IT feels like we’ve got ourselves in a bit of a mid-season muddle.
If the wheels of our hitherto fantastic season aren’t exactly falling off, the good vibe and momentum of autumn has all but vanished in three winless games in 2017.
It feels like time to take stock; for the experienced among the tribe to call on the lessons of yesteryear.
As we approach Sunday’s crucial visit to Old Trafford, with many a Liverpool supporter predicting the worst, it is worth reminding ourselves that before we buoyantly entered the fray against Manchester City on New Year’s Eve, we trailed Chelsea by nine points. We go into the weekend’s encounter just five behind.
Nonetheless, to put it in modern footy parlance, heads are falling off all over the place. I’m supposed to be one of the cool heads; someone who’s seen it all before, who argued only last week it’s a long old season, but even if my bonce hasn’t detached fully from its moorings I can still feel it listing from side to side.
Southampton in the League Cup in midweek was shocking. Plymouth last week exposed the limitations of the vaunted youth. Sunderland at New Year was two stupid points dropped to relegation fodder. That’s the decapitated way of looking at it.
A more cerebral assessment would be that Wednesday was an off-night, we play the same way in the FA Cup tie and win the match nine times out of 10, and at the Stadium of Light we encounter a ‘keeper in good form and a referee so keen as to be the definition of mustard.
Somewhere in the middle lies the truth; that the season’s momentum has hit the buffers. No wonder really, considering the periodic absenteeism of the crocked Phil Coutinho, Joel Matip, Jordan Henderson and now the departed Sadio Mane.
Yesterday, I watched a review of the season’s goals so far and Mane’s omnipresence is a major delight and concern in equal measure while he plies his Senegalese trade on the fields of Gabon. Reassuringly though, the returning Coutinho was the spark of just about everything that was good about late summer and autumn and once his timing returns, those ballooned St Mary’s efforts start curling in the top corner again.
Henderson, tellingly absent since the big win over City, was also surprisingly visible on the glitzy red LFCTV goals and assists show reel as well being the underrated cajoling leader of the pack. His presence at Old Trafford, perhaps a little short of his usual snap and sharpness, should still represent a symbolic lift for everyone.
In the recent absence of the team’s stellar performers, Daniel Sturridge’s travails are just that, as he resembles a man playing in quicksand; running round with a piece of paper only adding to the illusion of a man with a map frantically trying to find his way home. Lucas Leiva, meanwhile, suddenly looks a fella who has finally turned 30.
The niggling injury to the perma-cool Matip was countered by Ragnar Klavan’s admirable showings against City and Everton but the Estonian is prone to a clumsy howler or two, first seen at Burnley back in August and back on show since the turn of the year.
With my considered head on, there’s no need to panic; no need to panic buy in this transfer window. But to not consider adding a player or two in January would be absolute folly, bordering neglect. If we’re brutally honest, when the key players have dropped out, the supporting cast haven’t been quite up to the title mark.
However, through sheer force of will, there remains a title to be contested, as was the case in 2009 and 2014. In both years we resisted any temptation to augment the squad mid-season and missed out by the width of a cigarette paper in May.
In 2014, when it came to the crunch, those two painful matches against Chelsea (in particular) and Crystal Palace had Sturridge playing on one leg while Luis Suarez had not quite been at his rampaging best since March. Neither had been afforded a rest, since the alternative was Iago Aspas. When Henderson’s unforeseen red card against City ruled him out of both contests, there was no-one to step in to replicate his unique game intelligence and work rate.
The acceptance of the modern supporter to the notion that we should just plough on this year with clearly stretched resources is the definition of muddled thinking. It’s actually a bit stupid to think we’re somehow “above” the murkiness of the wheeler-dealer mid-season market.
The definition of our new-fangled, high-principled football ethos – one swallowed hook, line and sinker by fans — is that by being pure and virtuous in our hiring of players, we’ll get our just desserts in the end. We’re ‘ahead of schedule’ and it will be alright to finish second this year because we’ll win it next season.
It is complete madness.
Is there an FSG crib sheet that I’ve missed out on? An apologist’s “LFC Fam” bullshit press release, which bullets the following:
- January is a difficult market; there’s no value in January.
- We don’t want to upset the dressing room.
- Buying a stop gap or an old hand blocks the first team path for the likes of Ben Woodburn…
- Jürgen Klopp wants players for five years not five months.
- If we sign someone to replace Mane, how do we accommodate them when he returns?
- If we sign someone now he won’t benefit the team straight away when we need them to hit the ground running.
Well, here’s my prepared counter attack to all that nonsense…
Yes, it’s more difficult than summer but I don’t see our rivals passing up the opportunity to strengthen and win the league. If we have to pay a premium on summer targets, let’s dip into the summer negative net spend. Players aren’t five years of age; they’re meant to thrive on competition. “In my day”, talk was of dressing rooms being freshened up, not poisoned by new arrivals.
Ronnie Rosenthal, a temporary, loan signing brought in — definitively — to fire us to our last league title in 1990 was still there in 1994. If we sign someone who turns out brilliant (Coutinho and Sturridge, anyone?) isn’t that the whole point? If said target does well and Mane comes back in, stick the new lad on the bench and let him win games in the last 10 minutes. Shut the disruptive dickhead up by ramming a league winners’ medal in his gob. Oh, and not forgetting the last point, David Speedie (1991) came in and scored against United on his debut and twice versus Everton a few weeks later.
See what’s happened there? My head’s fallen off.
The point persists. We’ve had a great season so far. We’re in a great position – a position of strength and opportunity. Carpe Diem and all that.
The season, despite all this, has lost a little of its lustre. Now is the time to take stock, think about what has worked but also to re-evaluate and plan ahead for the coming months. Apply some gloss.
We may or may not be trying to recruit, I’d be genuinely fuming if we weren’t, but there’s a January pattern that concerns. When Sturridge and Coutinho were recruited — with immediate success in 2013 — it was a reaction to a bungled attempt to get Clint Dempsey the previous summer. Since then, the owners’ buy young – develop – sell high operational strategy has precluded January and it’s high stakes, acute risk, short-termism as a viable market.
As a commercial strategy that’s fine, but in the business of winning titles there’s a huge contradiction. As supporters – and players – we’re bound to be caught up in the emotional waves of the season, but the manager and owners are required to also take a step back and wonder if principles and strategy can be compromised to accommodate what is actually needed.
Maybe the arrival of just one good lad is all we need to clear our heads and give us a boost as we realise the enormity of what lies ahead. That applies as much in the Liverpool dressing room as it does among us on The Kop and in the stands.
And, as we head to Old Trafford on Sunday, consider this. What did Alex Ferguson do half-way through the 1992-93 season, as United laboured through another potential false dawn?
He backed himself to buy and manage an inexpensive, mistrusted, and divisive but talented Frenchman. And the rest is history.