‘I WAS in a car crash — or was it the war? — well, I’ve never been quite the same’ (G.Numan, ‘Down in the Park’, 1979)
Melissa Reddy of Goal.com and The Anfield Wrap posited this week that the Liverpool players were still struggling to come to terms with the club’s falling out of the race for the Premier League title. That the elongated nature of the team’s slump was a consequence of the profound difficulty that a group of young men were having in accepting that their collective dream had died.
It feels a peculiarly Liverpool FC malaise to take setbacks this hard. When other sides see their first objective become unachievable they more readily shrug and move on to target number two. If not the title, then Champions League qualification, if not that then a tilt at a domestic cup, failing all that, Europa League qualification. We’re mainly looking at a Tottenham by comparison here. Tottenham don’t fall off cliffs the way Liverpool do.
In the face of Chelsea’s relentless pre-Christmas winning onslaught, Liverpool kept cool, kept winning, and looked the guys most likely to push the Londoners all the way until May. Over the holiday period a tough away derby was navigated and fellow league title hopefuls Manchester City were beaten too. The games were coming thick and fast but the Reds were holding their nerve, keeping their heads down and collecting points.
Then January 2 happened. Liverpool were required to travel to Sunderland’s Stadium Of Light just 46 hours after the draining Anfield victory over City. To take all the points again looked a task save for the knowledge that David Moyes side were in dreadful form.
The Reds should’ve won in the north-east but a late penalty for the home side saw them pegged back and forced to accept a 2-2 draw. Chelsea were scheduled to be travelling to in-form Spurs and it had seemed they would drop enough points for Liverpool to be able to close the gap on them to manageable proportions. Had they beaten Sunderland. Chelsea duly obliged — losing at White Hart Lane — but by then Liverpool had already fluffed their own lines.
The draw need not have been a mortal blow, but at the time it felt very much like one. Jürgen Klopp roused his men to put in a stoic performance and to obtain a very respectable point at Manchester United two weeks later, but by then table-topping Chelsea were winning and pulling away again. The sense that Liverpool’s moment had passed was palpable.
In preparing to next face lowly Swansea at home, the Reds should only have been relishing returning to winning ways and the task of hunting down Chelsea. What occurred that fateful day at Anfield demonstrated that yet another generation of Liverpool representatives were finding the burden of the decades yet again a cross just too heavy to bare. The 12-1 outsiders Swansea beat Liverpool 3-2 that day. It was a nonsense of a result and a ridiculous performance by the home team.
Now panic was setting in. An entire realignment of expectations was taking place, and not in a measured and realistic way.
It was an early signifier that heads could and would go with very little additional prompting. We were back in a familiar place. Standing on the edge of a season and only being prepared to look down.
And so defeat at home to Swansea begat defeat away to Hull and Leicester.
Between those losses, a League Cup semi-final against mid-table Southampton went awry, and any prospects of an FA Cup run surrendered in embarrassing home defeat to second tier Wolves.
Liverpool had run from the room, hands over their ears, screaming and crying. The lads couldn’t hear the sager, more softly spoken voices, that were counselling there being no need to implode, no need to lose everything.
The manager, Kloppo, found himself fielding interrogations about summer transfer plans. How many new signings will you be making, Jürgen? Are you planning for wholesale change, Jürgen? The players aren’t good enough surely? Do you think you’ve overtrained them? Do you?! Did you?! Do you, did you, will you, won’t you.
The ignominy of defeat at Leicester may have been the nadir. It was particularly hard to take. Klopp talked and walked the players through re-runs of the game. Then he had something of an epiphany and realised that something had to give. He said that a point was reached where they simply had to stop talking about ‘it’. In trying to right the wrongs of Leicester, in analysing the mistakes, he realised he’d gone too far down a road. He had in fact acted contra to his own preachings — he’d let the negativity monster in.
And so the manager simply closed the book on that chapter and started work on a new one. The reward was convincing victory over fellow Champions League qualification rivals Arsenal. It again felt like a corner turned, but then so too had the pre-Leicester win over Spurs. The 2017 version of Liverpool has been a right bastard for the false dawns.
Burnley at Anfield this Sunday look just about the right fit for Liverpool right now. They are not mired in a relegation dogfight nor looking up the table at potential European qualification. They are in a comfortable league table no man’s land. Of course this might free them to play without fear, but equally they could be under-motivated and ripe for a refocused and angry Liverpool.
These Reds cannot dwell on just how they got here, nor on where they are going. Klopp needs to simply render some version of that battle cry by the Roman fella in Gladiator. The one about them all ending up dead, but dead proud, kind of victorious, and crucially, with the sun on their backs. That speech.
Or mine: just win, Reds. Stop pissing about now, lads. Cheers.
These bastard, maddening Reds: Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Klavan, Milner; Can, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Coutinho, Mane, Origi.
Kick-Off: 4pm live on Sky Sports 1
Last Match: Burnley 2 Liverpool 0
Referee: Craig Pawson
Odds: Liverpool 1-4, Draw 28-5, Burnley 14-1