Almost any time you thrash a team you come unstuck in the replay. This is obviously not entirely true, but it feels that way. In 1989, Liverpool, champions-elect, beat Crystal Palace 9-0, then they lost to them later in the season in a cup game.
When it seems too easy there can be the breeding of a subconscious complacency. Not necessarily a poor attitude per se, but a kind of mental easing off, because it’s not possible to be “at it” for 60 games, no matter who you are. By contrast, Red Star played the game like a cup final, in front of their hostile home fans, and earned the victory in a game they couldn’t really lose. Liverpool choked their big chances, and the forwards played for themselves. Plus, Alisson made a poor decision by trying to save a shot with his wrong hand. It was a poor night all round.
Liverpool’s forwards, though still top quality, have had issues all season. Time and time again easy final passes have been fucked up. Now, at times that just happens, but rather than trying to just find each other they are trying to pass through defenders – nutmegs instead of angles. It’s bizarre how often it has happened. And it’s made worse by too much greed the rest of the time.
Few things bug me more in football than strikers just looking to shoot whatever their location, whatever the situation (speaking as an ex-semi-pro striker who was a greedy shit, too – but hey, I was young, and misguided). Mo Salah was so impressively generous late on against Cardiff, but at times he’s like Daniel Sturridge at his worst – it feels all about them scoring, not the team. The once-humble Mo is even trying to score direct from corners, which is just not acceptable; doing it once for Egypt against part-timers is not the same as being professional at this level, with three or four attempts to score now in the last few games. That’s schoolboy football. He’s a superb player, whom I love dearly, but he needs to get his head right. Most of his other shots tonight were fair to be taken, but that was just lame.
The forwards might waste six attacks to get their goal, and that is not helpful; they might eventually score, but the team suffers. Shoot when in a good position; otherwise, head up. (Edit: I just want to add that a certain single-mindedness in the box is good, as a striker has to take the responsibility to shoot, and not just pass the buck. But I object to the notion of shooting being in the player’s head irrespective of position, angle or even thinking of team-mates’ in far better positions. It almost becomes an obsession to get a shot away, even if totally crowded out, as if that’s all that matters – and not what’s best for the team in that moment. So it’s such a fine balancing act, as you don’t want to bully strikers out of taking shots.)
Sturridge had something like 70 failed shots from outside the box (dating back a few years) before his worldie at Chelsea, and so now, after that, he’s got the blinkers on again from 30 yards trying to repeat it. I actually didn’t mind him missing the first-half sitter as, though wasteful, that’s part of life as a striker; right idea, poor execution. Shit happens. But ignoring the other players when trying to work an unlikely shooting angle – as he did soon after, as if trying to atone on a personal level – is not good enough. Just as shooting direct from corners is not good enough.
Although Liverpool won nothing last season, the front three won their own superstardom, and the team became a European giant again. And so, in addition to becoming a scalp, the egos creep in. Players, agents, compatriots, diplomats, politicians – all in Salah’s ear all summer, and then there was the fact that it has felt like he’s at an awards gala every three days (I think I lost count after the 5th he attended. Talk about breeding individualism). Players in Bobby Firmino’s ear, “get yourself to Barca, lad”, even though they are massively in debt. And Sturridge sometimes plays with his own ball. The “innocent climb” becomes the “disease of me”.
This article, from which I’ve taken the excerpt below, explains that concept.
Pat Riley, the famous coach and manager who led the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat to multiple championships, says that great teams tend to follow a trajectory. When they start — before they have won — a team is innocent. If the conditions are right, they come together, they watch out for each other and work together toward their collective goal. This stage, he calls the “innocent climb.”
After a team starts to win and media attention begins, the simple bonds that joined the individuals together begin to fray. Players calculate their own importance. Chests swell. Frustrations emerge. Egos appear. The innocent climb, Pat Riley says, is almost always followed by the “disease of me.” It can “strike any winning team in any year and at any moment,” and does so with alarming regularity.
Once we’ve “made it,” our tendency is to switch to a mindset of “getting what’s mine.” Now, all of a sudden awards and recognition matter — even though they weren’t what got us here. We need that money, that title, that media attention — not for the team or the cause, but for ourselves. Because we’ve earned it.
This could sum up Mo Salah, who is far from a natural egotist. He’s a good lad. But as soon as the battle with Harry Kane got ramped up last season he lost sight of the team ethic. He invited pressure onto his own shoulders, too, by making it a dual. (Shoulders which then literally met Sergio “Pig’s Heart” Ramos.) Again, don’t get me wrong – I love Mo. But he’s changed; success changes everyone, until someone reminds them to shake it off and get back to what made us successful.
Liverpool didn’t win anything last season, but the forwards were named the best strike-force on the planet, and Salah was shortlisted for every award in the universe. The only one playing without obvious ego right now is Sadio Mané, but his end product has always been maddeningly brilliant or awful. At least he’s trying to find team-mates, though, and is skinning full-backs for fun.
Critically, none of the forwards are releasing the quick pass to team-mates; it’s like they all want to do it themselves, and only when it doesn’t work do they even consider passing. It’s the disease of me. The pass comes too late, or isn’t being focussed on properly.
It doesn’t mean they’re all preening prima donnas with gigantic egos, but praise kills you; and people in your lives telling you that you’re “too good” starts to lessen the connectedness with team-mates, and kills the all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit, just as it kills relationships when friends are always on about how “you can do better”. Liverpool have defended well this season (tonight aside), but no longer attack as a team. That can still change, of course.
And it’s been a super-tough start to the season, with almost non-stop games against tougher teams (four already against the Big Six, plus cup games against PSG, Napoli and Chelsea), and the legs have looked sapped at times; while the midfield has been dogged by injuries, and teething problems for the new recruits. (And refs remain utterly shit.)
As Graeme Riley noted on here earlier today, no team in the history of English football has been 3rd after 11 games with as many as 27 points, with just six dropped in the league. The top three are setting a blistering pace, with Liverpool having had the toughest fixtures. Arsenal, fresh from Europa League strolls and rotation (like Chelsea this season), were able to tire the Reds out just three days ago. After the game at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool looked knackered in Naples. It happens, sometimes.
That said, barring an outbreak of salmonella poisoning, there should be no excuses for not despatching Fulham at home on Saturday (albeit at a ludicrous kickoff time).
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