THE concept of ‘winning ugly’ has been on the minds, lips and keyboards of Reds for the last few weeks, largely due to a perceived inability of this current Liverpool side to do such a thing.
There’s a line in the episode of The Simpsons where Moe Szyslak has had plastic surgery to make him handsome and is recalling how he’d been turned down for an acting job in the past due to his previously hideous appearance.
“I’ve been called ugly, pug ugly, fugly, pug fugly, but never ugly-ugly.”
Using Moe’s scale, I’d say Liverpool were fugly, bordering on pug fugly in moments on Sunday.
The men of red sealed a 2-1 win over Burnley in spite of a largely underwhelming performance, and as I spouted on The Pink after the game, in some ways the victory felt more enjoyable than the likes of the 5-1 battering of Hull.
I’ve always taken umbrage with the idea that winning ugly is the sign of a great team. It depends entirely how often you have to do so. I would say that the sign of a great team is being able to do it when necessary, just not needing to do it all that often. No-one is perfect, but great teams play well far more often than they don’t.
It’s the done thing to stick the boot into Arsenal at the moment, mainly because it’s quite fun, but the one thing they have had that Liverpool have not in recent years is enough consistency to reach the minimum required. For all people joke about Arsene Wenger and his fourth place trophy, it has been Liverpool’s inability to put away enough of the smaller teams when they’ve not been on top form that has meant they have only made one appearance in the top four since Rafa Benitez left in 2010.
In a league where so many teams come to stop you playing, you will inevitably have to rely on grinding out a hard-fought and unpretty win sometimes. Partly because you’re not on form on the day, partly because the opposition’s approach practically necessitates it, and that seems to be what happened on Sunday at Anfield.
Burnley’s away record this season on paper is terrible, but barring a couple of anomalies, Sean Dyche’s men have not been getting battered on the road. They force the opposition into fighting for their points. In fact they have not been beaten by two goals or more in an away game since a 2-0 defeat at Stoke on December 3. Since then they have visited Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal and now Liverpool, and lost all of those games just 2-1. Those results, along with the 0-0 they secured against Manchester United at Old Trafford in October, show how adept they are to putting up a fight against the strongest teams in England, and that it takes more than merely turning up to dismiss them.
It would be too simplistic and slightly disrespectful to say it’s a team filled with big lads with more heart than ability, but it is a team of players who have fought their way to the top. That fight is important, and it’s that factor that Liverpool will have to figure out how to overcome more regularly.
Liverpool barely turned up on Sunday but, importantly, they got the job done. It wasn’t just winning ugly that was notable, it was being able to hold off a team that was full of fighters who were up for it. Teams like that can go either way, and that is why they are generally found in the bottom half of the league. When the fight isn’t quite there, it doesn’t work for them, but when it does they can upset the very best.
West Brom are the perfect current example. Between November and March their form was as good as anyone’s, but in the last two games they have been beaten well by Crystal Palace and Everton. Something just went missing all of a sudden and once it goes it can be tricky to get it back. When Liverpool travel to the Hawthorns in a few weeks they’ll be hoping to face the same West Brom that Palace and Everton did, but if they don’t, then they’ll need to be ready to get dirty and scrap for the points.
The idea that Jürgen Klopp doesn’t have it in his locker as a manager to coach a team to win ugly when necessary is a lazy one. His Dortmund teams had a near perfect balance during their title winning years where they were deserved winners most weeks, and saw out fairly scrappy one goal wins when everything didn’t quite click. Even in seasons when they finished second they were more than capable of getting maximum points during off-days.
The difference in the approach to football between the Premier League and the Bundesliga is a valid counter argument, but the principles are the same and you saw that when Klopp brought Lucas Leiva on for Divock Origi on Sunday. The Brazilian — who The Anfield Wrap interviewed here — was integral in the Reds seeing out the game. It was a move that Liverpool can’t be shy of doing when needs must, and Klopp showed that he’s not afraid to make a change like that with 10 to go, even in a game against someone his team is expected to turn over.
There was something eminently Gerard Houllier about it, and it added something that the Reds had been missing all game. Liverpool made just four successful tackles in the match, compared to Burnley’s 17. You might think that’s because they’re more inclined to intercept, well Burnley won that duel as well, besting Liverpool 15-7. Lucas shored things up immediately just by his mere presence, and it even allowed Sadio Mane and Ben Woodburn to push further up to try and catch the Clarets on the counter attack.
There’s no denying that Liverpool are excellent against their fellow top six dwellers, and let’s throw Everton in there too in a backhanded compliment kind of way. However, that amounts to just 12 games out of a 38 game season. That means 78 points are up for grabs against teams who Liverpool are supposed to be much better than. In fact, if you beat all of the bottom 13 teams home and away, you could probably afford to lose all 12 games against near rivals and still make the top four. You can’t afford to do it the other way round.
Liverpool do of course win points against the bottom 13, but not enough. Nowhere near enough really when you compare their record to others. If their record against the bottom 13 was as good as even Tottenham’s this season they would be just one point off Chelsea. It seems fairly simple then, learn how to beat more of those teams and that will make Liverpool title challengers.
But it’s not just by trying to win ugly. It is by doing so if there’s no other way. I’d prefer it if we had more options to win than ‘everyone is on it and we’re going to blitz them’, such as having a striker who can just score you some goals when no-one else is even looking like completing a five-yard pass, or having a tactical change up your sleeve that can flummox even the most ardent of grocks.
This will not be news to Klopp. He knows this. He knows how titles are won and he knows how to breed confidence and consistency in teams that quite frankly have little right to be so bold. I’m not sure whether Sunday was a turning point for his team, but you could see from the delight on his face and hear in the serenity of his voice in post-match interviews that he found something from his players that he perhaps hadn’t been sure was there before.
It has felt since the turn of the year that the idea that Liverpool could not play badly and leave with three points has been somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sunday was the first step in stemming the tide.
With 10 to play and lots more ugly points to win, Klopp and his men can head forward with more confidence that come rain or shine they can secure enough to get what is an incredibly important top four finish.
Up the pug fugly Reds.