Why Liverpool Fans Are Miserable 83%* of the Time
(*May be fatuous statistic)
Football is a loser’s game. Or rather, too many fans feel like there’s no joy to be taken from almost all possible permutations with a result.
On a basic level, winning obviously should make us happy and losing obviously should make us unhappy, but it’s so much more complicated than that. I’ll get onto specific combinations of results and performances that leave fans satisfied (or not), but first, something on our calibrations. (As an advanced warning, most of this article is free but the final part is for subscribers only.)
People with a positivity bias think that, long term, everything will be okay. And most of us are like this on the really long-term, unless in a state of despair and depression (when everything feels doomed). It’s a fact that most of us think that in ten years’ time everything will have changed less than it actually ends up changing. We don’t foresee the illness, death, redundancy and relationship meltdowns that often end up arising within such a timespan. We tend to think things will be mostly as they are now.
While I’m labelled and derided as “too positive”, I’d like to point out that last season I predicted 3rd-5th for the Reds, with c.70 points, and the club finished 4th with 76 points. On a TTT poll at the start of this season I predicted 11 points from the first six games, and Liverpool got 11 points. So I don’t think I’m overly positive in predictions. (I used to be when I was much younger; this was always going to be Liverpool’s year, including 1992, when new expensive buy Paul Stewart was gonna boss the midfield. But that was before all the research I undertook and all the experience and insight I have gained.) I spend most of my time trying to hone my sense of what to expect, although I often get stuff wrong. However, my aim is to have realistic calibrations.
I’d actually argue that those with an overly strong positivity bias are the people who get most angry, because they expect great seasons and great results, and so are the most disappointed at any deviation from that idealistic approach.
I cringe when I see people say “we’ll batter these 5-0” before a game, because it’s usually fairly unlikely. And that’s before factoring in all the performance-related anger, that can often override even a good result.
The problem is that, when things occur, we view them through a negative filter. As I’ve pointed out many times, bad things in our lives can kill us, whereas good things in our lives (food, water, sex, friendship, shelter) are not usually immediate life-or-death situations – we can last three days without water, but our ancestors wouldn’t last three seconds in the mouth of a lion. This meant we evolved to be hyper-aware of predators, fire, falling from mountains, etc. The good things were important, but they could often wait.
It’s said that we need five positive interactions with a partner to undone one negative one. And we’ve all seen it with footballers we don’t rate – we ignore five good passes and then scream blue murder “look, I told you he was shit!” when one goes astray (which is negativity bias allied to confirmation bias, noticing only what we want to focus on – such as seeing bad defending in the game away in Moscow when, at worst, it was one instance of bad goalkeeping). The bad stings us more deeply than the good rewards us.
If you don’t hone your antennae, and calibrate expectations realistically, you will be more susceptible to angry outbursts. Remember, even the champions usually drop a quarter of all points (and sometimes almost a third), and in the Premier League era, Liverpool have won only half of their games. (It stings right now because the Manchester clubs have only dropped points in one game apiece, but they won’t keep up that rate, even if they do have great seasons.)
Liverpool at their very best have won two-thirds of all league games, but again, within those fine seasons have been good periods and fallow periods. I worry that we are less able to deal with form these days.
So anyway, here are the various match situations – performances and results – and the happiness they bring (although mostly, don’t bring).
Play well, win
Unless … it’s a narrow scoreline. There will then be some kind of backlash from fans, for “what the team put them through”. Not clinical enough. Or let in too many goals, if it is a 4-3 win.
Play okay and win
Some people are happy. Some people are unhappy, because there are faults to find. It wasn’t perfect. If it was a narrow win without playing amazingly well, again it can be said that it was too close for comfort, especially if you’ve already turned against the manager. Football is a results business, and results are king – until you get the desired result and find it underwhelming in some way or other.
Play poorly and win
Some people are happy. But you’ll hear plenty of “Papering over the cracks”. Others will say “It’s a sign of a good side”, although I’m sure some really rubbish sides, who always play poorly, win a game now and then, and it doesn’t make them great.
Often the people who say that only the points count will find fault even when you get the points. Plenty will see it as a sign of doom: “keep playing like this and we will lose”; “we won’t be as lucky next time”.
Play well and draw
Unless it’s in about 5-10% of games in a season (Man United, Chelsea, City, Arsenal and Spurs away), a common response will be “dropped points”. And, “We can’t afford to drop points”, as if every team ends up with the 114 possible come May. Remember, it’s rarely a good time to drop points but throughout a season everyone will drop points. There may also be a smattering of “Good teams win these types of game”. (Because they do. Except, of course, when they don’t.)
That said, draws can feel like wins (if you get a late equaliser) or a defeat (if they get a late equaliser). But usually the negative aspects of a draw are highlighted, especially when all 38 games, one after the other, get labelled “must win”.
Play well, lose
Very few people are happy. If you choose to focus on the performance, or the underlying stats, then people will say “the only stat that matters is the scoreline”. And, “who cares how we played, we lost”.
And while it’s hard to be happy when you lose, a defeat – when playing well – should give encouragement. But mostly it’s an excuse to go bat-shit mental.
Play okay and lose
Even fewer people are happy. There may still be positives to take, but aside from the manager (whose job involves being positive, as much as it pisses some fans off), most people will be losing their shit. And sometimes anger at a performance is justified. No team in the history of football has been “at it” for every game of the season. There will be bad days at the office – tired games, makeshift-XI games, and often, a poor display in a non-vital game just days before a vital game, as players look to avoid injuries and keep something in the tank.
Does an elite team even play “really well” in even 75% of its matches? It often grinds out results when not playing well, but also, almost always has periods when results go against them. I’ll never forget the season before last, when Barcelona were thrashing everyone towards the end of the season, then suddenly had a three-or-four game spell where they could do nothing right. It proved a mere blip, and they held on to win the league, but it brought a fair bit of hysteria. Form happens.
Play poorly and lose
No one is happy. Nada. Zilch. Zero. Maybe an individual or two did well, but there are really no genuine crumbs of comfort. And yet, how often does this happen?
Play poorly and lose heavily
This doesn’t happen very often to Liverpool, thankfully. It happened at Stoke a couple of seasons ago, and it happened at Man City this season, albeit having been playing well with eleven men. But it even happened to the Reds in their halcyon days, at places like Coventry and Southampton.
Okay, so let’s look at how often all fans are unified in their happiness.
Play well, win
Okay, so how often does this happen? The key word here is win.
In the Premier League era, Liverpool have won c.50% of all league games. The difference between victory and non-victory is much like flipping a coin. Yet before each game, most fans would probably expect a victory – maybe 80% of the time.
The best league win% for any Reds’ manager since 1992 is 56% (Rafa Benítez), with others hovering around the 50% mark (Roy Evans, Gérard Houllier, Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp); while Graeme Souness and Roy Hodgson both dragged the depths at 41%. (Kenny Dalglish’s all-comps return was 47.3%, after his club-high of 61% first time around. I couldn’t find his league stats separated from his first period, but the league form was probably below 47%.)
In excellent league seasons (compared to the overall average of the club) – which were the 80+ points seasons of 2001/02, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2013/14 – 66-68% of league games were won by the Reds, while 70% usually guarantees you the title.
So, if we say 58% of league games won is a very good season – like last season, with 76 points on the board (one of Liverpool’s best six Premier League seasons) – then how often will a good Liverpool team play well and win?
Play well and win by a really comfortable margin
Well, that happened only seven times in the league last season, if we consider three goals a really comfortable margin (because at 2-0 you’re always just one goal away from a nervy ending, and as we know, a happy ending is much more preferable).
So, this happened just 18% of the time in the league in 2016/17. In a very good season – but not a 1987/88-blow-your-mind-season – you will have that pleasant “relax and enjoy the rest of the game” feeling less than once in every five matches. (And last season was not a dull, low-scoring campaign.)
But of course, not all of these games were 3-0 early in the match. Leicester were beaten 4-1 at Anfield, but it was 3-1 going into the final minutes. Middlesbrough away was only 3-0 from the 68th minute, so that was at least 22 minutes of “feet up”. West Ham in the final away game was nervy, but went 2-0 and 3-0 halfway through the second-half. Boro at home on the final day was very nervy until 1-0 just on at half-time, and 3-0 by the 56th minute. Stoke took the lead at Anfield and it took until the 70th minute for the game to be put to bed by Daniel Sturridge at 4-1. (Watford were beaten 6-1, and it was 3-0 at half-time. Hull were beaten 5-1 and the Reds had the same comfortable margin from the 36th minute, and although Hull got one back after the break, Liverpool instantly restored the three-goal cushion.)
So from the seven three-or-more-goal-victories, five league games had between five and 35 minutes of “comfort time”, and only two with the games essentially killed off at half-time.
Widen the criteria to include all wins by a two-goal margin – which is still a decent margin, meaning that as it goes into injury time you’re fairly secure that conceding a goal would be a mere consolation (any earlier, and suddenly sphincters can get twitchy) – and it’s up to 11 occasions, or 29% of all league matches. So, still not quite a third of all games where there’s clear daylight in your favour. And the Reds didn’t play well in every single one of these games, as I’ll get on to.
Now, admittedly I discounted one game here – the 4-2 win away at Crystal Palace, because of the two goals conceded (which never makes it feel comfortable in the same way that 2-0 does; the same margin, but obviously with more edginess if you’ve already conceded twice.)
I moved the Palace game into the “narrow” victory category, along with four specific – and pleasing – one-goal wins. These four one-goal victories were over Man City, Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal, where most people are happy to get out with the points. Anyone moaning too much when you’ve beaten a rival is probably not worth listening to.
The Arsenal one was perhaps a bit different, due to the defending in the 4-3 win on the opening day of last season, and late Arsenal comeback, which left a lot of people very angry – because it felt like the Reds had thrown away an amazing 4-1 lead. But I think it’s fair to say that the Reds played well in all of these games, to differing degrees.
However, one of the two-goal wins was at home to Sunderland, and that was still 0-0 after 75 minutes, with the second, game-killing goal an injury time penalty. People didn’t think it was a good display; I recall lots of “papering over the cracks” type comments. It was a win without really playing well.
So, that’s 11 wins by two or more goals, but with Sunderland removed, it leaves 10 comfortable wins by two or more goals. Plus five good “narrow” wins, four of which were in big games against the other top six clubs or Everton.
So that makes 15 games everyone should have been more-or-less happy with. (Excluding the Palace nerve-jangler.)
The final six wins the Reds racked up were all low-scoring one-goal victories against teams “Liverpool should be beating” (although these away fixtures can be tough; Stoke is the proverbial difficult place to go, albeit probably less so now that Tony Pulis is at West Brom. These are often potential banana skins, but my point here is the most fans seem to think we should just turn up, stroll around and get the points).