YOU’RE all celebrating the wrong things.
They were the words of my nephew’s academy side’s coach to all of the kids’ parents.
You’re all celebrating the wrong things.
I go to watch my nephew play as often as I can and, like with all football, there’s a propensity even at under-nine level to celebrate goals as though they are the be-all and end-all of the entire exercise. Which, of course, at the highest level, they are, especially if you’re a supporter.
Goals pay the mortgage (though thankfully not at under-nine level, for now), goals get the headlines and goals change the way we interpret football matches. To the people who actually know most about football, the qualified coaches, however, goals are almost a bi-product of everything else they’re working on, at both ends of the pitch.
My nephew’s coach told the parents that while they’re all busy celebrating one of the young lads heading in a goal from a corner, he and his coaching team are celebrating the way in which his team-mate closed space to cut off a passing angle which led to the corner, which they’d been working on in training all month. They’re celebrating an eight-year-old understanding that he needs to drop back into position to cover for his mate who’s gone on a run, which they worked on last month.
The fixtures they play don’t yet use the offside rule but the coach insists that they press high, even though it leads to the other teams scoring goals for fun by goal hanging. He sacrifices goals now for greater knowledge and understanding further down the line. He focuses on the process and the development of his players, not just on the end result each week.
It often amazes me how watching under-nine’s football can be just as fascinating as watching elite footballers plying their trade, even more so watching the supporters who are watching the respective games. I’ve said for years that most people who watch football don’t really understand what they’re watching, and the quote above demonstrates to me that this doesn’t just apply at the highest level.
I mentioned in last week’s article how it’s intriguing that grown men will pay extortionate prices to watch something then sit there and moan about it every week, something they wouldn’t do in any other area of their lives, but that isn’t football’s only peculiarity. Football, sport in general and running the country are treated by us lay-people as the few areas in life in which most of us consider ourselves to be qualified to give forthright opinions on what we observe, without actually having any qualifications at all to do so. I’ve met some doctors in the past who’ve mentioned that Google has led to people doing a similar thing when rocking up to their local surgery having self-diagnosed from one medical website or another, but I think most of us are still mainly relying on the people who have been through medical school and rigorous training to tell us why our backs hurt or why we can’t feel our fingers.
Not so with football, though. Stop someone randomly in the street, especially in a city like Liverpool, and ask them how they think they could improve their club’s first team of highly paid, highly trained, elite athletes and they’ll all give you an opinion. Most won’t even stop there. You’ll note that what you’re given isn’t so much an opinion qualified by caveats such as “I’m not really qualified to answer that question, mate” or “why are you asking me, I’m a plasterer”, more likely it will be a statement made with absolute certainty by Joe the butcher, baker or candlestick maker about how “buying that Virgil Van Dijk lad” from Southampton will definitely sort out our defensive problems, or getting rid of “that soft shite Moreno” will sort out the haircut issues we’ve currently got in the squad.
When he saw Divock Origi pull up with cramp last season, my 70-year-old dad told me with absolute certainty that if he was the manager and any of his players pulled up with cramp he’d make them do a training session straight after the match and double training sessions all week afterwards to sort them out. If I recall correctly, he finished his mini-rant by muttering the word “pansy” under his breath, which I hope was aimed at Divock and not me.
My dad is a retired insurance claims assessor and has been going to the match for about 50 years. He has no sports science or other similar training but, clearly, considers himself to know more about the fitness regimes of these elite athletes than the highly qualified fitness coaches at Liverpool (I should make it clear at this stage that, as far as I am aware, my dad is not Ray the Fitness EggTM).
A few years earlier, after watching Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team in its prime, one of my uncles used them as an example of how easy football is and how all of the other managers are over-complicating it. I protested, to little avail, that the way Barcelona played football at the time might have been simple but it only looked easy because the coaches and players were of the highest calibre and had worked tirelessly to master a way of playing that made it look effortless.
In fairness to my dad and uncle, they’re just representative of most general football supporters and, I’d go as far to say, many ex-football players who now appear on our TVs. The extent to which most people don’t have a clue what they’re watching is highlighted on a daily basis by the many “expert” pundits we have the pleasure of paying to watch analyse the games for us. On Saturday, the great Thierry Henry (one of the best players I have ever had the pleasure of watching in the flesh) gave great insight into Gary Cahill’s own goal by saying words to the effect of “I’m not sure why he did it, but he should have kicked it somewhere other than in his own goal”. Thanks Thierry.
I’ve been told in the past that ex-professionals know more about the game than the common man because they used to play, but I’ve never really bought that argument. It’s a bit like saying that you could run the Virgin empire like Richard Branson because you used to run one of his call centres and have read all of his books. Being one of the cogs in a machine controlled by a master of his trade does not necessarily lead to you understanding how the other cogs all fitted together or how you could put them together as successfully yourself. Of course, every now and then, one of the cogs is a highly intellectual cog and seeks to understand the mechanics of the machine while it’s cogging along (I wish I hadn’t started this cog analogy now, but we are where we are), ultimately becoming a cog-master himself or herself, but that appears to be fairly rare.
The irony is that we’ll all happily criticise Thierry and the other pundits for spouting their nonsense every week, whilst gleefully spouting our own nonsense about what the problem actually was, with any given performance, and how it could be fixed.
Before you head straight to the comments section below or to Twitter to vent your fury at the hypocrisy flowing from these pages into your eyes, I appreciate that it’s a bit rich of me to criticise anyone for spouting unqualified nonsense about football in an article written for a supporter-run football website, following my weekly appearances on podcasts doing the very same thing.
In my defence, something I’ve always loved about The Anfield Wrap, even before I was a contributor, is that the opinions given are usually balanced and caveated with a large helping of “we don’t actually know” and “the manager knows more than we do”. Sean Rogers gives a weekly insight on TAW Player’s ‘The Tuesday Review’ from the perspective of someone who has actually done his coaching badges and managed teams which, in itself, puts him on a completely different level of understanding to the rest of the contributors and the vast majority of readers and listeners, and even he is happy to bow down to the superior knowledge of the manager and coaches we’re discussing each week.
What led me to all of this was, amongst other things, the reaction to Ben Woodburn’s goal against Leeds last week followed by the Manchester City v Chelsea game on Saturday.
Both of the above demonstrate the same thing, which is that for a large part most football fans, pundits and the media focus on, celebrate and mourn the wrong things.
I was as delighted as everyone else to see Woodburn score that goal at The Kop end last Tuesday night. It’s the stuff dreams are made of and he showed a huge amount of composure and great technique with his finish. But what if he’d scuffed that shot like he did the one in the 72nd minute that went out for a throw-in? Would the newspapers the next day have raved about this youngster, who lads from these shores have been watching and talking about for years? Of course not. It was funny that in the very same game, another young local lad played the full game and was given man of the match, yet barely a word was spoken about him after his mate took all the headlines.
The irony is that the coaches’ view of Woodburn, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ovie Ejaria won’t have changed because of one game, one goal or one man of the match award, because they’ve been watching them every day for years and know what they’re capable of. Many supporters, pundits and the media, though, only focus on goals and, at a push, assists to form their judgments. Youngest goal scorer in Liverpool’s history? We must have a player on our hands. Jürgen Klopp’s post-match interviews hinted that he would have been happy for Woodburn to have waited another 100 or so days before notching his first goal, just to keep some of the focus and headlines away from him for a little longer, avoiding him being “the new Michael Owen”.
The City v Chelsea game suggests similar things. The narrative after that game was that Chelsea were too good for Manchester City. Pep Guardiola could barely hide his contempt for Geoff Shreeves during his post-match interview in which he had to point out to the Sky reporter that they had at least two clear chances to wrap the game up and missed. How can he account for Kevin de Bruyne missing an open goal? Does that miss, and Chelsea scoring on the break, mean that City didn’t play well, or is that just the narrative put on the game after the event by the media’s love of celebrating the wrong things? After all, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s little room these days for balanced opinions and non-extreme views.
The modern football fan, supported by Fanzone and Opta, has far more insight into the game than the older generation, simply because of the amount of data and footage available these days, but I think in some ways that just heightens the problem I’m talking about because, armed with those stats, the modern football supporter thinks he or she knows more than the back room team at the club as well as the manager.
When Michael Edwards is referred to as a data analyst, I think most supporters think that means he follows OptaJoe on Twitter and jots down everyone’s key pass stats into an excel spreadsheet on his laptop. In reality, Edwards has a degree in business management and informatics (admittedly I have no idea if that is even a real degree) and has been working in data analysis for football clubs since 2003.
The type of analytics work going on behind the scenes and how much more detailed it is than anything we consider as fans was highlighted in a story I read from Brendan Rodgers about Steven Gerrard a few weeks ago. Rodgers was talking about the number of times Gerrard was turning his head during a game, and how a dip in that number had led to a dip in other aspects of Gerrard’s game, something Steven knew in his gut but couldn’t put his finger on without the help of the analytics team.
We discussed on a podcast last week about Roberto Firmino and how he must be an absolute pain in the arse to play against, but Opta doesn’t have a pain in the arse stat so it goes unnoticed by most people watching football. You can bet that Michael Edwards has a pain in the arse stat that he and his team can rely on, though.
When thinking about how we all analyse games and pass judgment on footballers over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about how little we actually watch them in order to form our views. At most, we watch each player for 180 minutes each week (if there are two games). But the coaching staff watch the same players every day in training. Let’s say that they train for five hours every day, five days a week, that means that, at most, we are watching about 10.7 per cent of each player’s weekly work in order to make our judgment of them. If they play only once a week that drops to around 5.7 per cent and it’s obviously even less for the players we don’t see for 90 minutes at the weekend or midweek (the likes of Ragnar Klavan and Lucas Leiva, for example).
Think about that for a second, then think about how we form conclusions on other players based on snippets that we see on TV. What percentage of the minutes he’s played this season do you think the supporter you stopped in the street earlier who told you to sign van Dijk from Southampton has watched him play? More often than not it will be 10 minutes on Match of the Day each weekend, during which 30 seconds was shown of van Dijk’s best bits.
It’s difficult to think of anything else in life that we’d consider ourselves to be experts in by observing five per cent of the weekly goings on from the outside. “Brain surgery, you say? Not a problem, I’ve spent a couple of hours each week for the past 20 years watching through the window of the operating theatre and, to be honest, I think the surgeon you’ve got now is useless, anyway. Grab me a gown while I wash my hands.”
Even Jürgen said in his pre-Bournemouth press conference that the academy coaches know the young players better than he does, and he’s one of the world’s most qualified and experienced elite level managers. Even he is saying that he can’t give an opinion on those players which is more qualified than the coaches who watch them every day. I often think top level managers must think it’s quite funny when they’re being criticised by journalists, pundits and supporters who have little or no qualifications or experience in football management.
It always makes me think of the time Rafa Benitez turned down the opportunity to be a pundit at a summer tournament a few years ago because the TV company couldn’t guarantee him access to the players before each game. Rafa’s position was simple: how could he possibly analyse how any player had done in a game if he didn’t know what the player’s specific role given to him by his manager was? Most supporters, pundits and the media don’t let a little thing like that get in their way, though.
Football, like life, is mainly a matter of perception and small margins.
I started writing this article before Liverpool had an awful second 45 minutes against Bournemouth on Sunday afternoon, not expecting the result of that game to fall into what I was already writing about but, football being the way it is, it was almost inevitable that there would be some relevance to a piece of this nature. Klopp said in his post-match press conference that the press can write whatever they want about his team, whether it’s that they’re “blind, silly, not good enough, whatever”, but it won’t change what he thinks about the players. After all, he watches them every day and knows their strengths, weaknesses and character inside out. He watches them 100 per cent of the time, not just the five per cent or 10 per cent of the time that we’re all watching.
As much as I obviously love and respect him, Jamie Carragher even found himself being caught up in the emotional response to the result on Sunday, saying that this Liverpool team crumbles too easily under pressure. He referenced that problem going right back to the Brendan Rodgers team. I mentioned on Twitter immediately after the game that I think Jamie’s response was really harsh, given that we’d gone 15 games unbeaten and had shown on a number of occasions during that run that we are a far more solid and resolute side than we’ve seen playing in red for a number of years. We’re not perfect, but nobody claimed that we are. To fall into the trap of giving a blanket criticism of this team’s defensive ability or character after the Bournemouth game only shows the other propensity of the football fan and pundit, to jump to easy conclusions about what’s wrong with a side at any given time.
We’d conceded one goal in four games before Sunday, with a settled back five starting to look really solid, especially compared to our main rivals. What do we think Chelsea would look like if all of a sudden they lost David Luiz or Cahill from their newly established back three? Whilst we might need to find a better solution for the times when Joel Matip isn’t playing, this isn’t a time to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to judging our defensive abilities or the team’s character.
It’s amazed me in the post-match reaction that all of a sudden people are forgetting that we started a tricky away game without three of our most influential players of the season (Matip, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho), with a 21 year-old leading the line who’s only just working his way back to full match fitness and form, and without Daniel Sturridge to use as an option.
Roberto Firmino, our other standout performer of the season, also came into the game having suffered from a knock himself, leading to possibly his worst performance of the season. Is it any wonder then, that we struggled to control the game as Bournemouth turned up the pressure and intensity in the second half? To use the Chelsea analogy, that’s like them starting a game without Luiz, Eden Hazard and Pedro, with Diego Costa carrying a knock and Michy Batshuayi not being available. How do you think that team would do?
This is very easily forgotten when we’re all, including me, staring at our ‘keeper and wondering what he’s doing, or blaming Dejan Lovren and Lucas for being poor defensively. This is a team game, after all, and I have no doubts that Jürgen’s coaching staff will be looking at the intricate details of how the front six lost control of the game, how their positioning lost focus and their passing lost its accuracy. There will no doubt be discussions about the frequency of heads being turned in the middle of the pitch.
Remember at 1-3 we were literally an inch away from making it 1-4 when James Milner’s corner was nearly carried into his own goal by Artur Boruc, and at 3-3 Divock Origi came within a foot of scoring the winner from a corner. If either of those things had gone the other way (by inches), the emotion and analysis following the game would have changed emphasis.
Several journalists said of our result that we simply lack the resilience of Chelsea, despite us already having beaten Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge and having not collapsed after their goal. Oliver Kay said that Chelsea “rode their luck” against City but that they have an in-built resilience that we and City do not have. I’m not sure how De Bruyne missing from five yards has anything to do with Chelsea’s resilience, and the same journalists would be spouting a different set of nonsense if City had won 2-0 as they could so easily have done. In that scenario, Antonio Conte’s three at the back formation will have “cracked” or some other extreme reaction.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t put myself on a higher plane than most football supporters when discussing these things. I’ll still be getting carried away by goals scored in The Kop end by a new youngest ever goalscorer, ripping my top off when we score an undeserved last minute winner to take us top of the league, watching YouTube videos of the latest new signing we’ve been linked with and being disappointed when we throw away three points from a comfortable winning position. After all, that’s where most of the fun lies in this mad game that we dedicate so much of our lives to, and it would be remiss of us not to get caught up in the romance, the dreams, the excitement and the disappointment. That’s all part of the journey.
But we’d also do well to remember that most of us don’t really have a clue what we’re talking about when it comes to elite level football and, if we do, we’d probably be best quitting our jobs and taking our coaching badges. I’ve heard that Premier League managers get paid quite a few quid, and there might well be a vacancy coming up across Stanley Park soon for another Liverpool supporting head coach to wind up our blue brethren. At the very least, you might end up with a cushy gig on Sky or BT Sport informing the rest of us where the elite managers have gone wrong.
All of this reminds me of the best trick that Bill Shankly ever pulled, which was telling everyone that football is a simple game. What Shanks omitted from that famous quip is that the game may be simple but, as with many things in life, it’s far from easy.
It’s time to hold your nerve, Reds, the process is still working and another 15-game unbeaten run awaits.
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