Should there be even a scintilla of doubt in the minds of Liverpool’s players about what can be achieved by mental strength and physical endurance – ahead of an absolutely monumental final couple of months of the season – then I would suggest that Jürgen Klopp sit his players down and get them to watch Free Solo, the utterly extraordinary Oscar- and- BAFTA-winning documentary about a man climbing the sheer face of Yosemite Park’s granite monster El Capitan without any climbing gear; thousands of feet ascended using just his hands and feet – and at times, the tips of his fingers and the tips of his toes – where, to paraphrase how one fellow climber put it: Imagine if victory is a gold medal in the Olympics and anything else is death.
(I’d also suggest anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it must go and rent, buy or download it. And this piece will include some spoilers.)
Right now, Liverpool are trying to climb their own immense mountain; to beat the odds and land either the Premier League crown or the Champions League trophy; or the almost unthinkable, and do both.
There are points where, in a red t-shirt that wouldn’t look out of place at Anfield on a spring day, Alex Honnold – already thousands of feet from the ground – has to use the tips of two fingers and a thumb, and the ball of his big toe, to hold his body in place, or fall to his death. He has to swing across to almost unreachable cracks in the granite where he can get some purchase, or fall to his death. Even just to sneeze would almost certainly send him cascading to his death. The mental focus required is staggering. I was a nervous wreck just watching, even though I knew he hadn’t died (as he was at the recent Oscars). My palms were sweatier than Boris Johnson’s cascading down a zip wire in front of a bus of blatant lies.
I’m not the most sentimental person when it comes to people committing acts of personal danger – extreme sports – where the lives of others, and the time and cost of the emergency services, can also be put at risk to save someone from some utterly mad undertaking (or to scoop up their remains). But this felt different. Perhaps because we get to know the likeable oddball loner Alex. Despite his reluctance to get too close to anyone lest they impinge on his free climbing, we get to witness his burgeoning relationship with Sanni McCandless – who has to qualify for her own kind of masochism in dating a man hooked on the most dangerous of sports.
And yet it is utterly life-affirming, in part because the pair are humanitarians who use the exposure to do good for the world, and also because, by challenging the limits of human endurance and endeavour, Honnold is showing us the value in life. He had amassed significant personal wealth through previous climbing ventures, but for the simplest of lives he still lived in a van, and in turn, lives life on the edge. There is absolutely nothing shallow about him. He is not just out to set vainglorious personal bests before the air ambulance comes to his rescue; he is out to further the scope of what we think human beings are capable of achieving. Equally, he knows the risks involved, and while a brain scan shows a very inactive amygdala, which means he doesn’t fell fear quite how we feel fear, he still admits to getting daunted and frightened.
By contrast, what Liverpool are trying to do should not frighten the players. Failure is not going to result in falling a few thousand feet to their death. For Liverpool it is not all or nothing, now or never.
Honnold openly admits to finding it more difficult to free solo intimidating rock-faces with an audience; his nerve affected on his first attempt to scale El Capitan by the close attentions of the film crew, many of whom are friends from years spent working together, and perhaps even a responsibility to his girlfriend. He says that in the past he wouldn’t tell anyone about his expeditions. He never wants to let people down, and of course, does not want anyone to witness him die. While preparing for the climb he hears of friends – other climbers – who have died while following their own risky pursuits.
And of course, Honnold had a big team behind him; he did not achieve it all on his own. He had financial backing, training partners, and so on. Without such powerful backing it may not have been possible for him to achieve quite so much. Having said that, it’s still totally mind-blowing, as ultimately, in his case, failure would result in his own death.
He had support, but he was the one putting himself on the line.
If Liverpool “fail” in the remainder 2018/19 (and little beyond this point – the 8th-best start in the Premier League era and the 3rd-best goal difference after 30 games; and yet more stellar European progress – can be seen as true failure) they do literally get to go again.
They will not fall off a cliff.
Of course, falling off a cliff could still happen metaphorically, as it did in 2009/10 and 2014/15, but in both cases the club was a mess, either behind the scenes and/or with its transfer strategy. It lost key players, and failed to reinvest the money wisely, in the days before the club had such a revered transfer strategy. And in 2014/15, it wasn’t just losing players but also that the biggest star was melting.
(As an aside here, it’s mind-boggling how a player can represent his country 114 times, score over 200 career goals from midfield, win various trophies and captain a team of underdogs to a Champions League trophy with a man-of-the-match performance, and yet be sung about by the fans of all other clubs for slipping in a football match – something that, say, John Terry or David Beckham would never have done, if you’re overdosing on irony – is almost indicative of the modern shithead culture we are surrounded by. Equally, almost every positive song that Liverpool fans sing about their own club – songs that are not mocking other clubs – are then used by other clubs to mock Liverpool in priority to singing songs about their own team. How fucked up is that?!)
For Honnold it was do or die. It is not that way for Liverpool.
In stark contrast to 2009 and 2014, the only fairly vital Liverpool who is not under the age of 29 is James Milner, and even he’s not part of the core of players that start every game if fit, but merely a versatile squad man who plays 80% of the games. Georginio Wijnaldum is probably the oldest key starter, at 28. (The moronically-derided Jordan Henderson is 28; Adam Lallana, a handy squad player, is 30; Daniel Sturridge is 29; Dejan Lovren is 29. But none of these players is a nailed-on starter, and most are mere squad players.)
The majestic front three – all aged between 26 and 27 – are probably capable of reaching their peak in the next two or three seasons (ditto Xherdan Shaqiri, 27), and Virgil Van Dijk, also 27, probably has another six years left as an elite centre-back, with 29-31 probably the best years for the position. Alisson Becker, the goalkeeper, is 26, and still not at the age where, on average, goalkeepers have their best save percentages (which I’ve read is 28-30, and which might explain why Manuel Neuer looks past his best).
Now, as well as his age, think of how much better Alisson could be after a year of learning the rough and tumble of life in the Premier League, or how much better Fabinho, 25, could get as he continues to grow into the role, and adapt to English football. Think of the undoubted quality of Naby Keita, recently turned 24, after a year of adjusting to life in the Premier League, and coming to terms with the challenge and the pressure (which I still believe he will do). Andrew Roberston is still only 25; and there’s the bonus of having a fit Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, also 25.
Think of the progress Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez could make as they move towards the 21/22 age-bracket where players often really put on a spurt of improvement.
Remember, Liverpool have been the league’s 2nd-youngest team this season.
As Klopp said this week: “The best way to do it is bring together a group of players, try to develop them all together and then stay together for a while. And that was maybe the main problem of Liverpool for the last decade. When they had a good team after a season they went all over the world. That will not happen this year, for sure.”
To fall away this season would be to see the team back at the foot of the mountain in the summer, but alive and well, and ready to make another attempt.
Indeed, Honnold first scaled El Capitan with guide ropes, many times; learning from experience, with the proverbial safety nets in place. And even then he had an aborted attempt at free soloing the summit, getting to around 500 feet up, before he turned back (no doubt “fucking bottling it” by some lazy arsehole scratching his nuts on a sofa somewhere).
Honnold would have to wait until the following year to make what turned into his successful attempt. It took him a long time to get his belief in place, and it took him practice, and more practice, to be physically and mentally ready. This is how we learn: testing practice. Stretching our limits. Being out of our comfort zone.
Indeed, for years now I’ve spoken about the basecamp put up by Manchester United in 1992, Blackburn in 1994, Arsenal in 1997, Chelsea in 2004 and Man City in 2011, where they finished either 2nd or joint-2nd (level on points) before finally going one better the year after. They had their dry runs; or rather, real-life attempts – wet runs, if you will (although that sounds unpleasant, and not dissimilar to what the Reds experienced in Dubai in January) – that fell a little short, but where they learnt to cope with the pressure and understand the requirements.
Other teams – again, including Liverpool, a couple of times – have got to 2nd, only to lose key factors in what got them there in the first place. So by no means is it a given that Liverpool will go one better. Sometimes you are over-stretching yourself just to get to 2nd. (Getting to 2nd when you have a budget of 3rd, 4th or 5th is an achievement.)
But even the players from the “failed” attempts of 2008/09 and 2013/14 learned from the experience. The problem, as Klopp alluded to, was that Liverpool could not hold those teams together, with internal fissures, but just think about what those players went on to achieve, with that experience as part of their eductions.
Xabi Alonso, admittedly having already won a Champions League medal with Liverpool prior to the league attempt of 2009, won titles in La Liga and the Bundesliga after 2009, as well as the World Cup with Spain. Fernando Torres won the World Cup with Spain and the Champions League with Chelsea. Javier Mascherano won five titles with Barcelona, and also two Champions Leagues. Pepe Reina won major honours with Spain and Bayern Munich. Álvaro Arbeloa won the title with Real Madrid, and like Reina was part of the Spanish World Cup-winning squad.
Luis Suarez is about to win his 4th Spanish title, and has also won the Champions League with Barcelona. Philippe Coutinho is about to win his 2nd La Liga title. Raheem Sterling has won the league with Manchester City.
While they were excellent players anyway, who went to play for richer clubs with more likelihood of silverware at the time, their experiences in those title races at Liverpool were part of what helped shaped them, as a whole intense year of their educations.
In some cases it was part of their formative years, in others it was a high-water mark for their careers up to that point. Alonso, Torres, Arbeloa, Coutinho, Sterling and Mascherano were not seasoned trophy winners; Coutinho was an Inter reject and Mascherano was in West Ham’s reserves. Torres hadn’t even played in the Champions League.
It’s also easy to say, with hindsight bias, how destined for the very best things each one of those players was, but most ended up at Liverpool due to doubts about their quality by the then-established elite clubs, and/or came from humble clubs in Spain (Deportivo La Coruña, Real Sociedad, Villarreal) or less demanding leagues, such as in Holland. Torres, Reina, Alonso, Mascherano, Suarez and Coutinho were all passed up by the major clubs before they ended up at Liverpool. Alonso was seen as too slow; Torres was not quite trusted; Suarez was a nutcase (in fairness, that was true), and unproven beyond the easy pickings of the Eredivisie.
And if Liverpool can keep the current crop together – as seems more likely with an improved financial footing and 99.9% guaranteed Champions League football next season – that can also help.
Equally, if anyone wants out it needn’t be the end of the upward trajectory for the club, especially if limited to one major exit, for an excessive amount of money, and that money is reinvested as wisely as it has been for the past couple of years; i.e. Coutinho out, van Dijk and Alisson in. (Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but it’s not worth worrying too much about players who may leave. Even if they stayed they could get injured and miss the season.)
And this Liverpool team is better than at least half of the English champions in the past 29 years. It just happens to be up against a far richer club, with far more title-winning experience, and a world-class manager; and allegedly aided by financial doping.
Liverpool are trying to climb a mountain, against the steep backdrop of Man City’s myriad advantages. To lose out would not be failure; but maybe some superhuman effort (and a bit of luck) might make this a season we’ll never forget. Rather than moan about any dropped point here or there, appreciate the ride; feel the feelings. In time these will be seen as the good old days, so don’t miss it while it’s happening right before your very eyes.