The other night I watched the documentary “Dying Laughing“, in which is a series of starkly-lit, black-and-white interviews are conducted with the world’s most famous comedians – Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling (just before his death), Chris Rock, Billy Connolly, Kevin Hart, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Silverman, Stewart Lee, and Amy Schumer (plus 50-or-so others) – about the difficulties of stand-up comedy; about how it takes ten years just to be decent. About how many times a joke can be re-written in a decade to try and get it to finally work.
It’s one of those slightly-annoying ‘talking heads’ movies where they play half of a sentence by one person and then cut to someone else saying the second half of their sentence, but is really worth watching all the same. In one clip, Royale Watkins breaks down in a flood of tears as he recounts the time when, as a relatively new comic, he got booed off in front of his hero, Michael Jordan, on what was then the biggest gig of his life. It was painful to watch to him talk about it. He felt destroyed.
But for me, the most interesting take-away from the film was a series of comments made by various interviewees relating to the “control of the room”. They spoke in hushed tones about how the art is to continually try to pull and pull the audience together, so that they are essentially speaking to one person, such is the synchronicity in the room (reflected in the rhythm of laughter). But get stuck on a word, or hear a heckle, and the room is lost. That quickly. And then it takes time to build it all up again.
Losing the room is, I concluded, not too different from losing the dressing room. It’s an art, a magic, that gets broken very quickly. Losing the dressing room doesn’t happen in a split second, but it’s swift all the same. And once lost, it’s hard to win back; once the energy changes, it can be lethal. Being a manager is about keeping everyone on the same page, believing in the magic, but unlike comedy, there’s no one (bar the hecklers) actively trying to stop you doing well. People don’t get up on stage alongside you and tell better jokes.
The good news is that Jürgen Klopp has not lost the dressing room at Liverpool. No way. The players were still playing for him (and/or the shirt, and/or pride) at 2-1 down at Wembley today, and finished the game strongly. Indeed, Hugo Lloris did that thing where he stopped the ball going into his net. It proved quite effective.
But by then Dejan Lovren had let two balls go over his head and, immediately after, into the Liverpool net; whilst Simon Mignolet – after what seemed a genuine improvement in the second-half of last season – appears eager to join him in the room that is somewhere beyond the last-chance saloon.
Had Mignolet not had such an excellent second half to last season (and he did, statistically and with the eye-test), he would have been bombed out by now. Equally, the Reds wouldn’t have made it into the Champions League.
It would be wrong to say that Klopp doesn’t recognise the issues; after all, the club’s transfer record was going to be broken on the ideal centre-back Virgil van Dijk before the deal got scuppered, and Klopp would clearly rather play Loris Karis in an ideal world, but he keeps dallying on the ball and losing his confidence. (Whenever Klopp plays Mignolet he’s told he should have played Karius, and whenever he plays Karius he’s told he should have played Mignolet.)
Klopp also tried to add pace, energy and goals to his midfield with the one-man dynamo that is Naby Keita, and at least that deal could be concluded for next season. Mo Salah was an addition who was landed for this season, to add much-needed pace on the opposite flank to Sadio Mané; and like Mané last season, what a success he’s been, with nine goals already (and none of them penalties). Liverpool did not get all of their targets; but they got some of them, with others arriving later.
Remember, Everton had a great window; they “won the summer”, getting who they needed, and they’re doing even worse. (For now, the fairly expensive Michael Keane appears to be inferior than those he was bought to replace. Such can be the life of a new centre-back.)
And remember, even after 76 points last season, everyone said Liverpool still needed a quick attacker (because of the struggles when Mané was out), a goal-poacher, a new central midfielder or two, two new full-backs and at least one new centre-back, along with a new goalkeeper. Not only would all that cost too much for one summer, it would be hard to integrate into a cohesive team.
Some people even said the Reds should have signed Joe Hart in the summer; my suggestion at this point is that the aforementioned Kevin Hart would make a better keeper. “He can’t be any worse than Mignolet”, some said of Joe, as if getting in a struggling goalkeeper on the wane is really a no-lose situation.
But the Reds appear to be regressing. However, I will argue why that is not necessarily the case, with some statistical evidence of my own, but also some from an academic study that has nothing to do with Liverpool, and which talks about how, mostly, teams add points one season and lose them the next.
Football is not about constant upward trajectory; it’s about ups and downs. (That said, Spurs do seem to be the exception; everyone else in the Big Six has been all over the place in the last few years, up and then down; but Spurs also remain the only team to win nothing and reach zero cup finals in that time, which is in itself interesting.)
I wrote last week that, objectively speaking, this has been the Reds’ toughest start across all competitions in 25-30 years, and also, that it coincides with a “once in a 15-year” occurrence of six away games in seven fixtures. It’s a long piece, with a lot of research, but these are facts: it’s objectively the toughest start in the Premier League era in terms of the quality of opposition played in all competitions by league game nine, and it’s a once-in-a-player’s-lifetime run of six away games in seven fixtures.
All of that still applies, with the Spurs game the final away trip in that odd series of games. So it’s not a fair spread of fixtures, even if, had it been a fair spread, there’s no saying how this team would be doing, if goals are presented to the opposition as they were today. Huddersfield next week suddenly looks far tricker, but at least the fixture list is less daunting “on paper” for several months now.
Back in February, I wrote this piece with help from Graeme Riley and Robert Radburn, looking at the streaky nature of results. That was written during a slump, and the form recovered. Football is indeed streaky a lot of the time.
Before the first 20 minutes at Spurs, Liverpool hadn’t been playing badly, and against Maribor, finally scored the goals they’d been due in games that were drawn but deserved to be won. But the myth of momentum was torpedoed again today; sometimes you’re at your worst when you’ve just thrashed someone. Sometimes you’re at your best when you’ve just been beaten. Sometimes you have good form away from home but can’t win and home; other times it’s the opposite. Sometimes it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
There were two clean sheets in a row, and then this, four goals conceded in 90 minutes, in the second big away defeat of the season (albeit the first in part down to a sending off). Whilst Liverpool hadn’t been playing badly, the individual errors can always undo your good work.