“Trust in me, just in me
Shut your eyes and trust in me
You can sleep safe and sound
Knowing I am around.”
Kaa the Python – The Jungle Book
Right now, that’s the word that rings around my head whenever I think about Liverpool football club. It’s all that’s missing. And it’s all that’s missing not just on the park, but in relation to everything about the club full stop at the minute.
On the park, our players need to rediscover it a little. We’re all analysing the recent home results against so-called lesser teams tactically, statistically, and psychologically, but Saturday’s game maybe showed why that one word – trust – is central to the contrast between the sides in both games.
“Anything that we were good at, we certainly didn’t do too much of today… We usually do passing and movement, but there wasn’t a great deal of that, when we got it back we gave it away quickly and most of the times when we gave it back to them they got up the pitch quite well… The problems that are there are problems that we can solve ourselves. We’ll sort it behind closed doors. We can pass it a lot better than that. That’s certainly one thing we can work on, but we work on it every week.”
“We’re not little old Swansea City anymore. Teams are seeing the way we play football and our beliefs and are giving us respect. We just have to keep doing that.”
Under successive managers (and I’m no expert particularly, but certainly since Martinez was at their helm), Swansea City have committed as a club to a certain brand of football. They’ve recruited to fit its needs, their system is set up to allow it best to flourish, and they’re four years along that path, having committed to the approach throughout their entire set up. Why are they enjoying relative success? Well, trust.
A substitute takes the field for Swansea City, and when interviewed after the game, he uses the words “we just have to keep doing that”. What? Trusting in their approach, trusting each other with the ball, trusting their team mates to take up the slack when they’re out of position. Trust.
Meanwhile, flip the script to Liverpool FC’s part, and you’ll find Kenny making much the same references, albeit from the flip side of the same coin. He starts by making clear reference to what he believes we’re good at – pass and move football, and retaining the ball. The stuff the Swansea players were doing. He then said we’d sort it, but by doing what we already do every week. So what does that allude to? A blueprint that’s in place, recruitment that in the medium-to-long term will fit the needs of that approach. And, gradually, settling on the systems that will best allow the approach to flourish.
Swansea have trusted their process and are several seasons in. We saw the result of that on Saturday. Liverpool? Well, we’ve seen what happens when everything’s aligned properly. We saw Fulham away last season. We’ve seen a few glimmers of the same this season. At times the football’s been fluid and powerful, and against good sides to boot. But do we have what it takes to trust that it’ll flourish?
On the pitch, when we see a side like Barcelona play its football, we see footballing maestros manipulating the ball with one and two touches while under the most intense defensive pressure imaginable, and finding their team mates with the ball. And when their team mates receive the ball, it’s almost as if they prefer to be tightly marked, or ideally double-teamed, because they trust their own ability to move it on and take those opposing players out of the game. That disrupts their opponent and creates space and opportunity. And it’s all founded on trust.
And it’s easy to trust Xavi or Iniesta to control a ball when you ping it at them at speed, or to flick it into the stride of a runner in space, but it’s far less easy to trust Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano or Victor Valdes. But they do – just watch them. Even the less able players are trusted and expected to play their game, and more often than not, they rise to that challenge and meet the expectation. That’s something intangible that compounds itself over time within a club. And it’s arguably what Swansea are enjoying right now to a far lesser extent.
Of course, they’re blessed with far less quality in their squad than most clubs, but the players they’ve assembled are all trusted and expected to do the simple things well, and to keep a disciplined shape that maintains the right kind of foundation. We saw a side on Saturday that played one-twos, that remained calm when under pressure, because they knew they could expect an open man who’d happily demand the ball from them. That pervaded their entire side. And it’s not down to world class ability; it’s down to trust. Commitment and trust.
In the first half Leon Britton could receive a difficult pass with two players closing him down in his own half, feign a forward movement, and let the ball run before completing an easy pass to the Swansea right back. Why? Because he could trust, when he did that, he’d have options available looking to give him an option for the pass. Is Leon Britton up there with Sergio Busquets? Well, no – obviously not – but when your system’s set up that way, and your players have that kind of expectation and mutual solidarity, it’ll tend to tick over nicely. It’s that mutual trust and confidence that founds their current position. If that breaks down – the individual and collective belief in their right to be where they are – only then will they run into problems. We saw hints of that near the end, as the teams fell into the more natural patterns expected of them, and Swansea retreated into their shells a little.
That confidence and mutual solidarity takes time to grow, and it’ll seldom grow in an uninterrupted linear way. The team will face challenges and it’ll need to respond. Will it always respond positively? Well, no – at least not in the early stages – the habitual positive response is something that takes years to bed into a club – it’s sense of itself – of who and what it is, and what it stands for – is something that takes time to fully establish (or in our case, to rebuild). It’s why Manchester United have for years now tended to win games in “Fergie time” when they’ve next to no logical right to do so. They believe that things will be a certain way. When events unfold to the contrary, something often clicks into gear to restore what they believe to be the status quo. Self image is everything – both individually and collectively.
And if you can extend that to include your staff, your besuited decision makers, and last but not least, your fans, well – then you’re really on to something.
But it’s not all that easy.
The quote that opens this article is the perfect example. It reads like a lullaby – a soothing sugary stanza to make you feel safe in the witching hour. But pan back a little and you remember it’s taken from the Jungle Book at the point where Kaa the Python is trying to lull Mowgli to sleep, with a view to having him for a light supper.
Trust involves a leap of faith, and if you make the Koreshi style mistake of trusting the wrong fella and the wrong ideas to commit yourself to, then you’re in trouble.
So it all comes down to this – do you trust the men in charge to get it right? Do you trust the players to find the right patterns on the park?
I trust you do.