BY ALEX HESS
“As long as the performances remain decent, the results will improve with time”
IT’S a line that, in its various manifestations, has received regular airings in and around Anfield for over twelve months now.
It’s spoken, of course, in response to the disparity that’s haunted Liverpool’s league form over this period: the disparity between performances and point-accrual, between general play and final score. Indeed, the mantra has been repeated for so long that it now almost seems tautological – it’s truth requires no justification, it simply is. The problem is, if you look closely, logic actually suggests the opposite: the fact that the above line has been repeated for so long contradicts the argument itself. Because, let’s face it, it’s been a while now, and the results are yet to improve.
Part of the difficulty in explaining this performance/result discrepancy is that only one side of it is measurable. Results – goals; points – are objective fact, while the quality of a team’s ‘performance’ is far more abstract.
What ultimately constitutes a decent performance is completely subjective, but the fundamental questions that have emerged as far as Liverpool are concerned question are: how well can they actually be playing if they hold so little sway over the scoreline?
When does bad finishing turn a good performance become a bad one? And, ultimately, should fans continue to simply turn up to witness one good display/bad result after another, safe in the knowledge that, one day soon, the footballing gods will suddenly heave Liverpool’s points-to-performance ratio into some kind of rightful equilibrium?
The short answer, of course, is that there is no short answer.
Firstly, it’s unfair to equate the poor results of this season with those of last. For one, the Premier League’s famed fixture computer has been painfully unkind to Liverpool’s opening run of games, and so their first five results are unlikely to be especially representative of the eventual 38. More inherently, though, the Rodgers recipe for poor results is quite different from Dalglish’s 2011/12 blend.
Into Kenny’s pot, generally speaking, went wilful attacking, fairly abundant chance creation, and a substantial measure of comedy finishing. Thus far, Rodgers’ Liverpool create less opportunities than Dalglish’s, but exert – or at least aspire towards – a greater sense of midfield control, and of patient authority.
For the purposes of balance, the comedy finishing remains, supplemented by the introduction of defensive and goalkeeping calamities, but underneath this chaos lies a more consistent, perceptible tactical model than we ever saw last term.
The defensive errors can be reasonably expected to be banished sooner rather than later. Good players, after all, aren’t immune to bad form, and the early-season dips of Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel shouldn’t yet result in any panic (although Jose Enrique’s displays very much should do).
When we look at the bigger picture, the team’s ongoing adaptation to Rodgers’ much-trumpeted ‘philosophy’ needs to be accounted for.
It’s a progression that has been palpable with each passing game, and is a source of encouragement. Much has and will continue to be written about the various complexities of this process, but the most reductive truth, as we saw against United, is that Rodgers’ Liverpool are improving – and so, in theory, should their results.
But, despite it all, the inescapable fact is that the old failings remain, and remain prominent. The utter inability to translate intangible ideals such as ‘dominance’ and ‘control’ into the cold hard currency of goals and results is a depressingly familiar tale, and it emphatically will not remedy itself – at least, not fully.
That said, Fabian Borini is likely to improve as he learns the system and the system learns him. Borini’s strengths – namely his willingness and intelligence – are the sorts that are only properly exploited within a grander setup, and in this respect there are strong parallels between him and Dirk Kuyt.
Borini should eventually perform a comparable function: clever pressing and the off-the-ball dismantling of defensive units. Goals will come too, of course, though perhaps never freely. Luis Suarez, however, is likely to remain Luis Suarez: a fine technician and on his day a world-class attacker (and, crucially, another selfless workman) but reliably erratic in front of goal.
The first team boasts not a single reliable chance-converter (and one should be the very minimum), nor a clique of three or four who can share the burden.
The painful truth is that no Liverpool player, beyond Suarez and Borini, and arguably Gerrard, would be unequivocally banked on to bag more than five league goals this season – let alone 10 or 15.
It’s an astonishing position for such a club to find themselves in – certainly a far cry from the Torres-Gerrard-Benayoun-Kuyt quartet which returned 48 league goals in 2008/09 – and one that needs to be addressed before results truly begin to reflect so-called encouraging performances.
And it’s at this point that on-pitch matters become inextricable from off-pitch ones. Optimism about the manager, about the players, and about the coaching setup seems well-grounded, and indeed should continue – there’s a reason that Rodgers’ name is sung around Anfield despite the absence of a league win so far – but Liverpool’s translating of performances into points will only become truly efficient once a more coherent arrangement exists between management and ownership.
Liverpool’s efficiency off the pitch will ultimately dictate their efficiency on it. For over a year now, both have been embarrassingly low. January – and ultimately next summer – will mark the club’s chance to reverse this fact. Until then, expect dominance, expect silkiness, and expect an upturn in results. But expect a glass ceiling.