IN the emotional aftermath of the Carling Cup Final, I tweeted the following to a mate.
I understand @Knox_Harrington ‘s point about a stupid team now. A lot of stupid stuff today. But it’s a WIN!!!!!
@Knox_Harrington is of course Neil Atkinson, Host of The Anfield Wrap Podcast (and soon to be host of The Anfield Wrap radio show). If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know that Neil has a strongly held (and increasingly persuasive) view that in its current incarnation, Liverpool Football Club is a stupid football team, choc full with stupid footballers, individually and collectively playing far too much stupid football.
It’s a subject close to my heart.
At any time in a game, let alone when we’re 2-1 up in extra time with the clock ticking into the final seconds, just keep the ball. Don’t even give them the chance to get back into it. Put the foot on their throat and choke the life out of their resistance.
Don’t give away needless corners or stupid frees in decent crossing positions. Concentrate. Don’t switch off and let your marker ghost in behind you into spots where he might hurt us. Don’t play blind square balls to your team mates when you’re not sure what lurks behind you. Don’t take that extra touch when you have three free runners breaking into space around the opposing box. Keep the ball! Don’t dive in and concede stupid fouls when your mark’s going nowhere and he’s under pressure. Don’t force it when you could be pegging them back and building your confidence and momentum and tempo. Keep the pressure on them. Keep the ball!
It’s simple really. Football’s all about pressure.
Do things that help you exert and sustain your team’s pressure, and don’t allow them to exert and sustain theirs. Don’t do things that squander or dissipate your pressure, or allow them to apply more of theirs.
At its best, Liverpool’s football was pure pressure football. We had teams and squads full of players with the sang froid to take whatever the other side threw at them, and the ruthlessness to torture them for as long as we could at the other end.
We were fast, we were strong, we moved it one touch at speeds that burst the lungs of the opposing players… but at the root of it all, we tended to be crafty, not least when the moment of truth arrived. Of course, we weren’t perfect. Everyone remembers times when, either individually or collectively, a brain fart cost us dear. There’s never been a perfect side in that respect, no matter what you read about the current Barca side, or Sacchi’s Milan, or whichever other name that’s trotted out. You only had to watch Revista De La Liga the other night to see Guardiola berating Alexis Sanchez for needlessly getting himself needlessly sent off. They might have been winning, but they went down to 9 men and invited suspensions. Stupid football.
Everyone does it from time to time. It’s boxing clever when it comes to the crunch that matters.
GOING BEYOND ‘MENTALITY’
The twin pillars of modern football discourse must surely be “mentality” and “football intelligence”, no? In the old days, people talked about old heads on young shoulders, and football brains, and people being five yards quicker than everyone else in their heads. Common sense. But as soon as a standardised coaching curriculum started to emerge, and UEFA started holding managerial summits and issuing coaching newsletters, those two terms slowly took hold in the game.
But is a strong mentality enough in itself? Can a footballer or group of footballers have the perfect mentality and still play stupid football?
To manage the stupid football out of your club, you need to demand more from your players and staff than simply insisting on a strong ‘mentality’ – that they’ll run through brick walls for you, and that their attitude, fighting spirit, eagerness to train and improve, team ethic and positivity are all first class. You can spot all those qualities in a player and still sign a dunderhead.
Those things should be a foundation to build on, but the work shouldn’t stop there. If you’re managing a club with its own distinct expectations and style of play, and if coupled with that you have any pretentions towards trophy winning domination, you need at least a core of players with the mental bandwidth to embody every aspect of your approach: what your club stands for in footballing terms, the balance of play, the systems you’ll use, the footballing and personal qualities of team mates… all the way down to the minutiae of set piece drills, to how far in advance you’re expected to show up for team meetings.
That’s not easy of course, but intelligence is the one quality that’s always set aside the genuinely great sides. They’ve all had that little bit extra up top, at least in footballing terms.
THE ROYAL MARINES AND ‘DISLOCATED EXPECTATIONS’
Along with that base of intelligence, you need calm heads both between and behind enemy lines, as well as resilience and organisation when you’re under attack. It’s little surprise that the Armed Forces are a step ahead on this front.
In Clive Woodward’s “Winning”, we discover that in 1999, the English rugby team did a two day team building exercise with the Royal Marines. It would fundamentally change their approach to their game. Lieutentant Nathan Martin addressed the squad at the end.
“Gentlemen, what you’ve experienced is as near as possible a simulation of an operational mission. Your briefings changed on an hourly basis. In battle, nothing goes to plan. You might find some similarities with game plans on the… pitch, only in war a mistake costs you your life. Not only that, one mistake by a team-mate can cost the whole squad their lives. We have a saying here… when referrring to fellow Marines: Would you go into battle with him? If the answer is yes, it means you have absolute faith in that team member’s skills and abilities, that he will think correctly under pressure, and that your life is safe in his hands.
On the battlefield a Marine is taught to assess his situation and re-evaluate his mission on a constant basis. There is only one thing you can count on in a battle situation: that events never go according to plan. We call that Dislocated Expetations, and it’s what we’ve subjected you to several times in the last forty-eight hours whilst putting you through mentally and physically challenging conditions.”
Clive Woodward later described how the experience affected his management.
“…I realised that for two years I had been making some fundamental errors on player selection …a critical factor in selection had eluded me.
On the last day of our visit, I’d asked several of the senior officers for an honest assessment of the players…
‘OK, if you want to hear it,’ eventually began one of the senior training instructors… ‘There are men in your squad whom we wouldn’t go into battle with.’ He then rattled of their names in quick succession. …It’s not about their skills, Clive. It’s about their attitude and their effect on the team. There are hundreds of soldiers who can run for three days, think on their feet, and handle a weapon. But some of them simply aren’t suited to working in high-pressure team situations. It might be the smallest trait, like a bit of a moan when the going gets tough. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have any effect. But in high-pressure combat situations just that one negative trait can destroy a whole team. We are trained to identify these clues because the consequences for us are so serious. It’s the difference between life and death. One wrong team player can sap all the energy from the group.”
Of course, the stakes are different in football, as in rugby. If Charlie Adam fails to spot Jordan Henderson’s lung bursting run into the box in the closing stages, nobody is actually going to die. But the end goals are much the same – to win, or at least avoid defeat.
Stop and think about it for even a minute, and you start assessing our current squad in similar terms. Would you trust them to make the right choices and keep a clear head? It’s not all about flared nostrils and kissing the badge – it’s about quietly doing what hurst the opposing side most. If a player let you down consistently on that front, would you be ruthless with them and bring in new blood?
THINKING CORRECTLY UNDER PRESSURE
Woodward borrowed several of the Royal Marines’ methods – the notions of “Dislocated Expectations” and “Thinking Correctly Under Pressure” informed much of their coaching in the lead up to the 2003 World Cup victory by helping them manage the stupidity out of their game (and at all levels). Examples include the “Crossbar, Touchline, Corners” routine to improve their vision and awareness of where everyone was on the park, and “30 seconds to score”, to encourage drilled behaviours and calm in the closing stages of tight games.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the impact of these techniques as managerial fluff, as their squad at the time boasted genuine world class and unrivalled top level experience, and in the kind of depth that no other squad could match. But what led them to that point? Their processes, from the way they dealt with sponsors, to email protocols, to the biggies like team selection, were all influenced by the constant desire to squeeze every drop of avoidable stupidity out of the equation.
One of the key points covered in every team meeting was “Our Team Self-Control”. Training regularly involved a top level ref. When penalties were conceded in training games, Woodward and the coaches would tell the player “thanks, you just cost us the World Cup”. They were coached to listen to and work with the refs, and in ways to influence and put pressure on the refs. In light of that, it’s no surprise that they were also made to learn the rules.
In terms of their style of play, their coaching focussed as much on learning to intimidate and put pressure on the man they were marking, and ironing out blips in their communication, as it did on passing drills and set pieces. They were assessed on all aspects equally, and questions were asked if standards slipped.
But it’s the way it informed selection that’s most interesting. Woodward admitted as much.
“…I realised that for two years, I had been making some fundamental errors on player selection. Unfortunately, all I could do was catalogue these thoughts. We were eight weeks from the World Cup. …I admitted that, if I had my time again, I would make the hard choice and bring in the new players immediately so that they could gain the experience sooner. …Post World Cup it was now all about making the correct decisions under pressure.”
Even if you’ve never watched a game of rugby in your life, let alone played it, you’ll surely know what happened in that World Cup Final in Sydney in 2003. How the pressure came to bear. How the ball soared between the sticks with seconds to spare – icy calm from the entire side and its star player when the moment of truth came.
It took a lot of time, heart ache, and hard-won lessons to bring the team to the level it ultimately reached, with a lot of players winnowed out of the mix in the process through gradual refinement. And interestingly, when the wheels came off post-2003, enough of it was retained in the group to see them through to the 2007 Final again. Good habits die hard, it seems.
A squad full of players with enough skill and technique (and in some cases truly world class vision and technique) and the right basic mentality. But beyond that, players who could think correctly under even the most extreme pressure, no matter how big the game. Imagine a Liverpool squad that could boast the same, eh?
Well, it’s not that hard to imagine. Our greatest sides (and that’s ‘sides’ – not many clubs can use the plural) could make that exact same boast, and sustained that truly elite level for as long as any sporting institution has in history. It’s still there in the club’s DNA, and recent years have done nothing but reinforce those memories, at least among older fans.
In terms of thinking correctly under pressure, Rome away in 1984 must surely rank as one of the greatest examples ever. That was the level we’d reached at the time, and we knew how good we were.
Contrast that with our current squad. The showings at Wembley and Anfield this last few weeks have maybe shown us where we are in our progression. On balance, we can be a very stupid side, filled with very stupid players. But on the one hand, we just about mustered enough grit to get over the line. On the other, when the moment of truth came, we blew it – not once – but enough times that failure seemed inevitable.
THINKING LIKE AN IDIOT UNDER PRESSURE
While Martin Kelly’s airshot in front of the open Arsenal goal will no doubt haunt me for years, it’s maybe fair to say that these things happen from time to time, particularly when you’re not quite the finished machine-like article. But elsewhere in the game, Kelly, usually a clever player, seemed to freeze mentally. Midway through the second half, with the box gaping ahead of him and the ball at his feet, he turned and looked for the man inside. Why? Well, because he wasn’t thinking clearly, obviously.
Is that a reflection on him as a player? Well, I’d say it’s not. I mention Kelly because, unlike certain others in the side, he’s been far from prone to stupid football this season.
Contrast that with Stuart Downing. With Suarez bearing down on goal and unmarked, the England international and supposed Premier League assist machine somehow contrived to sclaff his squared pass into the keeper’s grasp and deprive Suarez of what would surely have been the winning goal. How did that happen? How has the calm, consistent and sensible football he’s played throughout his career somehow deserted him this season?
The answer, one might argue, is pressure. At Liverpool, the belief will never really disappear that the club is somehow entitled to success. And with that expectation comes pressure – from the fans, from the media, and from the staff within the club – pressure that, even with top level experience, a player can struggle to adjust to. Downing, however, was one player who I believed could cope with that increased pressure – that was what kind of justified the premium we paid for him in my mind – that he was somehow a ‘sure thing’. But it seems he’s suffering from brain freeze, and I’d put that down to his thus far being unable to adjust to that pressure.
A player has to believe in his own ability to perform. So it’s illustrative to contrast his standard Premier League form with the Carling Cup Final display against Cardiff. He played as if somehow unshackled, unlike most of his team mates – and slotted the perfect penalty in cold blood – what was all that about? Surely that was a pressure game, no? Well, in a way, no – it’s possible that he believed more in his ability to hurt Cardiff than he had against any other side he’d faced this season.
It’s been a surprise, but Downing’s problems have been between his ears. And the same is often true of the group as a whole. The most glaring flaws in our play this season have been an inability to organise and keep pressure on the visiting side at Anfield, allowing them a foothold in the game, and simultaneously the tendency to play too ambitious and direct a game when we ought to be building and sustaining momentum and tempo. Do that and you build pressure – and we have more than enough footballing quality to play that kind of game. Try the more ambitious ball when it’s not really on, and you’re giving the other side a chance to rebuild their confidence and calm.
The flip side is neglecting the basic stuff when it is on, of course. When it looks like the ball might be coming in at pace, make the run to the front stick across your marker! Don’t stand and smoke your pipe on the edge of the D. When you’re running with the ball at your feet and you have support, move the ball as early as possible to the man who can hurt them the most. Lift your head and it’ll happen naturally!! The grass is flat – the ball will roll – you shouldn’t have to keep an eye on it!
And then, of course, the finishing. Hit the ball early. Don’t prevaricate, and keep a cool head. It’s easier said than done. And that makes you think – is this an issue that’s more about scouting criteria than it is about coaching?
Get the right player in, after all, and he’ll solve problems for you rather than passing them on to a colleague.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF CRAIG BELLAMY
It seems that for Craig Bellamy, the phrase ‘mental architecture’ doesn’t just extend to recreating Tony Montana’s mansion. In telling us the news that at the age of 32,Bellamy is ‘the sprint king of the Premier League’, Jason Burt of The Telegraph added that Bellamy “has worked closely with Steve Peters, the sports psychologist, who is best-known for his links with British cycling and Mark Cavendish in particular”.
That’s not strictly correct – Steve Peters is actually a psychiatrist – but joining the dots, you can understand how it might have happened. Bellamy, a mercurial talent throughout his career, had always had trouble settling, and had often courted controversy along the way, squandering career opportunities as he went. So when he washed up at Manchester City, not too far from the British Cycling Team’s headquarters, it was maybe natural that he sought out Peters, or that someone suggested he should. In 2007, Peters himself admitted that he’d worked with Premier League footballers, and that “It’s the public perception that these lads are not intellectual, which is often wrong.”
I’ve been boring whoever will listen for years with the suggestion that Liverpool FC should be talking to this guy. Dave Brailsford, the man who has presided over the British Cycling Team’s rise to prominence in recent years, sought Peters out as someone who deals with root causes rather than symptoms. Remember a year or two back when Arsene Wenger’s team talk before a Champions League tie was leaked to the press? Stay positive. Stay calm. Be all you can be? There’s a problem with that approach. If there’s some fundamental weakness in your ‘mental architecture’, you might master all the positive thinking techniques in the world, but when the moment of truth comes, your insecurity’s gonna call it all into question, and you’re far more likely to freeze.
His approach is neatly summarised in Richard Moore’s excellent “Heroes, Villains & Velodromes”. Peters himself explains the subtle difference between his forensic psychiatrist’s approach, and standard sports psychology.
“Sports psychology uses psychological techniques in training and competition,” he says. “And that can be very useful. But I look at the personality. I reconstruct the personality, someone’s beliefs around themselves, their understanding of their own mind, how it functions. …A psychologist can teach you how to drive the car, but the psychiatrist lifts the bonnet, looks at the machine, takes it to pieces and reconstructs it. And then,” he adds with a smile, “I teach them how to drive the car.”
So rather than a adding a lick of paint and doing some hoovering, Peters sets about finding the root causes of ‘stupid’, and finds a way to re-jig the mental architecture to help the athlete manage stupidity out of the equation – as far as possible, at least. This enabling approach equips them to manage the way they operate under pressure – helping them differentiate, as he puts it, between emotional and logical thinking.
“Emotional thoughts can hijack you. Look at a footballer taking a penalty. Whether one person or 10 million are watching, it doesn’t change how you kick a ball; what does change is the mind. You start thinking about consequences; ego gets in the way.
…There are parts of your brain which are going to send you into chaos. …If you invest a lot in something, or you have a belief system around something, and it goes wrong, then you go into chaos. An elite athlete who believes the whole of their value in life depends on them getting a medal… if it doesn’t go according to plan then they are likely to cave in, or become aggressive.”
The ‘patient’ whose time with Peters has enjoyed most coverage has been Sir Chris Hoy. Shortly after panic had scuppered his chances when a Gold medal beckoned at a World Championships, Hoy asked Peters “How do I get into the right mindset to be able to focus on what I do and not be distracted? How do I avoid thinking emotionally, and losing the game plan?”
Peters tackled the issue by helping Hoy introject the concept of Dislocated Expectations, and build for himself the mental architecture to cope. That process allowed Hoy, faced with mounting pressure and setback after setback, to slot into the zone when the moment of truth came in Athens 2004 (as well as many times since).
“In a nutshell” says Peters, “you’ve got to switch from using one part of your brain to another. You have to learn which part of your brain is operating, and why it’s operating, and then when you’ve learnt that, you switch it off, and switch on the bit you want… and you learn the skill of controlling that. That’s what Chris did. And he did it very easily. He could see the reasoning, he understood it, and he learnt to do it. He mastered it.”
“…How would you react to a fast time by one of your rivals while you’re waiting to go? How would you react to a world record? You have to visualise these scenarios. I have to dig into a person’s mind to do this. But the part of your brain I want to work is the logical part. That part of your brain I want to turn off, or control, is emotional. Your emotions aren’t rational. They create irrational thoughts that can mislead you.”
So it’s arguably manageable, given the right raw materials to work with. Bellamy, Liverpool’s standout performer this season to date, is living proof.
SO SHOULD WE BE MANAGING IT BETTER?
It’s clear that Liverpool FC have room for improvement in managing ‘stupid’ out of their operations at all levels. That should come as no surprise given that until very recently, the club was run by Statler, Waldorf and Herve Villechaize. By the end of their tenure, stupidity had seeped in at every level. But somehow a core of sanity within and around the club saw it through the big crisis. It’s nice to get back to storms in teacups feeling like doomsday every second week against that backdrop.
So are the club taking steps to continually squeeze stupidity out of the equation? Well, there’s evidence both for and against that suggestion, and that’s only natural at this stage – how are the club going to progress and learn if they’re not willing to make the occasional mistake along the way?
You just hope it’s a key driver on all levels. When we deal with a sponsor, are we doing it in a way that protects our integrity long-term? When the medical team treats a player, are we making sure we get him right for good, rather than rushing him back? Are we helping our players find sustainable ways to deal with pressure on and off the pitch? Are we equipping them with a clear game plan, and style of play, and with winning habits?
Reading Ian Ladyman’s Glen Johnson interview, you get a clear picture of Kenny Dalglish’s approach with his players.
‘…We are a tight unit. We defend together and do everything together. We are close on and off the pitch. Kenny Dalglish is good at that. He places an emphasis on it and makes sure he involves everybody. We look forward to going into training and you can see that on people’s faces.
That’s a big part of it, but it maybe isn’t enough in itself. The group feels like it could go into battle together, but maybe lacks the insight to understand where their efforts are being undermined.
That said, things seem increasingly right at Academy and Reserve level, and given time, that’ll make a massive difference. You just hope the scouts, while assessing talent, are looking at clever players who are ruthless and thrive under pressure – that has to be a key driver for us. We need to be filtering out the stupid football at source – if you can avoid it, don’t let people who make bad decisions or wilt under pressure into the club. It’s never an exact science, of course, but if it’s a key driver, we’ll get better at it. At the minute, it seems far more important to the club than the industry buzz around on-pitch statistical metrics.
A clever side, lacking in ability or power, can do great things. A side that can rework its game plan and manage pressure as a group can punch well above its weight at any level. It takes time and commitment though, and the right approach and support behind the scenes.
You can’t point at any snapshot in time and say that things are 100% right – that’ll never be true at any club, or in any competitive environment. People will always make stupid decisions. It’s inevitable. The time-consuming part is ironing them out, and eliminating them when the decisive moments come.
Are we working hard enough on this front? Only time will tell. But given FSG’s typical approach, you’d expect them to commit to boxing clever, and to make that commitment long term.