“THERE is no truth. There is only perception.” (Gustave Flaubert)
Before the Burnley post-match analysis started and the usual new statistics started coming through, if you’d asked me for my perception of this Jürgen Klopp Liverpool team I’d have told you that it’s short of winners. It doesn’t have enough character. It’s a team and squad full of nice lads who are generally very good footballers, but not enough of them have the grit or the aggression to win when the chips are down.
That seems to be the general consensus of supporters’ perceptions of this Liverpool side as well.
During and after the game on Sunday I was chatting with various people who you know from these pages and we discussed this very point. Too many shithouses (to use the official, colloquial term). Too many incidents on the pitch going unchallenged by the lads in red when what we want, and what we’ve seen over the years both from our winning teams and those of other denominations, is a team full of people who won’t let the other side bully them. Who won’t let the referee get away with turning a blind eye to a two-footed lunge on one of our lads just because it happened to miss his ankles by a couple of inches.
We talked about Gerard Houllier’s side and the type of players he would buy. Stephane Henchoz, Sami Hyypia, Markus Babbel, Dietmar Hamann. All leaders, all warriors, all players you want in your dressing room when the chips are down and harsh words need to be spoken. We spoke about Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Javier Mascherano and, of course, Luis Suarez. All of them prepared to tell their team-mates in no uncertain terms if they were underperforming and needed to buck their ideas up.
What we wouldn’t give for players like that now. Our perception was that this team is too soft, and many of those that had gone before were less so.
Then the stats came.
Klopp’s Reds have now won more games a from losing position than any other team in the league this season, and have their best average return since 2008-9.
Liverpool average 1.27 points per game when falling behind this season. This is their best average return since 1.83 in 2008/09. pic.twitter.com/R24tgINbG3
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) March 13, 2017
Even more surprisingly, Houllier’s team only won once from falling behind in two seasons between the start of 2000-1 and the end of 2001-2, despite going behind 23 times during that period. Those squads included Gerrard, Carragher, Hyypia, Babbel, Hamann, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Gary McAllister.
We also failed to win at all from losing positions in 2005-6, despite that side being capable of winning the Champions League the season before and going on to win the FA Cup (ironically after falling behind twice).
So where does all that leave us when trying to figure out this most confusing of Liverpool sides? A side clearly able to perform at the highest level against its most fierce rivals while seemingly struggling against some of the lesser lights, lacking in grit or aggression but that the statistics show actually come from behind more often than any other team in the league.
The first point to note is that the stats about coming from behind can obviously be a little misleading. While we’ve won four games to Chelsea’s three, they’ve actually only fallen behind seven times compared to our 11. Equally Rafa Benitez’s 2005-6 side only fell behind eight times all season. In addition, there’s an argument that just because everyone else has dipped in the ability to come back from behind, doesn’t mean that us topping those standings means we’re reaching an acceptable standard for ourselves.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that this side clearly does have some of the qualities that most of us have criticised it for lacking. You don’t win games from behind with a team full of cowards. If we attempt to look at it with objectivity (the most difficult of tasks when it comes to football), there are clearly members of the current squad who are stepping up to the plate on a regular basis. Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson (when fit), James Milner, Sadio Mane and, dare I say it, Emre Can, are all players who do not hide when the going gets tough. You might even add others to that list. The manager himself is a winner and clearly demands nothing less than 100 per cent effort and commitment from his players, no doubt seeking to imbue on a daily basis a strong mentality that does not bend simply because the other side has scored the first goal.
We discussed on the TAW Player Tuesday Review show Jürgen’s comments from before the Burnley game which echoed his words prior to games against other smaller teams this season, pointing out that while the crowd might cheer and applaud a chance created and missed against Arsenal, the same reaction is not bestowed upon the players if they dare miss a chance against Burnley, so it would be remiss of him not to be preparing his players for that reaction and implanting in their subconscious minds the reality that there will be times (as on Sunday) when they need to turn things around for themselves and let the crowd follow, rather than the other way around.
When you stop and think about this conundrum, though, it’s not easy to identify exactly why or how this team has come back from behind more than anyone else. Sunday’s game was a perfect example of one in which we’ve walked away with the three points without being sure how it happened. On another day Gini Wijnaldum’s flick hits the defender and falls to the goalkeeper, and Emre’s shot hits the post and drifts to safety, so it could simply be down to luck that we are able to look at our side now as the comeback kings of the league.
The other three wins came against Stoke at home in December (where we conceded a Jon Walters goal then had Simon Mignolet to thank for keeping out Joe Allen before we went on to score four), Swansea away on the first day of October (falling behind to a Leroy Fer header before coming back in the second half) and Arsenal away on the opening day of the season in a game which will live long in the memory.
Even looking at those games doesn’t suggest any particular pattern. Klopp admitted after the Burnley game that it’s the first time we’ve won ugly, whereas each of the other games had at least a short period in which we turned on the style and blew the other team away. But obviously, any comeback shows a mentality within a team and squad that all is not lost when going behind. That in itself is a sign of encouragement for us all to cling onto. Regardless of our perception, there is clearly at least a reasonably strong mentality within the dressing room, and there must be enough players with the determination not to lose to have come back six times from 11 games in which we’ve fallen behind (four wins and two draws). It would make sense by now that Jürgen’s daily teachings have seeped into the unconscious minds of at least some of his players, meaning that when they fall behind in a match they simply kick into auto pilot on how to turn things around. The question remains, though, as to how we can simultaneously be the comeback team of the league and look so vulnerable at other times. You only had to watch us against Leicester to question the mentality of the side when we pulled a goal back yet never looked like mounting a serious challenge to the result despite the Foxes being dead on their feet.
Thinking about that conundrum in the past few days, another consideration to add into this conversation dawned on me when considering various aspects of our club that are debated at length by supporters, including the owners, the goalkeeper, the rest of the squad and set-pieces which, if nothing else, has led me to conclude that there’s a book to be written with the title ‘Everyone’s Shit at Corners’.
We all look at our own team every week and bemoan how our set-pieces are rubbish, but just think about how many corners are taken every weekend in the league, and how few teams you see scoring from them when you’re watching the highlights. The same goes for our goalkeeper. If you’re being fair, who can you name who is clearly better than Mignolet in this league this season? I’d argue that it’s only David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois who are clearly better than him. Everyone else is much of a muchness with some great performances and some dodgy moments, but we have this idea in our minds that there’s some other goalkeeper out there that saves everything, commands his box, screams at his defence and never makes a mistake.
My new theory extends to the entire squad we’re watching. Listen to the Tuesday Review and you’ll hear Neil reel off a list of names who used to play for Chelsea: John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Claude Makelele. I know Chelsea’s current team is strong, but it’s not a patch on that line-up. Do they have significantly more players who we’d describe as ‘winners’ than we do, and what do we actually mean when we say we want more winners? Is the reality that football is far more sanitised than it was before, and it will continue to be more sanitised as the years progress so that the players that we long for are actually a thing of the past? I watched De Gea play against Chelsea last night and smiled at the thought of him being one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He’s no doubt excellent at what he does, but compared to Peter Schmeichel he’s a quiet little mouse with no presence.
The stats would suggest that while we look at our squad and criticise it for having a lack of winners and grit, the reality might be that there are fewer players around at the higher echelons of elite football that would fit into our stereotype of what a winner is. It’s worth remembering that the Burnley players might look more aggressive than our lads, but when your sole focus is on being aggressive and working hard, it’s much easier to put a team together than it is to create a team that’s aggressive and works hard but is also capable of playing elite level, quality football at the flick of a switch. It’s why recruitment for sides like ours is not straightforward and we can’t just go out and buy George Boyd because he runs around a lot.
It’s why we can’t just buy a centre forward who scores goals, we need one who scores goals and has a burning desire to win the ball. Forget for a second how many of those players exist at the moment and think about how many strikers like that you’ve seen in your entire lifetime? There’s a reason Suarez is rated so highly by those of us fortunate enough to have watched him play despite him only sticking around for a few seasons.
There’s a lot of praise being directed towards N’Golo Kante at the moment, and rightly so, but how many other centre midfielders can you name who are just like him? Even if you can name a handful of them, bear in mind that every top club wants a player like that and there are only so many to go around. What we’re doing as a club to make sure that we get those rare players is another conversation that has been discussed at length so I won’t go into here, but it’s worth us all bearing in mind that what we want just might not be available in the abundance it used to be, which also means that what’s needed is not what used to be needed. At the end of the day, Kante is brilliant but is he the same type of player as Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira? I’d say the answer to that is a resounding no.
So, where does that leave us? Ultimately, the stats suggest that this squad isn’t as weak as we might instinctively think it is. The manager’s mentality has obviously permeated his players despite some clear weaknesses in it, but it may be that it’s not so much a lack of character that’s the issue but more so a lack of numbers.
I heard an interesting Steve Jobs quote a few months ago which is probably quite fitting to the current incarnation of Liverpool FC:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards.”
That might well be where we are right now. The path at the moment seems all over the place to say the least. We might be attributing the conflict in performance from one week to the next to a lack of aggression in the overall makeup of the squad, but when Jürgen’s had one or more transfer windows to add that extra layer of quality to the current platform we might find that it was just a numbers issue. While Henderson, Lallana and Firmino could have all of the aggression and grit needed in the modern game, there’s no doubt that they need more players with similar qualities around them in order to ensure that we can be aggressive and gritty every week, rather than relying on a handful of characters to attempt to drag us through the toughest parts of the season.
What is currently the truth and what is just our perception? Only time will tell.