IN your job, who digs you out of trouble? Who do you expect to pull things round when you make a mistake or everyone is having a bad day? Someone who maybe even just makes a cup of tea at an appropriate time.
I hope you have that person in your work. I hope you have two or three of them. They help. They let you know that broadly speaking, we’ll be alright.
The footballing equivalent is the player who can produce a moment of magic. Who can do the improbable that leads to scoring or saving a goal. Which leads to people wondering — did he mean that? How did he do that?
It’s about looking around a dressing room before a ball has been kicked and knowing: it’s OK. He’s playing. I can see him in this room now. I will see him on the pitch later. Let’s get him on the ball.
All football teams at any level, in any form of the game, five-a-side, six-a-side, 11-a-side, European Cup Finals, need at least one or two players like this. They need to know who they are getting on the ball, who will keep it when they have to and make something happen when they can. Someone who can dig you out of trouble.
In two of their last three games Liverpool have won by one goal and we could have a “did he mean that?” conversation around Adam Lallana at Sunderland (he didn’t) and Joe Allen at Stoke (he did), yet neither player can be that player.
They aren’t good enough.
Both are good Premier League players, they can play at the level they are playing at. They can, at times, throw in a man-of-the-match performance, but they can’t be that player every week. They can’t relax a dressing room. They can’t be the person you expect to dig you out of trouble. Not enough moments of magic. Not enough goals.
Football teams, football squads, human lives if we must get all deep, don’t work without Lallanas and Allens.
You need the lads who come in and provide a platform, get other players playing. Do the spadework. Being fair, sometimes spadework alone can dig you out of trouble. But everything is better with a bit of magic. John Barnes magic. Luis Suarez magic. Robbie Fowler magic.
Lallana and Allen and others like them do football supporters heads in because of the money spent on them when there isn’t enough magic around them and they can’t generate enough of their own regularly enough.
This is understandable in one sense, but it is always worth remembering that it isn’t your money. And that unless you can invent a time machine, go back, convince those strong-minded individuals who wanted to buy them that they shouldn’t do so (“because I am from the future” isn’t likely to work) then the reality is they are Liverpool players now.
As ever, we are where we are.
So far Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool has been one without enough magic. Without enough goals. This leads to hugely frustrating performances like Liverpool against West Ham when they managed to sling in over 30 crosses and have over 20 shots and, other than two headers in the dying embers of the game, the only thing I remember about Liverpool’s attacking performance when in the ground is how implacable my rage was watching it; watching all four attacking players put those performances in.
They weren’t digging any one out of trouble. They weren’t helping their teammates. The rage was everywhere.
And this is what Liverpool need to recruit. This should always be the first question every window. Do we have enough magic? Do we have enough goals? Can we be better in both boxes?
It’s what is hardest to recruit, not least because it is impacted by luck. Some players suit some clubs at a key moment. Eric Cantona is a prime example. Had Manchester United not been Manchester United, had Alex Ferguson not been Alex Ferguson then he may well have been the frustrating individual he was in France, rather than the player he went on to become.
For whatever reason Stan Collymore never had the same impact at Liverpool. Nor did Fernando Morientes, nor Jari Litmanen.
Sometimes things will work. Sometimes, and more often, they won’t.
Paul Tomkins will tell you that 40 per cent of transfers “work”. Forty per cent. That isn’t a lot at all and there are a ton of unknowables. Do Liverpool need to be better at it? Yes. Is there an easy answer? I don’t think so. Many clubs across Europe play the numbers game, lash lads in. See what happens. There isn’t an onus on those sides to win titles.
After the West Ham game, me, Gareth Roberts, John Gibbons and Chris Maguire got into a room and shouted at each other (you can click play below and have a listen if you like).
Gareth wanted more proven experience yet we signed some of that in the summer. When Liverpool signed Philippe Coutinho, a 20-year-old from Inter Milan costing £8.5million, and Daniel Sturridge, a 23-year-old from Chelsea costing £12m, that made January 2013 the best window in a long time. And it didn’t fit that pattern. What he wants is magic, he wants quality and he’s seen Liverpool target young players and take gambles and they haven’t worked for one reason or another.
Some still might. But many haven’t.
And when you see Marko Grujic, a 19-year-old midfielder, signing then disappearing back off on loan, you can legitimately wonder how we can climb the mountain.
Yet I’m alright with Grujic. I’d like to see him play, but if we have to have a strategy, having a two-pronged attack of buying young lads and seeing what happens, combined with aiming at magic works for me. Aiming at magic and pace, taking the gambles on youngsters. Liverpool cannot only do part two, but if they do part one as well, it’s as good a plan as any.
Because what Liverpool have ended up with, however they have got there, is a base you can work from. Possibly not the best base. Liverpool’s squad is Liverpool’s squad. It is filled with players who are good, not great. Players who have one or two question marks hanging over them.
However, other than perhaps Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, this is the way of things. But give the players more focus and some magic they can believe in and they can grow into it. Give them a goalkeeper who will dig them out. A centre forward and wide man who will make something happen when you’ve got a side penned in or when you need to get out.
The reality is that at some point you’ve got to dance with the girl that brought you.
The idea of exchanging a squad for another squad with its risks and costs should make people at Liverpool throw their hands up in the air. Klopp wanted to manage these players and this club. He knew what he was getting into and he was rightly enthusiastically about it.
These are the players he has signed on to work with. That they will occasionally burn his head — and our heads — out is something we all have to learn to put up with to some degree. This is football. Burning the place down because they burn our heads out isn’t really a viable or perhaps even workable strategy.
But on the other hand, at some point you need to put two good windows together when you hunt down the magic you need. This should be the key focus of Liverpool’s recruitment strategy. I don’t care how old they are or what their profile is, whether they are mercurial like Cantona, expensive like Collymore, experienced like Litmanen, we need to make this the central focus.
And we need to acknowledge that it often won’t work:
That sometimes you buy Benteke and Firmino and you need to go at it again because neither has yet worked enough.
That if it was easy everyone would be doing it — that Manchester City have had maybe one clearly good window in four years, that Manchester United haven’t had one in three, that Chelsea have had only the one for a while as well; this shows that it isn’t easy, it really isn’t easy. And they have all the money in the world and have a goalkeeper boxed.
Sometimes the players you hope will be magical may prove to be mundane and that is OK and you cope and you keep playing football and you find a way in the meantime but that doesn’t mean the hunt for magic stops.
It can never stop.
Let that be the guiding light. The foundations, however cack-handedly, whatever the intentions were, are pretty much in place. They — including the manager — show that against Leicester City and against Stoke City. They — including the manager — show against Watford and against West Ham that they will need digging out.
They need help. They need to look around a dressing room and see him and see him and look at their manager and know, yep, today will be alright. Because footballers aren’t stupid. If they look around the dressing room and see that and think that, then yep, it probably will be.
Pics: Propaganda-Photo–David Rawcliffe