I AM drenched and broadly speaking lost, trying to get back from Manchester after having discussed Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat to Manchester United live to a nation who would prefer it if I didn’t swear or blaspheme. Bar one shout of “God in heaven” (I became my dad when I was five) I did alright considering it could be the most frustrating football match I have ever seen.
BBC Sport in Manchester is what the future looks like. You could set a phenomenal sci-fi there. Everyone was very nice, you’ll be pleased to learn.
Everything about the game did my head in. The team selection (i.e. Jones and Lovren), Liverpool’s decision making after carrying it brilliantly, the missed chances, the saves, United not being very good at anything which doesn’t directly involve the goal, the shape and really, trust me, I could go on and when that is the case at a time when fundamentally amongst all this the need to form coherent sentences in overbearingly present when all you want to say is: “Fucknhgsfbruntingsmashtheprickstopshootingfuckingthinkfuckingthinkfuckbastard.”
I’m cold and wet and have a headache which feels like it could become a nosebleed and am on a tram to god knows where surrounded by United supporters and I haven’t had a drink. I haven’t had a drink. This needs resolving urgently. As does the fact I am hungry having not eaten since breakfast. My plans have been slapdash at best. They haven’t been thorough. Some of the United supporters on the tram are playing each other the goals. This isn’t helping. Others are talking about how “oddly good” Liverpool were. “Oddly good.” Hmmm. Something. Anything? Nothing.
What do you say about this football match? On the tram thinking about its oddness. United had their third meaningful attack just after Liverpool had their third clear cut chance and after that passage of play which took place early in the second half Liverpool were still 2-0 down. But you know this. You know a goal has been given that shouldn’t have been. I could slaughter the linesman, but what would be the point? You know about the misses. You know about the fact that in the eighty yards between either area Liverpool were the better side, for seventy minutes at least. You know that Gerrard and Juan Mata were passengers, that Moreno broadly speaking couldn’t settle, that Henderson broadly speaking could. You know that too much of Liverpool’s decision making was poor but their carrying it through the middle third was excellent You know all this and this is why match reports are now defunct. You’ve seen the football match. You lived it. It presumably hurt, unless you are here rubbernecking.
The biggest fundamental issue with this game for Liverpool 2014/15 is the games it has followed. They took their chances, we didn’t, neither side good enough to challenge for honours, both sides should have too much in attack for most. United came into it with five wins. Liverpool unbeaten in five but never, not for a second, not a split second looking like a side which have too much for most in attack. Liverpool looked a completely different side today to the one whose first halves have been more leaden and blunt than unsharpened pencils. Yet they’ve emerged with a scoreline which tells you everything and nothing. The games this game has follows means its positives mean less, its negatives mean so much more. It being a return to something lost amongst the endless online white noise about a manager supposedly unwilling to change and compromise who has been actually changing and compromising himself out of relevance.
I find Manchester constantly difficult. I don’t know why this is. I can never nail its geography. This doesn’t make it a bad place, I never know where I am in South Liverpool either. These weaknesses are most definitely mine. I enjoy the tram, secretly, I enjoy listening to them talk as we talk about the game. They rate Sterling. Good. So they should.
Finally I’m at St Peter’s Square. I know where that is. I can see the Palace Theatre. I push on thinking about everything and nothing, think about what has brought us to this juncture. To this pickle. And what unpickles us. I’ve had the following article by Paul Tomkins in my head since I read it; you need to read that article because without it the remainder of this might not make all that much sense. As soon as I finished reading that article, I thought about what next, what’s gone, where’s the move, what do you do? Who do you get in touch with? Today’s result and performance throws it into greater focus for a variety of reasons. One is that it puts United ten points ahead of us in the race for a Champions League place. Secretly, I don’t really care about the race for a Champions League place. Just like I can’t be bothered with the league cup. Keep that to yourself.
But the main reason why that article is in my head as I get a Sainsbury’s meal deal is that today’s game is yet another example of the “be better in both boxes” theory and how that should impact upon your budget and your managerial decisions. Just be better in both boxes. If you are, then week in, week out in this league especially you’ll have to be a mess to not win. Manchester United weren’t a mess today, but they weren’t a million miles away from mess. Indeed, last season Liverpool were predominantly better in just one box, forget the other one. And it was mostly enough. It got them closer than anything had for twenty years.
On the train, just before my phone dies I reflect on the fact I have undergone a conversion on this and now I have the zeal of a convert. For years I was an advocate of the one nil. The two nil. The controlled win. Win the game in midfield and go from there. Grind your results out. Get grinding. That was the way to do it. That was the Liverpool Way. Because it was. When Brendan Rodgers arrived he spoke about Liverpool’s attacking football tradition and I thought, “Hang on a minute,” because what tradition? Yes, Liverpool have had a ton of sides who have attacked well but since we were winning European Cups we were very much about constantly reinventing pragmatism. Only really 87/88 and the Evans era stood against that.
My phone dies somewhere around Warrington and I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Then I record the podcast, four men shouting at each other and laughing and raging because they are thirty something and would fucking love to win the league.
I continue this on a rainy Monday morning, trying to catalogue a ton of these thoughts, most of which are probably wrong. Last season, or rather Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool since January 2013 changed my outlook, changed a lot of our outlooks. Pieces such as Paul’s excellent one which you had best have read if you are here, merely compound it. Yet the signs were there before then January 2013, for example, Alex Ferguson’s continual refusal to even attempt to buy an elite centre midfielder since Michael Carrick around 2006. When all conventional footballing logic said buy one he didn’t, resulting in him signing Van Persie in his final season and winning Manchester United their twentieth title. Better in both boxes. Since 2009 they rarely troubled Europe, bar getting to a Wembley final and getting embarrassed by an incredible Barcelona who took that lack of midfield quality and played them off the park, but, you know, twenty titles and that. A good thing, not a bad one.
The sort of noise made about Liverpool last season is that it was a freak season. Well, yes. Liverpool nearly won the league, surging from seventh to second, against all the odds, and went into the last game of it with a chance of winning the title for the first time in over twenty years. It would have to be a freak season with freak outcomes for us to win the title in the current situation. That’s the very point of Paul’s article. That’s the very point of last season. Liverpool either stumbled or decided (and I think decided) on a freakish way to rejig the game. Goals. Liverpool didn’t lose the league because they couldn’t defend, they nearly won it because they gambled it goals and they did so in a manner this league has very rarely seen.
There are two conversations about elite level football going on in this country. Or rather, there is one conversation with a second one, typified by Paul, trying to break through. The main one suggests Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Everton are all playing the same game. That they need constantly to all obey the same rules. Be strong, good at the back, good in possession, good out of possession. That you build, it takes time but you build and build and finally you break into the top four or into the title picture by playing the same game as everyone else.
The issue with that is that those who control the money get to rig the game. (Oh, when football imitates life…) They get to do conventional far better than anyone else can. And events, dear boy, events. Events knock the steady building off course. But that doesn’t matter within that main conversation which is ongoing, on 5Live and Talk Sport right now, on messageboards and in newspapers. You are measured against the conventional and of course the playing field is discussed as pretty much level.
That conversation, that convention, got its head kicked in last season.
And that should be the very point of Brendan Rodgers and, according to their own advance press, FSG. To be freaks.
Having been freakish there was a desire to revert to convention this summer. To do the balanced squad. To make the football more like everyone else’s. After all, the wisdom was, you can’t go on like that. There’s an issue in this here. No one wants to be the freaks. Brendan Rodgers wants to be an elite football manager like the other elite managers. You know the ones. Liverpool’s players don’t want the stress of being the freaks. Many of Liverpool’s supporters don’t want it either. They either grew up watching conventional dominance or Benitez and Houllier. Plus, understandably, the thing about freak seasons is that they are freakish.
However, I might be wrong. I often am. I’m probably outnumbered. Because the main question the discourse around the club and the summer business and last season begs, is what do we want Liverpool to do? What are we asking for? Not just us, but those running the club, the owners and the management down to Rodgers? What do we all want?
I understand people who don’t want to have lows and highs, who just want to turn up and expect Liverpool to be competitive and good and make sense every week. I understand the idea of trying to build progressively, conventionally. I understand that football is as much about days as it is about seasons. I understand that football teams can be very frustrating when they aren’t just doing the thing that you do. I understand that in the hyper-emotive world of being a footballer supporter in the twenty first century losing, taking gambles and losing, as Liverpool did against Manchester United (but didn’t against Sunderland) hurts. There is no escape from football. Not the game, there is always escape from the game, but from the talk about football. I mean, of course I know that. The BBC paid me money yesterday to be part of that problem. I have a podcast coming out today to be part of that problem. This very thing you are reading on this very website is part of that problem. So do one, Atkinson.
I know what I want. I want to win the league. I want nothing else. I want every decision Liverpool Football Club take to be about winning the league. And unless there is a massive injection of money, then how does that happen? Only being getting into extremes. And that’s why I wouldn’t have Brendan Rodgers leave Liverpool in any but the most extreme circumstances. Not because he has shown he is the best manager in the world. But because he has shown he can do, create and deal in the extremes, it’s easy to put last season down to Suarez, but it’s Rodgers who has shown he can improve footballers – especially young footballers – markedly across the pitch (tactically it’s more accurate to put the improvement since January 2013 down to Daniel Sturridge anyway) and organise them to play in a way which leads to goals being scored in huge quantities. This is an extreme. This is rejigging the game. And it is only in the extreme and in the freakish where this football club will win the league unless something profound and structural changes. But Brendan Rodgers needs to commit to that. There’s no point being a conventional manager if you are Brendan Rodgers. Don’t worry about organising a defence. Don’t have an expensive defence. Just a really good goalkeeper and an attack. Commit to being Brendan Rodgers. And Liverpool need to commit to that, if that indeed is what they want.
If they, we, you, want fourth places, want slow builds, want five year plans (by the way, Arsenal are in year ten of their five year plan to crash the monied elite’s party) they maybe let’s have a talk about someone or something else. If you want F72 A35 and 74 points then, yep, this might not be the one. Whenever I ask for an opening question someone always goes “Would you take 84 points?” Funny these lads. Because the point of the question was always would you take a certain CL place or gamble on a title. I’d gamble on a title. By the end of the season all but four other of our regular contributors were taking the CL place. I’d gamble on the title and the only way the title comes is by being unconventional. The problem with being unconventional is you do so in a conventional universe. You get judged on conventional terms. So if it goes wrong then you have a situation.
As I say, I might be wrong. I am probably outnumbered.
And that’s why the United game and the enormous frustration is about when it is as much as the performance. Six weeks ago, it points the way. It’s unconventional. It’s a different approach. It backs its players and those players, in turn, show commitment and back its approach. They work for each other, they press, they beat men, they show pace. They just lack what you need in both boxes despite also lacking poor decision making. Now? Convention is coming for you. It wants its revenge.
Both boxes. If you are committed to Brendan Rodgers then you are committed to the idea of doing the unconventional, doing the attacking, whether Brendan Rodgers likes it or not. Therefore don’t spend 15 million pounds on a young left back when you have just achieved the freakish with Aly Cissokho and Jon Flanagan as your options. You’ve just demonstrated you don’t need that. Put the money in the penalty areas and especially the attacking one. This isn’t about Moreno’s level, it’s about what has been shown to work. Even if that’s what Brendan Rodgers wants, you shouldn’t give it to him. If he is your manager it is for your own good and for his.
It’s for his good and for Liverpool’s good because he’s been the best manager of a big club and developing and improving young players and getting them on the pitch in the last three years. The be better in both boxes approach makes sense because Rodgers has shown he can do midfields and full backs, to the point that the investment in the squad can be dominated by investment in goals (what doesn’t go on goals can go on goalkeepers). Scouting this isn’t hard. Buy proven centre forward talent with goals to their names and don’t worry about value. Forget value. I don’t care about value. I care about winning the league. Only winning the league.
I’m in a Sainsbury’s buying a meal deal. I’m talking to Bearded Genius. I’m watching a mediocre Manchester United beat Liverpool 3-0. I’m on a tram. I’m lost. I’m ringing Brockle asking her to plot me a course home. I’m soaking wet. I’m doing a podcast. I’m waking up on a Monday morning. And all I’m thinking is I want to win the league. I say it to myself absentmindedly. Just do that. I don’t care about anything else. Just win the league. Be better in both boxes.
We’ve come to a crossroads. If we’re going with unconventional we need to do it wholeheartedly, across all levels of the club. We need to commit to it as much as we can. If we’re going with steady building then commit to that. You know which I prefer. Which one do you want?