APPEARANCES can be deceptive.
In The Empire Strikes Back Boba Fett becomes a mystical cult hero. The bounty hunter utters the immortal line “He’s no good to me dead” as he stalks Darth Vader, and not much else. A lot of standing, a lot of walking, hands invariably glued to his blaster. Mystery, intrigue, villainy. The silent assassin. All the ingredients for a memorable character in an overblown space opera.
After promising so much in such a short cameo role, big things are expected in Return of the Jedi before he is unceremoniously bumped off, his jet pack malfunctioning as he careers into the side of Jabba the Hutt’s barge and slides miserably to his doom in the Pit of Sarlacc.
You’re tempted to ask what the fuss is all about. Boba Fett may look the part, and he may be eulogised and glorified by fanatics, but there’s not much substance in the Star Wars films to suggest he deserves the adulation. All the gear, but no idea.
Appearances can be deceptive. You can look the part. You can walk the walk. You can exude a calm confidence, walking tall and strong. Looking impenetrable. “Walk around him”, as Neil Atkinson has oft said. But if there’s nothing to back it up, it’s all bluff and bluster.
When Dejan Lovren signed for Liverpool 12 months ago, a picture accompanied the welcoming tweet showing the Croat standing, arms folded, bulging biceps covered in tattoo ink and wearing a club tank top. He looked the part; the very manifestation of the long-term successor to Daniel Agger.
He looked pretty content with his lot – and why shouldn’t he have been? He’d worked hard to make it here. Little known is the centre-back’s early struggles in life. Born to Croatian parents in Yugoslavia, present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, the family escaped to Munich as the Bosnian War raged in the 1990s when Lovren was only three. After seven years in Germany, when Lovren admitted to being “a happy boy”, the family were forced to return to Croatia when the government deemed the young country safe.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2013, a few months after the move to Southampton, Lovren described the difficulty of returning to a home he barely knew:
“It was two or three years before I was happy again. It was horrible at the beginning because the guys at school were laughing at me because I didn’t speak Croatian well. I was speaking but they didn’t understand anything I said.”
It’s a telling insight into the now 26 year-old Croat, not just as a person but as a footballer too. The constant desire to be first to the ball, to be winning his individual battles, derives from these experiences of having to fight for yourself. The thirst to prove himself has dominated his time at Liverpool.
He’d forced his move from Southampton, he was desperate to make the step up in his career to where he clearly felt he belonged. At one stage he was willing to go on strike. That desperation informed his playing style in his first season; desperate to impress, desperate to lead, desperate to show his worth.
Brendan Rodgers tasked Lovren with being the leader of the Liverpool defence and spoke glowingly of him from the off. Speaking in August last year the manager said:
“He is exactly what I’ve been looking for since Jamie Carragher left. He is a dominant, No 1 centre-half, who reads the game well, offers good guidance to the back four and the rest of the team – and shows his qualities of range of passing too.”
Was Dejan doomed to fail or did circumstances go against him? After the 4-0 battering of Borussia Dortmund in a friendly at Anfield, the week before the campaign began, he looked athletic, dominant, good in the air and crunching in the tackle. Much like the Reds’ season, it was never to be seen again.
The command and dominance Rodgers spoke of became erratic naivety. The range of passing non-existent. Positionally ill-disciplined and easily bullied by opposition strikers. The abiding image of his first season could well be that of him falling on his arse as he attempts to beat Yannick Bolasie to the ball, while the Crystal Palace midfielder pirouettes away and sprints into the acres of space vacated by Lovren’s brainless burst forwards.
Strangely the Croat’s confidence never seemed to dip as his form plummeted through the autumn. If anything that confidence, bordering on arrogance, became the standout feature of his play. The worse he got, the more urgency he put into winning his headers and tackles. It’s a remarkable trait given that mental fragility can be the undoing of many out-of-form footballers. Instead of not doing the things that got him into trouble, he would do them more often in an apparent thirst to prove he could get them right.
How this season pans out for Liverpool rests in part on the role of Dejan Lovren. Bound to feature in a minority of supporters’ preferred starting elevens, he will inevitably feature more than people want. The cynical would cite political reasons, because Rodgers wants his £20m signing to prove his worth. But the simple fact is that Mamadou Sakho, much like Daniel Sturridge, can not be relied upon over a season.
Sakho should be the starting left-sided centre-back, and he may well be after Rodgers’ careful management of him over pre-season – if a player has a history of muscle injuries, don’t over-play him on a 30,000 mile three-week tour. It is important to keep Lovren playing, to build his understanding with Martin Skrtel, Simon Mignolet and the rest of the back line, simply because he will play in the bulk of the club’s fixtures this season.
He will benefit this year from a more settled line-up; a goalkeeper sure of himself and his position, and a midfield duo in James Milner and Jordan Henderson that will offer him more protection than a 34 year-old Steven Gerrard ever could. There can be no excuses for Lovren this year, he will know surely that this represents his final opportunity at a big club after his career at Lyon so limply fizzled out.
That brash confidence, reminiscent of an excitable puppy, has been part of the problem for Lovren, but can he harness it properly? At 26 can he significantly improve? He will be determined to prove that last year was a blip, but history suggests that his successful year at Southampton was the real anomaly. The sheer volume of individual errors, basic mistakes, stray passes and mistimed tackles left Liverpool fans waking up in a cold sweat last season; “£20million for that?” He became the first name to look for on the team sheet, but for all the wrong reasons.
Appearances can be deceptive – Lovren needs to walk as well as he talks next year, to earn the swagger that he plays with. His Liverpool future, nay his footballing career, depends on it. Just don’t take a penalty again.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo