By Rob McDonald
SOMETHING is really bothering me. This isn’t particularly new; things are always bothering me. However, it’s the start of this season that is really bothering me. All I can keep thinking about is last season. Not the end bit – the dead good bit – but the beginning bit. The bit where we didn’t really know what we were apart from lads who could win games of football (until Southampton and Swansea, anyway).
1-0 and 1-0 and 1-0. Nine points. Where have they gone? Southampton felt like last season. It felt like a team that didn’t really know what it was but won anyway. There are no bad wins. We weren’t effervescent, we weren’t anything close to the heights we reached last season but it doesn’t change the final outcome: three points. You don’t expect to do that against City. No one goes to City and expects to win. You earn the right to get a draw, you are brilliant or very lucky to get a win. Manchester City are very, very good at football. Spurs felt like last season too, but the bigger bits. The bits where we tore teams apart.
So you’ve had three games, two wins and a game you don’t really mind losing in the grand scheme of things. You’ve replicated the best parts of last season. What happens then? Last year we had nine, this season we have six. What happens next that causes us to doubt?
Doubt is what is bothering me. Doubt is new. Aston Villa are a bogey team, I’m told. They’re also really quite good at football and they’ll trouble other teams I say (apart from Arsenal, it seems). West Ham is an away that no one wants. Last season we get four points out of these fixtures, this season we get nothing.
We know what happened in those games, I’m not going to rehash too much here (mostly because I’ll claw my own eyes out): we were utterly stymied by Aston Villa and we were battered by West Ham. The defence is a shambles, the goalkeeper looks a shadow of the man who started last season and the captain is a year older. Already there are lads laying on the pitch, splayed and worried. All the lads. Suddenly all the squad improvements you’ve made are for naught and you’re watching Lucas Leiva and Fab Borini. There are more games. Games coming as thick as mud. The manager is becoming very, very defensive.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? We wanted a team to make us sing and dance. We wanted a team to inspire and humiliate. We’ve played six games, we’ve won three and lost three. Teams that compete don’t win 50% of their games. We are now behind the points tally for last year. We are worse after five games than we were last year. Sudden, earth-shattering doubt.
This doubt goes around and around my head for days on end. You can see the reasons why this is happening. Only two men in the world know just how good Dan Sturridge is, that’s Dan Sturridge and Brendan Rodgers. You have a load of lads to bring into the team and the lads who were here last year are getting injured left and right, meaning there’s more pressure on them to hit the ground running. If Sturridge picks up this injury further down the line, it doesn’t look like this.
In those 1-0s, we were resilient and we had Dan Sturridge. In those games Brendan Rodgers knows that if we are resilient and can get the ball to Dan Sturridge then he can get a goal and you can win the game. There’s no expectation for the season. You can do things like this. Suddenly you’ve lost Sturridge. You have Mario Balotelli, who is also very good but not in the same way. Balotelli needs other lads around him. So you try and get other lads around him but then you’re not as solid. It’s very hard to find the balance, especially against two well-organised sides who can sense a scalp, in Villa and West Ham. You only have to look at Allardyce’s face to know he fancies getting into these and then heading home and having a giant fuck off triumphant pie after the game. All the gravy.
We suddenly lack outlets, we lack fluidity and we lack dynamism. The three things that were the bedrock of last season. We’re a team that had the two best forwards in the league but don’t right now. Almost everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.
The test that faces Rodgers now is the biggest of his career. He has to back himself. He has to get these players to back themselves. In the next couple of weeks you see the return of Sturridge, Joe Allen, Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel. Half a team. Half of last year’s team. They have faults, but they are players that know this team inside out. You see fixtures get easier domestically, but you know you have to balance it with European nights. This is the test you have been preparing for, you know what you’re going to do. You have a better squad. You could argue that with the additions, we’ll ultimately see a better first XI than last year.
We’ve barely seen this team. We’ve only had the slightest glimpse of Balotelli, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. We’re not even out of September and we’ve won three hard games. It was never going to be easy. There is expectation, there is pressure.
Still, though: we go at two points a game. Two points a game is our bread and butter and has been for nearly two years. We have the squad to go better than that. Every team stutters. I’d rather have it now than later. Every week these players get to know each other better. Every week these players will see more of that what they’re going to be.
The derby is now massive. But, ultimately, the derby is the perfect game to change everything about how we’ve started this season. It’s not time for doubt. It’s the time for belief. Wait until these lads get it together. Just wait. It’s the game that throws doubt out. Doubtful for the derby? Look elsewhere.
We knew more about what we were at the start of last season, that’s why we could win three games on the bounce 1-0. We don’t know what we’re capable of yet this season. That is exciting. That is very exciting. It’s not the time for looking back. When you start looking at this team as it is, as it can be from the bits and pieces we’ve seen worth seeing, then we and they can enjoy that these lads, these good players, have more than 50 games ahead of them. Doubt doesn’t bother you anymore. Just be excited. Into these Reds, they are fucking shite.