paul_cope

“THE team has a bad attitude.”

The team loses against a so-called lesser side and the so-called pundits are queueing up to say that the defeat was caused by the “team” having a bad attitude.

The same team then draws with the league leaders, coming very close to winning, and demolishes another rival to keep its record against the top six sides in impeccable condition either side of losing in the limpest of fashion to another team bottom of the table (it’s amazing how often we get to play the team that’s bottom of the table by the way, I think someone should look into it), and the so-called pundits run through the streets with their pitchforks screaming: “SEE, WE TOLD YOU THE TEAM HAS A BAD ATTITUDE!”

What the likes of Alan Shearer and Robbie Savage fail to specify though, is what they mean by the “team” having a bad attitude (I don’t know if Savage has said this, I’m just guessing he has because he’s a prick).

I’d love to have a seat on Match of the Day, Soccer Saturday, the Sunday Supplement or the other one that BT Sport do that’s really, really shit, just to sit there and ask questions. I wouldn’t contribute anything other than questioning everything each of the pricks said for an hour and a half, until they forced me to leave the building.

“What do you mean the ‘team’ has a bad attitude?”

The question itself is likely to make the heads of most pundits either explode or fall off. They’re not used to having to explain the reasoning behind the bland, vague statements that they make in general terms, designed to make most of the viewing public just nod along thinking that the speaker used to play for X, Y or Z so they must know what they’re talking about, even though they don’t put much effort or time into real analysis and just rely on a backroom team to pick out clips of goals being scored or chances being missed while saying over the top of said clip “he ran there, then he ran there, then he scored/should have scored” before cracking a joke about how Gary Lineker would have buried it (he probably would have buried it to be fair, he was good at the balling of the feet variety, although even he, and Shearer himself, sometimes lost football games to teams they ‘should’ have beaten).

If, for example, I said to Shearer, “do you think Adam Lallana has a bad attitude?”, I’d expect him to say something like “no you little prick, he’s been England’s best player this year and never stops running”. (I am conscious that I’ve used the word “prick” a lot so far, but talking about football punditry brings that out of me. Sorry.)

I’d then proceed to work my way through our team of uber professionals, asking the same question, presumably to be greeted by the same response each time. Roberto Firmino? Runs his arse off every game. Jordan Henderson? Snap. Joel Matip? Top pro. Lucas Leiva? Great servant. Philippe Coutinho? Great work rate for such a talented lad. Emre Can? Might be failing in many ways, but effort certainly isn’t one of them. Gini Wijnaldum? Jesus, where do we start?

Yet, having been through each individual and establishing that in isolation they all have great attitudes and very rarely put in anything other than blood, sweat and tears for the cause (hence being selected to play in a Jürgen Klopp team), somehow collectively they can be labelled as having a bad attitude as a team.

The concept of a thing like a ‘team’ having a bad attitude fascinates me. It’s the same thing as when we say ‘the weather is miserable today’. The poor weather, must be having a bad month.

The ‘team’ isn’t an entity that has a life of its own, capable of independent thought and emotion, it’s a collection of individuals hopefully working together to achieve a common goal. Don’t get me wrong, it is of course entirely possible for an entire team of footballers to have a bad attitude, but to put that label on our gang of lads is, in my view, just lazy and clichéd, which is probably why it’s a label used by pundits and the general media.

What always surprises me about the likes of Shearer when they make such vague, sweeping statements is that they were elite footballers themselves, so should understand more than most the ups and downs of elite level sport and the fine margins involved in winning or losing games. Even our beloved Jamie Carragher has found himself recently falling into the trap of making rash emotional statements about the performance of the Reds without any tip of his hat to all of the teams he played in which failed to beat teams they clearly should have demolished if the game was played on paper.

The problem is that the game isn’t played on paper. It’s played by 11 humans against another 11 humans, with the other side usually doing everything they can to stop your side doing exactly what it wants to do (I’ll exclude Spurs from this given that they tend to do exactly what we want them to do).

If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend listening to the Pro View show that Gareth Roberts and I did with Stephen Warnock on TAW Player a couple of weeks ago. Stephen was really insightful on a wide range of topics, and of most interest to me were his replies to our questions about how things like kick-off times can affect players in the same way that they affect fans, the use of sports psychologists and how he has witnessed personally the positive impact they can have on performance.

So why don’t we hear more of that insight from the wider media and pundits on TV? I think the simple answer is that people generally like simple answers. Why do Liverpool struggle to beat lesser teams but generally sweep aside their main rivals? The simple answer is that they must have a bad attitude. It’s clean, basic, and allows most people to agree without digging any deeper and thinking about the complexities of the game.

We discussed on this week’s Review show on TAW Player how even in beating Spurs in apparently dominant fashion, there were still enough moments in the game for Spurs to have scored goals that would have completely changed the general perception of how we played. We score a last-minute winner against Everton and everyone described the performance as a hugely impressive, professional away display at the home of one of our arch enemies, but if we hadn’t scored that goal the very same performance would likely have been described as being stale and lacking a cutting edge. Even Chelsea away saw us score a Dejan Lovren volley from a cross (a collector’s item) and an absolute worldy from our captain to win the game. Without that peach of a goal we’d have drawn, likewise against Manchester City at home.

Simon Mignolet dropped an easy catch against Hull which made the task of breaking down a well drilled side much more difficult than it would have been at 0-0, and attitude is questioned without any reference to confidence, the quality of the pitch, the sharpness of the players returning from injury and absence or any of the other myriad of reasons why we didn’t perform well that day.

What do you think when you consider the attitude of these players? I have to say there isn’t a doubt in my mind about the attitude or application of any one of them. Are some lacking in ability? Absolutely. Are others lacking the killer instinct needed to win a league in this country. Definitely. But is their general attitude and application missing in any way? I’d say the answer is a resounding no.

A big question, of course, is how would we even spot it if losses and poor performances against lesser sides were caused by a bad attitude? How does a bad attitude show itself to the outside world? There’s an argument that distance covered or number of sprints could correlate directly to effort and, therefore, attitude and application, but I’d argue that those numbers are also likely to drop naturally against teams who just put everyone behind the ball and allow us to knock it around in front of them. Is it possible to run as much when not pressing the opposition without just running around needlessly for the sake of it?

Maybe Opta could start asking all players to rate on a scale of one to 10 what their attitude is like that day as they walk onto the pitch, with 10 being “I can’t wait to get into these bastards” and one being “I can’t be arsed to be honest, I think we’ll batter them because they’re shit”. Granted, there are some flaws in that idea.

Regardless of the difficulty in ascertaining the quality of the attitude of the players, questioning that attitude is a funny route to go down for a team that has been beaten by lesser teams on a number of occasions already this season.

KINGSTON-UPON-HULL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 4, 2017: Liverpoo's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet looks dejected after his fumble led to Hull City's opening goal during the FA Premier League match at the KCOM Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

If Chelsea went from knocking everyone out of their way to suddenly taking their foot off the pedal in assuming that they were going to destroy the bottom of the league side, it would be far easier to jump to the conclusion that their players’ attitudes and application had dipped for that particular game. But imagine if the problem with our players against Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea and Hull was attitude. Imagine if it was that they just thought they’d turn up and beat them without any effort. Wouldn’t that be insane?

Ok, maybe the first game against Burnley you could make that argument – we’d just beaten Arsenal away at the Emirates and thought we’d roll over Burnley. Say we accept that, what about the next one at Bournemouth? The argument then is that in spite of being beaten by Burnley, our lads rolled up on the South Coast thinking they’d easily stroll past The Cherries. Nope, beaten again. So, let’s say for the sake of argument that they were both down to bad attitude. Now the same lads turn up against Swansea at home knowing that they’d been beaten by Burnley and Bournemouth, and still think they’ll just roll over Swansea? And then Hull, after another defeat to a lesser team has been added to their collection? Jesus, if that’s the case we’re not talking about a bad attitude, we’re talking about serious mental health problems and delusions. If our lads are really turning up at Hull thinking they can play at 50 per cent after all that has gone on earlier this season, Jürgen needs to call in the men in white coats rather than reading the riot act to sort out bad attitudes.

I think the truth is far more complicated than bad attitude and application. It’s a combination of a number of factors that are far more complex than a 30 second analysis will allow for. It’s part tactical, part fatigue, part confidence, part sleepless nights because they weren’t allowed to stay in a hotel the night before and have a good night’s sleep (you’ll have to listen to the Warnock Pro View show for that one!), part rustiness, part the other team doing a good job and part small details and moments changing the course of the game. The issue with all of those factors is that we don’t yet have definitive stats to which we can point to assist our analysis.

I’ve been an advocate for years that the unquantifiable element of player confidence is possibly the most important factor in sports (if we assume a fairly equal level of ability). Think about yourself playing sport at whatever level you play, and how much better you are when you feel confident compared to when things aren’t going well. I know from my own perspective it’s much harder to want the ball and contribute positively to a team performance when you feel like every touch you take is a poor one, or you’re a yard behind the play. If you’re not careful, that can spiral into a vicious circle where performance deteriorates as confidence tumbles with it.

Isn’t that a more likely explanation for the struggles of the Reds against lesser sides? We play Spurs and everyone is confident we’ll win because we’ve got lots of muscle memory for how to beat those sides, but we play Hull and the reverse happens. Our lads remember Burnley, Bournemouth and Swansea and the belief drains from them. As Mignolet drops that ball there’s a collective ‘here we go again’ which takes another edge from the performance.

The trick is to beat a few of them on the spin. To take apart a wall of defenders once so that in the next game you can remember what it was like to overcome it. Then do it again and again until your players, your supporters and those of the other side go into the game believing that you will win. It’s what Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United and it took time. They ingrained in the muscle memory of the entire country that even if you were beating them 1-0 with 10 minutes left you would lose. Not that you might lose, you would lose. Imagine playing in those games, with everyone believing that unless you’re at least two goals up with 10 minutes left you wouldn’t even get a draw. Of course that didn’t always happen, but it happened enough for the doubts to be there in the minds of the opposition, and for the belief to be there in the minds of United’s players and supporters.

The best thing now is that we have two weeks off to prepare solely for Leicester while they have to think about and play in other games. Jürgen and his team can focus on the training pitch on how to take apart the league champions (sounds even more crazy now, doesn’t it) if they sit back and try to hit us on the break. That gives us the best possible chance of snapping out of our slump against the sides we ‘should’ beat, before moving on to destroy Arsenal 4-3 again. Three wins in three, including one against the lowly Foxes, could be enough to send us on a long winning run now that we’ve got our best players back and clicking into gear.

I’m not worried about their attitude one bit.

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