FRIDAY COLUMN: HAVE WE ALL FORGOTTEN HOW TO ENJOY FOOTBALL? - The Anfield Wrap

Mike Nevin Ident

I WAS going to write about the January transfer window this week, but as Monday rolled into Tuesday, I became progressively more underwhelmed by the prospect. Let’s face it — it’s all a bit boring and nothing much happens. Then Wednesday night and the thriller against Arsenal came along and I was compelled to write about something completely different.

Such was the enjoyment of a match that pulsated from start to finish; it made me think how seldom we now take real pleasure from the simple art form that is the game of football. Alongside that, I also thought how we’ve lost the knack of enjoying not just the spectacle, but how to throw ourselves into a match just as a supporter and not overanalyse, be the critic, be the know-all pundit.

The hour or so in the pub for us before the game is always a highlight. Our group don’t always talk football. It can be exhausting, especially when things aren’t going well, and we’d much prefer to catch up, have a laugh and let the match creep up on us; to be enjoyed when kick off approaches.

To an extent, Hicks and Gillett changed all that when our light-hearted chat gave way to talking about football finance. At the time, that was a necessity for those of us who cared about the future of our club and wanted to enlighten others.

Eventually, Liverpool FC was freed from those chains but the die was cast and in the place of the economics talk (although under FSG this has never really gone away) came the new-fangled conversations in which everyone competes to be the biggest tactical expert.

Being proved right about the manager became a thing under Rafa Benitez (I give you rotation and zonal marking) and has continued ever since.

If that’s not enough, being the first to write off and lay into a new signing is a seemingly requisite credibility statement attesting to your understanding of the game. Think about Wednesday night’s heroes. Roberto Firmino. Written off. Joe Allen. Written off.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Arsenal FCOur pre-match chat on Wednesday touched on a bygone era when Liverpool fans flocked to Anfield in the largest numbers when a star player (for the opposition!) was in town.

The old-timers of the 1950s and 1960s queued up an extra hour to see Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, The Preston Plumber Tom Finney, and George Best.

If they weren’t playing at Anfield they would venture to see them at Goodison.

A little more recently, a friend’s old dad told me how much he was looking forward to watching Gianfranco Zola grace Anfield for Chelsea — though he spoiled his splendidly neutral appreciation by labelling him “fucking shite” after the game.

Back to Wednesday night. That first half was brilliant entertainment.

I haven’t waxed as lyrical over Jürgen Klopp as the 99 per cent of Liverpudlians who fixate over his every word at the “presser” and his every move on the touchline.

Why, you might ask?

Well because the football under Jürgen at Anfield has been drab in the extreme. There has been plenty of talk about gegenpressing but little in the way of excitement.

Many will point to an inherited squad lacking in quality, and rightly cite the inconvenience of a string of injuries. There are mitigating circumstances.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Arsenal FCAgainst Arsenal though, in those opening salvos, out came these same players, some on one leg, to produce a vibrant, high-tempo style of football, with slick passing and movement that wobbled top- of-the-table Arsenal.

It was entertaining, attacking football at its best and it had the ground rocking. Firmino was outstanding. A poached opening goal that befuddled a statuesque Petr Cech, an obvious infusion of confidence, a sublime second that just oozed class, and lots of clever touches and running at the heart of Liverpool’s fluent play.

Did we spend half-time marvelling at the spectacle; perhaps reassessing Firmino’s fairly palpable talent?

No, we talked about Mignolet’s contract.

Obviously, we did that in the context of his dubious attempts at keeping out Arsenal’s two goals, but there was chat of an extension to “protect the asset” and whether a new deal is sanctioned by Ian Ayre, FSG and/or the transfer committee.

One wag (me) suggested it might actually be the manager having a different opinion to the fans on the maligned goalkeeper, even if the reality is that it’s a mere ruse ahead of a sale in the summer.

We preferred to talk about the negative and the complex and ignore the marvellous football we had just witnessed; of a Liverpool team — at Anfield — looking more like the Klopp vision we’ve been promised.

We competed to be experts on the matter, while heartily disagreeing with everyone else’s opinion.

Quite frankly, we ruined our own half-time, when a simple “fucking boss half that” and a quick pint would have done the trick.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSAjuNdBE3U

Much of our appreciation and love of the game itself has been knocked out of us by the media and wall-to-wall coverage that gives us too much football.

We’ve been force fed into thinking we’re all bloody experts.

Resale value, sell-on clauses, release clauses, pre-contract agreements, net spends, Moneyball and managers’ news conferences analysed for nuance and content that doesn’t exist like speeches at party conferences.

I’ve got a theory that all this bollocks was introduced to appeal to new fans whose first love is actually business — to facilitate them sounding knowledgeable and not look daft, when their understanding and appreciation of the sport, and its simple principles, is rudimentary at best.

We’ve had the arse bored off us with the tactical stuff, too.

False nines, third men running, space between the lines, front foot football, high pressing, low blocks.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Arsenal FCNo-one talks about shooting, tackling, passing, or volleys and headers.

We fixate over systems and set-up, and ignore the traditional importance of form, fitness and confidence. We seldom make allowances for players and prefer to label them all “shite”. We have become arch-critic first, supporter second. Our tribal supporting instincts are still there but they’ve been buried under the weight of other people’s opinion and our perceived need for ripostes to those ideas.

While we’ve been busy thinking up clever things to say or copy, we’ve stopped coming up with the songs. Firmino — three syllables. Nothing. If I was him, I’d be seriously pissed off.

Joe Allen – another three syllables — more of the nothing. Instead we trot out that plaintive, Liiiiiiiiiiiverpool chant that masks our lack of imagination.

No-one has the balls to make a fool of themselves and give it a go. We’re all culpable — frightened of looking stupid (heaven forbid for chanting a footballer’s name to give him a boost) in front of our peers. If we ever get really good again under Klopp and someone gets a league title winner for us, are we going to bother singing his name?

There was much to admire about both Liverpool and Arsenal on Wednesday.

As the sleet lashed down and the pitch became increasingly heavy, there was no let up in the pace and intensity of the game. There was no questioning the commitment and character of all the players on the pitch as bodies were laid on the line, but the quality of football never suffered.

Really enjoyable stuff before the inevitable dissection which spits out possession and territory stats and pass completion percentages.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Arsenal FCWhile Liverpool showed their most sustained attacking football of the season, it was hard not to approve of The Gunners’ intricate one-touch passing and movement.

I came away reinforced with my idea that Arsene Wenger is a genius of a manager who sticks to his football principles, not because he’s vain or stubborn (new footie words for managers) but because he wants to win football matches.

The same Arsene Wenger has been written off for what seems like a decade by pundits and fans alike. What the hell do we know? It would be good for football if Arsenal can sustain their run and end up as Champions. Then Wenger can legitimately have a pop back and put his detractors back in their Piers Morgan head-shaped box.

For all my admiration of Wenger and Arsenal, my Liverpool instincts rightly took over in the final quarter.

“Where’s your European Cups?” shut the gloating Londoners up a bit when they crowed loudly and annoyingly at 3-2. Chant of the night.

Allen’s superb volley at the end meant more than just a point.

At the end of great game which could be enjoyed for its equal aesthetic and visceral worth, Allen’s goal ruined those Arsenal fans’ trip home.

There weren’t too many tactical complaints about a 6 foot 3 inch loanee centre half running amok up front when that equaliser went in. Instead, there was a little bit of tribalistic vengeance for Andrei Arshavin and that 4-4 draw when Arsenal took a perverse pleasure in derailing a better Liverpool back in 2009.

All in all an evening to be savoured, without the need for over-analysis; without us needing to tie ourselves in knots over the limitations of certain players or whether it was 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1. A reminder that we can still enjoy the game for what it is, support the team and have a jolly good night out.

I’m looking forward to Sunday already.