summer. I felt he’d had a mistake-free season, and most keepers make at least howler; but this week has seen Mignolet get ‘mugged’ twice; on a free-kick against Chelsea, and to deliver Hull their goal with a wimpish attempt that I found almost embarrassing.
Players can prove their bad ways are a thing of the past, but just when you think Mignolet has turned a corner he proves to be a recidivist. Whether or not Karius is ready to replace him, we shall see; otherwise, as a fairly young keeper, he stays as the number two. Karius has time on his side; Mignolet has erred far too often for my liking.
I think Lucas is probably ready to move on (I’d have loved to have seen him mark a decade at the club with the title, but it’s not to be). And Sturridge is a player I’d hate to see move on … but where I can’t quite see proof of him being the player he once was, or that he suits the way the Reds play. If he still had his old pace he would be a tremendous asset, but it seems he does not. A lot depends, you sense, on how he does from now until May.
However, for plenty of other players it’s about the club finding new ones who are better than them – and them proving to be better than them – before ditching them. After all, I’d have binned Lallana last summer but he has genuinely been a revelation in midfield, the Hull game notwithstanding.
Mané has proved to be much better in the front three than Lallana, so in that sense Lallana has been replaced (and is now only used there in shortages). In other ways Lallana could now be sold – if he was only a front three player. But as we’ve seen, he’s been repurposed to great effect. That’s evolution.
However, James Milner at left-back – a genuinely good idea at the time – is more of a conundrum. I definitely wouldn’t offload him, but even with his legendary stamina he’s looked shattered lately after half a season of constant up-and-down (that kind of full-back role is no place for old men), and his final third play has suffered as a result. He’s never been the most skilful but he was making more happen before Christmas.
Ditto Nathaniel Clyne, who impressed me with all areas of his game in the first half of this season, but last season, and in 2017, he has looked substandard in the final third. He has reverted to taking the ball with a really poor body shape – always square on, onto his right foot – and in so doing highlights what he wants to do with it; with the crosses also reverting to wasteful. Did he genuinely improve before hitting a poor patch of form, or was the good attacking a mirage?
The way the season has unfolded has seen both full-backs given more time on the ball as the opposition let them have it; and with the key men like Mané and Coutinho either away or injured, Milner and Clyne have become less effective, as the team as a whole struggles.
Clyne defends brilliantly, and if a more attacking full-back is found there may be wistful sighs about having a proper full-back who can do what Clyne does, and sodding off with all this attacking malarky. But with both full-backs getting most of the space, Milner and Clyne are probably not the long-term solution if that remains the case.
Trent Alexander-Arnold looks to have both sides to his game, but is just 18 (and yet to fill out), and the start of next season may be a tad too soon for him to be made a regular first-teamer. (And as soon as he has a poor run of games – as every young player will go through – everyone will say ‘he’s shit!’.)
Moreno gives great pace and energy, but neither defends nor attacks well enough, and is too small to help defend set-pieces. I could see him going with Lucas, Sturridge and Mignolet in the summer. So full-back is a problem area, if we assume Alexander-Arnold is not ready and Joe Gomez is not yet strong enough after 15 months out.
But I wouldn’t want too much churn, and the younger players – even if they’re not playing well this season – are worth persevering with. Even through struggles the kids can learn and flourish; indeed, tough times can make them better (as long as they’re not destroyed by excessive and personal criticism).
And other young players will continue to come through, to help bolster the squad. When they prove they have what it takes – and can be consistent (which usually takes time) – then someone more senior in the squad, who is not performing, can be like the person rolled out of the bed when the little one says “roll over”. Go back to the summer and it was always likely to be a process of evolution, but the first half of the season perhaps made it look too easy.
To be successful in sport – especially in management – you have to avoid panicking. Fans panic, but they’re largely ignorant of what’s going on in numerous ways; they’re not experts and they don’t have as much information as the managers. So nothing should be about panic; neither now nor in the summer. (Of course, if Liverpool don’t win another game between now and May, then panic, big time.)
There is clearly plenty to build upon: the here-and-now stars of Coutinho, Matip, Mané, Henderson, Firmino, Lallana and Wijnaldum, who are almost all only in their mid-20s, and Gomez, who I think is outstanding for a 19-year-old defender; plus Sturridge, Clyne, Milner, Lovren, Origi and Can (plus Ings, if he ever fully recovers), who may still have very good uses, even if they’re not currently as evident (and assuming Sturridge stays). There may also be a really good goalkeeper in Karius; we shall see. He wouldn’t be the first youngish goalkeeper to struggle after a big move, only to come good.
Then there’s the potential of Grujic, Alexander-Arnold, Ojo, Ejaria and Woodburn, with one or two other top-quality kids nearing the first-team setup. There’s plenty to be hopeful about. There’s a lot brewing up, and unfortunately there’s no fast-forwarding to the full rewards; it takes patience. These hugely promising players may not end up being all we hope they will be, but there’s no quick way to find out.
But until Liverpool win a game, and then another game soon after, it will be hard to see the forest for the trees; and to mix in another metaphor, people will want the baby thrown out with the bathwater.
At the moment it’s two massive steps forward until the end of the year, followed by a big step back. By May we’ll have a much clearer idea of what the future may hold – who has dug in and worked hard to turn things around, and who has gone missing.
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