We’re not really doing free articles for the rest of this season, but as the fanbase virtually explodes with rage and anger about Liverpool’s transfer policy (remember when Everton “won” the last transfer window?), and after two defeats following 18 unbeaten, and as this site – and me, mainly – are accused of promoting mediocrity for Liverpool FC, I thought I’d make another rare exception and jot down some thoughts in a freebie.
This site was doing brilliantly throughout December and well into January as the team built a head of steam on that 18-game unbeaten run, and then after the defeat of Man City.
Since when, new subscriber numbers have fallen off a cliff; defeats rarely inspiring sign-ups. This always happens. The only time the site has done better during a slump or supposed crisis was when Roy Hodgson was in charge, and everyone in the entire fanbase was united in wanting to see him gone. Mediocrity or a perceived inertia with the Reds is the worst thing for my business, and therefore my livelihood, and also the ability to pay various contributors. If Liverpool are shit and yet I still believe in the manager, TTT will ultimately fail. But I put my principles first, and if it eventually fails, it fails. I’ll find something else to do. It won’t fail on the back of two defeats but it will over the longer term if the club is genuinely stagnating.
Not only does Liverpool losing or struggling hit me emotionally, as a fan, it hits me financially. This is the absolute truth, so to suggest I want “mediocrity” is bonkers. You can dislike my writing and disagree with my opinions and judgement calls, but to question my integrity is not acceptable to me.
I think if you only read the headlines to some of my articles you may be misled, because sometimes I use a headline to say the opposite of what I actually mean – not for clickbait, but as irony (see, er, this article); and also, to try and make a point to those who believe the headline. So yes, to draw in those whom I feel most need to read it. But they’re unlikely to become subscribers, of course.
A few days ago I wrote that Liverpool FC does not exist to win trophies, and I think you just need to read the pre-paywalled part to see why. You may not agree. But a club has to make its fans proud, and try to be the best that it can be. It’s more complex than trophies = good and everything else = bad. Spurs are far better now than when Juande Ramos turned up, won a couple of games, and they got a trophy.
The piece yesterday on how Klopp has improved a lot of players throughout his career was, I feel, one of the best I’ve ever written, with days of research and development poured into it, yet no one signed up to read it. Not one single new subscriber. Had it been a load of transfer tittle-tattle I may have made a killing, but we don’t do that on here.
Few people are interested in how a manager improves players, and things like growth mindset vs fixed mindset, and in this case, how many of Liverpool’s current best players were not youth prodigies but late bloomers who got to the top through extra effort (and that these kinds of players have the kind of mindset and work ethic to keep improving; see Bobby Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mané, who were all late arrivers in top leagues and/or not youth prodigies/internationals for their countries). This went against my own biases towards exciting teenage prodigies, and I realised that Klopp’s approach fits perfectly with the books I have recently read on how people succeed (and also, how people stay sane). On this site we are continually challenging our biases, our own ignorance, things like the Dunning-Kruger effect, and so on. Without it you can’t analyse anything, but of course, you’ll think you can. (See: me, when I started out.)
So, here’s a list of some things to consider and perhaps do during these emotional times, with Liverpool in the terrible place of being in the top four and in the Champions League knockout round, and having a world-class manager:
1. Read Raphael Honigstein’s wonderful book on Klopp. Read or listen to what Klopp was saying at his previous clubs about how he builds his teams, how he improves players. Listen to why he is not a chequebook manager, and understand that when he brings in new players it’s for a good reason. Dortmund were a financial mess when he got the job, close to oblivion. Understand that.
2. Be aware of the Reds’ massively above average recruitment success rate since Klopp arrived, after years of serious (and costly) mistakes. Why is this? Because players have to fit Klopp’s profile to a T, or they won’t work out. There is no “throw enough money and some things will stick” approach. And understand how he trusts the people he works with on transfers; how, rather than take all the credit, he explained that the transfer staff talked him into buying Mo Salah.
3. Understand the importance to Klopp of team harmony, and if players want out badly enough it can be wise to let them go, even if it’s not ideal. After all, some situations are not ideal either way. Team harmony is part of Klopp’s approach. Remember, he is not a chequebook manager but someone who values work, work and work, allied to unity.
4. Remember the (panic?) last-ditch buys of Andy Carroll and Mario Balotelli; or go back to a compromise like Ryan Babel, whom Rafa Benítez didn’t really want to start with. Did those buys help matters? You can get good players in the January window, clearly, but if you want more ideal solutions you may have to wait to the summer. Liverpool wanted to bring Naby Keita in early, this January, but unlike Philippe Coutinho, he couldn’t really go on strike to push the move through, as he’d be joining in the summer anyway. The good news? Keita is world-class and arrives in the summer.
5. Stopgaps are lovely in principle, but if you spend, say, half your budget on a stopgap who fails you then have only half your budget left, unless you can then sell that stopgap. But he’ll likely be on a 4-5 year contract (or he wouldn’t sign to start with), so he may not want to leave. Your wage bill will also be adversely affected. Remember, Liverpool were probably worse off when they signed Balotelli than signing no one at all as he messed around in training and created division in the ranks. So stopgaps are not necessarily risk-free. They can work, but they can also cause trouble. It’s never as simple as some suggest.
6. Liverpool waited for Virgil van Dijk. Buying a stopgap would have made it harder to then do so. Patience is a virtue, etc.
7. Shiny new signing Van Dijk, whom I think we all wanted, has not helped results; in fact, they’ve got worse. Why? In part randomness (Swansea rode their luck with just one shot of note). And in part because it’s a new player who doesn’t know his other defenders (defending being mostly about understandings), doesn’t know what his goalkeeper is going to do, and against West Brom, had a rookie full-back on one side and a returning full-back after injury on the other, while the keeper hid on his line. It was a totally new back four+keeper line-up. Plus…
7. Klopp says he prefers to buy players in the summer. Why? See van Dijk’s initial teething troubles. You have to integrate them with no preseason to work on tactics. Also, they don’t have the hard preseason training needed to play the Klopp way. In the case of VvD, he had no preseason at all at Southampton (because Liverpool were trying to buy him) and had mostly been out for the best part of a year when he arrived. So he may take time, especially in terms of fitness, even if his qualities (heading, passing) have largely been clear already. He hasn’t, however, seemed quite as quick as he will be when super-fit, unless his injuries sapped that glorious pace. By contrast, the summer signings made during the Klopp era are much more successful, on average, than the norm.
7. We cannot coach the players ourselves to improve them. We do not oversee players in training. (See my piece yesterday on how players improve and why some regress, and some of the science behind it.) So, we are helpless in that sense. But we can all talk about who the club should sign. However, Klopp said at Mainz, at Dortmund and now at Liverpool that he likes to work with players to improve them. His success at Dortmund was based on improving cheap buys and existing players.
8. Success at Dortmund took time under Klopp, but he won two league titles – just three and four years before Liverpool signed him – and reached a Champions League final just two years before he moved here. His methods are therefore not outdated, given that much success so recently, but England is more complex, as there are now six clubs trying to squeeze into the top four every season. It’s ultra competitive. And half of the world’s top 30 richest clubs are in England. The quality isn’t always for the purists, but the investment in players and managers is pretty huge over here. Also, I think it’s the most “mashed up” league, with so many different styles and approaches. It’s hard to be good against every team, as they’re all so different, as shown by the massively wide range of nationalities coaching here, whereas in Spain or Germany your mostly have natives, and a more homogenous style of play.
9. Be aware of catastrophising. “The worst thing about any event is usually your exaggerated belief in its horror“ is Stoical wisdom I try to stick to. (More on that here.)
9.5. We love signings as we don’t have to live in the current moment. We can dream of perfect futures; something that makes us all so miserable in general as we are all detached from the here and now. If we think we need something then it means something is lacking from our lives, and that makes us unhappy. New signings represent panaceas for the team’s ills. I’m as eager for new signings a lot of the time as anyone else, but it is not the only solution. Again, please try to understand Klopp. I used to take the same approach under Rafa Benítez: irrespective of outcries after bad results, I tried to explain zonal marking, rotation, and how it was, on average, a good idea, even if other ways of doing things might also be good ideas (but you can’t do them all, or flit from one to the other on a whim). If Liverpool have a world-class manager, I will back him, and try to work out what he’s trying to do.
10. Liverpool’s net spend under FSG is irrelevant, as money also goes into improved wages, not just transfer fees. I am not being an FSG apologist here, as I wrote the book on assessing squad value and team value (to expand on previous wage-analysis data) before I even knew who John Henry was. Liverpool remain 5th in terms of turnover in England and remain 5th on wage bill and the cost of the team (aka the £XI, which is the 38 lineups in a season after inflation). It’s hard to change that reality without breaking FFP, and FSG, while rich, are not as rich as the benefactors at Chelsea and Manchester City. We knew that when they arrived. They said FFP was important to their approach. They never promised megabucks.
11. FFP still exists. Kinda. (PSG are trying to destroy it, apparently, and City are testing it too, but it’s still enforceable, if a little weaker.) Liverpool cut their cloth according to FFP. Also, FSG have given LFC interest free loans to build the new Main Stand, for example, and do not take money out of the club. They are not sugar daddy owners, but when the club was in dire straits under the previous warring owners (who heaped debt on the club in order to buy the club), the club needed saving, and desperately required some sensible, steady-handed ownership. We now have that, and this was something I wanted back in 2010 before I even knew who would buy the club. Progress has been made under Klopp, and FSG are serious about making Liverpool a force again, within the FFP budget. There are no easy ways to cut corners, however. If Liverpool do not spend the Coutinho money on wage rises and do not spend it in the summer, questions can be asked, but they are not necessarily withholding the money in January. It just won’t be wasted in haste.
12. Whenever FSG do good things, like invest in the stadium, and improve the way incoming transfers work (which they tried to do initially and got it horribly wrong), and appoint a world-class manager, people say that they are merely fattening the calf, as it were, for slaughter. Ergo, they can’t win, because if they do good things they are getting the club ready to sell and if they do bad things they are being neglectful. They could have done nothing at all and seen their asset rise in value due to TV deals, although the value of TV deals has also gone down in the past, so there’s no guarantee they will keep rising (the bubble will presumably burst at some point). They made some bad decisions early on, and the £77 ticket pricing issue was a gaffe, but the club is back in the Champions League and has closed the gap on other rivals, bar Man City. Until they sell up/cash out, and we can then say what their motives truly were, then anything positive they do deserves to be seen as running the club well, not fattening the calf. And unless they take the Coutinho money out of the club, they are doing nothing morally wrong in terms of running a football club. (Remember, they inherited a below-mid-table club, laden with debt, and managed by Roy Hodgson, with a load of older new players on crazy contracts. Think back, remember the horror, the reality of a club on the brink and a horribly ill-suited manager, and all those crap players. Now, due to the hedonic treadmill effect, being top four and in the Champions League and having Jürgen Klopp is being treated like it’s just as bad. Which is nuts.)
13. My loyalty is to LFC, not FSG. I’m a big fan of managers like Rafa Benítez and Jürgen Klopp, and defend their methods when managing Liverpool, even when others are going potty, because not everything anyone does IN ANYTHING works all the time. It’s all a percentage game. Life is a percentage game. In football, you win some and you lose some. Even if Liverpool lose at Huddersfield, or against Spurs, the bigger picture is always the more important one. I am not a short-termist thinker, so I don’t have such violent reactions to the first setbacks in months. There’s almost always time to turn any setback around. See: Istanbul.
14. The idea that Klopp is perfect for FSG as he won’t rock the boat about money ignores the intensity of Klopp’s passion to win. He’s an absolute nutcase about winning, although he also likes excitement and drama. Equally, he is a uniter, a “let’s all row in the same direction” kinda guy. Like Rafa Benítez and Antonio Conte he is a proven winner, but unlike those he’s unlikely stage a public war over transfer funds. I backed Rafa over the genuinely terrible owners last time, but did he ultimately win? No, he was sacked, and we didn’t win either, as we got Roy Hodgson. Is Conte giving off a positive vibe at Chelsea by moaning all the time? No. All three want to desperately win things, and improve their clubs, but Klopp has a different way about it. There is definitely mutual respect between Klopp and FSG which is clearly detailed in Honigstein’s book. Personally, I really like how Klopp goes about things, and I have no doubt that players would not be sold from underneath Klopp by FSG. If that happened, however, Klopp would have my support in going mental about it, and I think he would go mental. But he understands, and has his say. I like that there’s no internal war at LFC right now, and frankly, it’s a nice change; especially after the Brendan Rodgers vs The Committee nonsense that saw an influx of bad signings, and before that, all the strife caused by Gillett and Hicks. To think Klopp is a ‘yes man’ is to have no eyes and ears, and no brain either. He believes in unity but he’s also not gonna stand for any shit from anyone, above or below him.
15. Initially, selling Coutinho and not getting a replacement seemed risky, and somewhat mad. But Klopp knows his players. And he knows how hard Barcelona and Nike were making it for Coutinho, and Coutinho was effectively on his second strike of the season. Do you have to draw a line? How many times can a player down tools? If Coutinho continued his strike beyond January, and ended up not playing, or was consigned to the reserves, his value would dip and you’d still have no Coutinho in the team. And in 2017, Liverpool had better results without Coutinho than with him, and then beat City without him. Maybe that was a coincidence, and maybe losing these past two games was, too.
16. Ditto loaning out Daniel Sturridge. But for a couple of years Sturridge was often actually fit to play when others were fit and playing better (or more in the style required for the team to function better), and then injured at the exact moments he was needed. He can no longer sprint like he used to, and logically, Danny Ings fits the profile of what Klopp wants from a striker – and Ings is happier to be a squad member right now, albeit with a burning hunger to succeed (and returning sharpness after two years out. He’s not the best player in the world but he’s a fucking fighter!). Dominic Solanke is also doing really well in games without actually scoring. Ings and Solanke may not have great second halves to the season, as we can’t predict the future (or maybe you predicted Salah’s 25 goals by January?), but Sturridge – a player I still really like – scored just one goal of any real meaning this season (plus two late goals when games were essentially over), so he wasn’t really part of a really good run of results. And the faith put in others by Klopp could help them succeed. It’s about making the most of what you have, and sometimes what you have is more than others realise.
17. At all times across all clubs there have been moments when fringe players or youngsters who “weren’t good enough” have been given a chance and seized it. Someone like Harry Kane was not really good enough for Spurs even at the age of 21, and then, while still 21, became good enough for Spurs. By 22 he was more than good enough for Spurs and now at 24 he’s good enough for Real Madrid. He was not good enough initially, much like Ian Rush during his first year at Liverpool. At 19, Bobby Firmino was not good enough for anything but the Brazilian second tier, and then he moved to Germany and got better, and better, and then he moved to Liverpool, but could not score goals. Then he started scoring some goals, after Klopp arrived. But he wasn’t “a natural finisher”. Now he has 18 goals this season, 17 from open play, and it’s still January. (Okay, so he likes hitting the woodwork lately, too.) Mo Salah and Kevin de Bruyne were not good enough for Chelsea a few years ago and now they are two of the main challengers for the Footballer of the Year. Things change. Players develop. Stars leave, new stars arrive, or emerge. Or maybe it turns to shit. Maybe it all turns to shit. Chelsea won the league in 2015 and then it turned to shit, for no obvious reason (like selling their best players). Everyone fell out. It got ugly. Klopp has never seriously fallen out with his owners or his team. Chelsea then won the league the year after it all turned to shit. Things change.
18. Liverpool are currently leading the U23s table. This usually means several players are getting close to the first team. It is a good indicator of talent bubbling up, and in Liverpool’s case, especially encouraging as so many of them are aged 20 or under. So it’s not a load of 22 and 23 year olds padding the team out with extra strength and experience. In particular, with wonder goals involving sublime control in recent games, Ovie Ejaria – still only 20 – looks like he’s had that post-debut dip that young players go through, and is ready to re-stake a claim. Ben Woodburn is still only 18 and is getting closer all the time. So some of these can emerge. There are no guarantees of success or consistency, but there are no guarantees with any new signings, either; even expensive ones. Signings can take time to settle, and don’t always solve issues immediately. Everything is always a gamble of sorts. No one can offer you assurances that everything is going to be okay; just that it might not be as bad as your worst imaginings.
19. Remember that progress is not linear. Look not only at the time it took Alex Ferguson to make United strong again, but perhaps more importantly, how up and down the first four years were. It wasn’t just a slow-burner; there was a big initial rise and then a massive fall. After the real promise of 1987/88 (which was overshadowed by an amazing Liverpool side, a bit like City now) they sucked in the league for the next two seasons. No one new to a job is going to get seven years nowadays to achieve the ultimate ambitions, and that’s not my point; but look at a lot of teams and they have better seasons and worse seasons, all eventually reverting to the mean, with the best ones edging above the mean. Teams win the title and then they “regress”, but are they regressing or just lower on energy for a while, or briefly sated by success, or getting tougher games because they are champions, or just reverting to the mean? If Liverpool finish 5th this season but reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League (8-10 extra tough games than last season) is that regression? To me, no. A large number of cup games take points from your league season.
20. The sense that Liverpool cannot afford to miss out on the top four is understandable. As is the belief that losing games is A BAD THING. But we end with this “must win” hysteria for every game, and it’s emotionally exhausting and crazy-making, and removes any semblance of joy from the whole process. It’s black-and-white thinking; that the club will wither and die if these aims are not constantly met. If you miss your goals this time you gather together and go again. Studies show that successful people are those who bounce back from setbacks. Not necessarily within minutes, because setbacks sting, but they redouble their efforts and go again. Failures are merely part of the process of succeeding. And mistakes, and setbacks, are how human beings improve.
21. I recently discovered that I am someone with a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset – see Carol Dweck’s studies on the issue – and that’s how I have achieved things in life despite a debilitating illness and an iffy education. If you have a growth mindset you believe (correctly) that you can get better at things and there’s no such thing as god-given talent. If you have a fixed mindset you believe that everything is already set in stone. These people are more likely to give up at the first sign of setbacks, because if they are not good enough now they think they never will be. Klopp is a real growth-mindset kinda guy, as are the Reds’ best players. I think this can also be applied to fans, too, and how you perceive things, with a lot seeming to be fixed mindset. A growth mindset can’t guarantee you’ll be the best, because you can’t stop other people from working as hard as you, and maybe having advantages you don’t, and improving too. But it is the best that you can do.
22. Studies have shown that those in difficult situations who are positioned close to those who are panicking are more likely to panic themselves than those stationed near people who aren’t panicking. Misery loves company, and while groupthink can be both positive or negative, negative responses are more natural because we evolved in different times, when our lives were under much more threat from nature and wildlife and ignorance. And while no one should ignore obvious peril (“chill, it’s just an erupting volcano, dude”), panicking is rarely a good response. Panic is a bad thing, and as just noted, it is shown to be contagious. This is also known as Twitter. Panic will only spread wider and wider, like a pathogen. People like me will seem ever more kooky, and my viewpoints will be seen to be excusing mediocrity rather than the kind of wisdom gathered from reading lots of books, writing about football for nearly two decades, speaking to managers and owners, and learning from the wise elders (and youngers) on this site.
27. I cannot count.