FOOTBALL – like life – does not follow a linear narrative structure, writes ADAM SMITH.
We have, as supporters, become so used to stories being about B following A, leading to C, that we now attempt to impose some sort of shape to what is, in essence, a blank sheet of paper – with any number of possible outcomes. The press have a part to play in this, of course. They cast people in roles in order to help the reader better comprehend what is happening. Three weeks ago, for example, Steven Gerrard was a mighty colossus; a heroic figure, running his horse up and down in front of his ranks, telling them not to yield.
Luis Suarez has spent much of this season being the great anti-hero. Having recovered from a series of seemingly insurmountable personal flaws, the Uruguayan was single-handedly firing Liverpool Football Club to their first title in 24 years. Jose Mourinho has veered wildly from villain of the piece to sad clown, trying frantically to make the courtiers laugh but, ultimately, coming across as little more than a sad and desperate fool. Like Richard III, he stands on the pitch and cries “my kingdom for a striker” – hoping we won’t notice the £80million worth of forward talent trotting around next to him.
At the start of the season even the most optimistic Liverpool fan would have felt that a fourth-place finish would be an excellent improvement. Most would have settled for fifth. A title charge was only written in the index, under the heading “too fanciful to be believed”.
Eleven wins on the bounce, though, and suddenly the story was being rewritten. A 3-2 win over Manchester City at Anfield meant the title was Liverpool’s to lose. An incredible turn around. The headline was no longer: “Richest Club In World Sport Achieves Minimum Expectation.” It was: “Liver Bird Rises, Like Phoenix From Flames, To Win Unlikely Title.”
Liverpool went from being a team everybody felt queasy about, in the wake of the Suarez-supporting t-shirt wearing palaver, to being a team neutrals were actively hoping won the title because of their free-flowing, attacking football. Brendan Rodgers was no longer football’s answer to David Brent, doling out cod-philosophical phrases that were one step off being a Dolly Parton lyric. Instead he became a managerial genius, spoken of by some in the same breath as Shankly, Paisley, Dalglish.
Then came that slip. (How hilarious! He said “this doesn’t slip” and then he slipped! Oh how we laughed! So much, in fact, that we sang about it instead of supporting our own team!) And everything changed.
Mourinho is entitled to get his team to play any way he wants. If he thinks using £200m worth of players in order to put 10 men behind the ball will win him things, that’s fine. Two trophies in four years, out of a possible 14 available, having spent over £277m, shows that maybe it’s not the best method, but whatever. Liverpool were beaten. The title’s destination shifted from Merseyside to Manchester.
At the end of the season it’s likely Liverpool will have the same amount of trophies as Chelsea, but the fans haven’t had to watch Stoke with money. So who’ll be the real winners? From the story being about Liverpool having unstoppable momentum – as emotions, history, and sheer force of will were taking them towards the title – it became about how Rodgers’s men had “bottled it”.
That’s football. The ultimate in schadenfreude humour. Tottenham spent over £110m in the summer. They were shite. Why wouldn’t they tweet something taking the piss out of Liverpool? It distracts from their mediocrity. Equally Manchester United supporters have had a year of sheer misery; their own version of Hodgson dragging them down to mid-table obscurity. They’d kill to have had the season Liverpool have had. Want to laugh at Stevie G? Go ahead. Everyone’s laughing at you. If they were books they’d be one of those small ones you keep in the toilet to give you a laugh while you’re enjoying a bowel movement.
As for Everton, when the cloud of Moysery that has hung over you for so long is lifted, you’re playing exciting, attractive football, yet the most entertaining thing you can do is sing a song about your rivals, it’s time to get some fresh air. Bluenoses might think laughing at Liverpool winds the Reds’ supporters up. But when you hate your neighbours more than you love your own club, it’s only sympathy you’re going to get from those across the park. “We’ve been away for five years. How have you got on? Won f*** all? Soz ‘bout that”. Book-wise they’re Marley & Me. It’s been fun watching them bound around the place like an uncontrollable puppy, but ultimately it’s just a bit sad.
The idea of “bottling it” is in interesting one. Chelsea have, in the last few weeks, dropped points to Norwich, Sunderland, Aston Villa and – shock! – Crystal Palace. Have they bottled it? No, because those results came at the wrong time in the story for it to be the narrative conclusion.
The game against Crystal Palace was the Merseysider’s season in a microcosm. Phenomenal attacking prowess let down by cowboy defending. Because it’s that simple, isn’t it? In stories there are protagonists and antagonists. In football you’d think there was only one team on the pitch. Liverpool should have seen out the game when they went 3-0 up. It’s as simple as that. Crystal Palace, if you believe most people, had nothing to say on the matter. It was Liverpool who collapsed, not Palace that fought back.
But, dear reader, that’s football. It’s never as narratively linear as we might expect.
Perhaps Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville were right in their post-match criticism of Liverpool. Maybe they were “naïve”. But how many Liverpool fans, knowing the team was chasing down a goal difference of nine from Manchester City, really wanted the team to shut up shop when they went 3-0 up? A team that had been scoring goals for fun all season had spent 80 minutes carving open Crystal Palace at will. The story was pretty clear. Win 6-0; then sit, staring Manchester City straight in the eye, daring them to f*** it up.
Palace didn’t read the script. Or, if they did, they decided they didn’t like the ending and figured a bit of improvisation was in order.
Two weeks ago the season’s narrative structure was clear. Liverpool were going to do the impossible and go from seventh to first, winning their first title in 24 years. Now, with just one game left to play, we all know what’s going to happen. Manchester City will beat West Ham and the league will be theirs. That’s what the current narrative dictates. West Ham have played City three times so far this season. They’ve scored once, conceding 12. There’s optimism, and then there’s a refusal to accept the inevitable.
When the last word has been written on Liverpool’s campaign, 2013/2014, the fans should look back on the year with an immense amount of pride. The only target the team has fallen short of is one that no-one even dared to dream about at the start of the season. They have taken an oil-drenched Manchester City team to the last game of the season; to the last kick of a ball.
Liverpool fans have wanted, for so long, to be back amongst the world’s elite. They are now there – and they’ve got there in style. No 10 men behind the ball. No hitting it up to the big man. Just pure, unadulterated, joyful football that has been a pleasure to watch.
Football, like life, does not follow a linear narrative structure. This season will conclude with Manchester City winning the Premier League – exactly as their wage bill and expenditure suggest they should. Because a world in which West Ham – driven on by Liverpool-supporting Kevin Nolan, and featuring ex-Reds Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll – beat Manchester City on the last day to hand the trophy to Liverpool is impossible to believe in.
But sometimes, just sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction…
Mate…thanks for writing this.
That’s a cracking read….thanks.
It sums up perfectly the way I feel about the season and how it will probably (but could) end.
Great article…..but..no 19 is coming home!!!
The question is, what does the following have to do with what the managerial team should be doing?
“But how many Liverpool fans, knowing the team was chasing down a goal difference of nine from Manchester City, really wanted the team to shut up shop when they went 3-0 up?”
BR and his assistants are not (just) Liverpool fans. Moreover, we did not even come close to “shutting up shop”; we rather carelessly, frivolously even, sought to increase the GD. Suarez and Sturridge were not exactly at their most ‘economical’ with their opportunities in the final third at 0-3. After missing out on quite a few chances or half-chances subsequent to going up 0-3, our manager (and assistants) decided that what was needed was for Sterling to come off in favor of Coutinho. Almost as soon as that substitution materialized, CPFC scored their first goal (lucky deflection and all but still). And young Coutinho had not exactly demonstrated textbook defending/closing down in the immediate run-up to that goal.
So, what was our manager’s response and what were his instructions to our player in response? Manifestly, it either was NOT to control the game and cement the win OR it was and the players completely ignored it. Whichever actually occurred, one cannot conclude that our managerial staff did well.
It’s all fine and good for ‘managers’ (in any field) to use “we” more than “I”. Not when it’s responsibility-taking time, not when it’s accountability-time. It wasn’t the “team” (i.e. the players on the pitch) who “did not manage the game well”. It was BR.
Wonderful season, great young manager who learns from his mistakes, with an outstanding philosophy. True, without a shadow of a doubt. Still, that wasn’t good. And it wasn’t the players’ fault.
Players do not substitute themselves; Suarez was knackered by the 70th minute. He’s not going to ask to be subbed (never, ever, ever!).
Lucas (of all people) is not going to take it upon himself to disregard BR’s instructions and either 1. NOT fall back next to Stevie to provide extra protection to the defense (if that was what BR allegedly instructed) OR 2. fall back next to Stevie to provide extra protection (if that was NOT what BR allegedly instructed).
No, even at 1-3 or even at 2-3, we were still attempting to score one more goal. That’s not good management. That’s managing as if you’re an enthusiastic fan (“Attack, attack, attack!”).
That’s why we have Generals in armies. That’s why we have managers in football. To make decisions dispassionately.
It’s all right being wise after the event, but if we didn’t go for the extra goals we’d have lost the league on Goal Difference.
I for one would rather lose going for glory than settling for silver.
The league was lost against Chelsea. A point would have done us, but Stevie let the ball run under his foot. Shit happens.
Nice article, and captures most of my thinking, except it overlooks the fact that we were tactically naive at 1-3 and 2-3 against Palace.
Like everyone else I was urging the team forward at 0-3, but as soon as they got one back we simply had to play clever and get out with the win.
How many of us would change our approach if we could magic back in time to the moments after Palace’s first goal? It was the difference between hoping for West Ham to sneak a draw and praying for an unlikely win.
Hopefully we’ll learn from this for the future.
As for this season, as long as there’s some hope we don’t give up, and if ultimately we fall short we can be proud of the team and hugely optimistic for the future.
Darren & GrkStav
Both good points. Briefly, I decided not to talk about this because Paul Tomkins wrote an excellent piece on it earlier this week that can’t be bettered. In essence, his point was it’s difficult to change a strategy that has worked all season, especially without the guarantee it will work now. Had we gone defensive & conceded people would say we should have kept attacking.
My point about the fans wanting to go for more goals is that it’s easy in hindsight to say we should have shut up shop, but it’s also easy to understand why they didn’t.
More than anything, though, this wasn’t intended to be a post-mortem of Liverpool’s game against Palace. More a discussion of how narrative stories change weekly in football & in reality don’t really exist at all.
I loved the EFC ‘Marley and me’ analogy :)
Spot on mate. Made me feel better for the first time in a week. C’mon you reds
The thing everybody seems to forget is that the title isn’t won or lost on just one game.And you don’t score so many goals without having to compromise your defence here and there.
City have scored about 9 goals difference over 37 games.Can you hear anybody shouting the odds about their need for a new back four and keeper?
The reality is that Liverpool is a fantastic Club and Team and are once again being recognised as such.
Criticise Rodgers for wanting to score more goals against Palace?But that’s why we are where we are.We score goals and even our defenders score goals.
We’ll probably tighten up next season.But give me a 5-3 over a 2-1 any day of the week!
Brilliant article, mate. Loved it. I’m still dealing with my own pain for the Captain, and my own anger over the dropped points vs. Palace, but we have a wonderful team and manager, and they have exceeded all expectations this year. A good transfer summer and I think we’ll come close to the title next season. To go into the final game of this season with a tiny chance of still winning the 19th is something of great beauty. I’m still believing for that miracle.
Congrats for a brilliantl article. YNWA!
Boss article mate
I feel about a trillion times better after reading this. Great article
The Manager did well to ride the crest of Suarez’s skill and enthusiasm and get as high as we are in the PL. But the Manager failed the acid test of bringing home the bacon when it was all wrapped up in grease paper in his shopping bag. We should have come out of the Chelsea game with at least the point we had when we went into it. The percentages against overturning the GD in two games – starting with CP – was unrealistic. A better manager would not only have recognized that but would have led the club – players and supporters – to secure what we had. The Manager should not be led by the enthusiasm of supporters or players. He should be the leader.
Sorry, but I think that’s garbage. I do agree that the Chelsea game was pivotal, but that loss was precipitated by our captain slipping on his arse. It wasn’t the result of tactics; we weren’t countered when we had too many men forward in a game we didn’t need to win; it was pure misfortune and nothing else.
His slip was costly because our formation was reckless. So far up the field, there should have been a defender to cut off a breakaway attacker if there was such a mistake. Rodgers is supposed to know Mourinho’s tactics – allow LFC possession, entice them forward and then seize on any mistake they make. If LFC had gone into the game with a defensive or counter-attacking mindset – they could have guarded the one point they had when they started and possibly have earned three on the counter attack. IMO Rodgers lost sight of the ultimate objective. He failed to exercise prudence at a critical stage of the season. It was not the time for heroics. He did the same in the CP game. It’s not excuse to say the players and supporters wanted attack at all costs. The job is not there for a manager to learn.
You’re striving for a level of game (micro-) management that is both undesirable and unobtainable, where you have a contingency for every 10ft sideways pass *just_in_case*. There was nothing “reckless” about either the pass or LFC’s formation at the time the pass was made. Had Gerrard not mis-controlled nor slipped, there would have been no sharp intakes of breath about the supposed risk inherent in the pass that LFC had just attempted. The same pass made another 1,000 times probably wouldn’t yield a goal-scoring opportunity to the opposition, and on this basis alone it cannot be defined as “reckless” or risky in any way. The idea that you can employ a formation or tactics that safeguard against this and similar sorts of eventuality is fanciful: you can keep ten men behind the ball for 90mins and still under-hit a back-pass, or have your goalie slip as he takes a goal-kick, etc., etc.. Shit happens. Of course you can mitigate risk but no objective assessment of LCF’s first-half performance against CFC could conclude that there had been anything gung-ho about Rodgers’ approach. There were none of the “heroics” you allude to. It was a considered game-plan which probably included an assumption that at some point in the second-half Mourinho would have a bit of a go on the basis that it was a game he had to win. At that point, no doubt Rodgers would try to exploit the greater space that should then be available.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know how things would have panned out because a combination of a mis-control and and slip (one without the other and Ba does not get a clear run on goal) robbed us of that opportunity. If you believe you can send out a team to play a game a football in a formation which means you’ve mitigated all risk and built a contingency for every error, trip and slip, you probably should apply for the Spurs job.
The slip (on his arse) didn’t lose it, it was letting the ball run under his foot, and Ba taking his chance well.