I’VE got a real bee in my bonnet about something at the moment: the refusal to accept that nuance might be relevant when discussing football stories. Just because the sport that we all love seems to be edging towards entertainment more and more with each passing year doesn’t mean that it has to be as fake as wrestling. Not everything to do with the game is black and white, with no grey areas.
Take the penalty that Andros Townsend won in Crystal Palace’s match against Arsenal on Monday night. In real time it looked a stonewall penalty to me, yet when you watch it back in slow motion he’s probably been quite clever (he’s ‘been quite clever’ because he’s English, if he was foreign he would have dived). He throws his leg out into the goalkeeper, goes down and gets the spot kick. If that had been a Liverpool player I’d have been screaming for a penalty, but if it had been against Liverpool I would have been enraged. It’s not clear cut and you can see why that sort of thing gets given.
There’s also a lack of nuance when it comes to talking about transfer stories. On the one hand most Liverpool fans believe that if Jürgen Klopp wants to sign a player then the club should do everything in their power to make it happen. We’ve all heard people exclaim that FSG should just ‘pay what it takes’ to sign a player. Yet when £35 million was the figure attached to a possible signing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal, everyone lost their shit. Should we throw money about if the manager wants a player or not? Or should we only throw money at the players that the fanbase have decided are good enough?
If that were the case then we would not have watched Sadio Mané score 13 goals for us this season. Instead we’d all have spent the year becoming experts in metabolic disorders, convincing ourselves that Klopp would be able to make Mario Götze into the player he was when he won the World Cup just as soon as he was recovered from his mystery illness. Hindsight is all well and good, but there were vast sections of the fanbase and of the media who didn’t think Mané was worth £35m.
Similarly there were plenty of people who were dismayed at our choice to sign Gini Wijnaldum from Newcastle for £25m. “He goes missing in big games,” was the common refrain during the summer. “We’ve already got Philippe Coutinho as number 10, why do we need him?”, was another. None of us had any idea that the manager was going to turn him into the player he has, nor that he would be so crucial in winning those games that he supposedly went missing in. Goals against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal prove that he’s a man for the big occasion.
For some years now there has been an obsession with Premier League proven players. You’ll often hear pundits discuss the merits of signing someone that has ‘proven they can do it’ at the top of the English game. For managers and those responsible for transfers it’s a bit of a lose-lose. Despite the excellent work done by Paul Tomkins and co. to show that only around 40 per cent of transfers work out, supporters expect clubs to get it right with every single signing they make. Some Liverpool fans want the club to sign players before Southampton do, but also have a short amount of patience for players brought in from overseas. At the same time, mention a player already playing in the Premier League and some supporters will be convinced that they’re not as good as some mythical South American that they’ve watched clips of on YouTube.
Is ‘Premier League proven’ really a thing? This comes back to what I was talking about earlier: nuance. Sometimes players can look as though they’ve benefitted from a period playing in England, while at other times it can seem to make no difference whatsoever. Simon Mignolet played 90 league games for Sunderland in the top-flight before we signed him. Whatever you may think of any improvements to his game recently — which I believe are being over-blown — I’m not sure any Liverpool fan would be quick to call his time at the club an overwhelming success.
Meanwhile, sticking with the goalkeeper slot for a second, Pepe Reina had never played in England when we signed him in the summer of 2005, but he went on to concede just 25 goals in his first season and win the FA Cup, saving three penalties in the process. The style of play and defensive unit was significantly different back then to anything that Mignolet’s had to play behind, but we conceded 41 goals in 2004-5 so to suggest that none of that was down to Reina would be unfair.
Would Mané and Wijnaldum have been the success they have been as players this season had they not spent time acclimatising to the English game? Might our fans have lost patience with them early doors if they’d come to us straight from Red Bull Salzburg and PSV? There’s no way to know for sure, but the reality is that the answer is probably filled with nuance. Maybe one of them would have been fine and the other would have struggled. Maybe they both would have adapted quite quickly. It’s almost certainly true that playing in the Premier League won’t have harmed the development of either of them.
Mané played 32 times in all competitions for Southampton during his first season there, scoring 10 goals. An average return of virtually one goal in three is certainly nothing to be sniffed at, so Southampton might well feel that ‘Premier League proven’ was irrelevant to how well the Senegal international did for them. Likewise, Wijnaldum scored 11 goals in 38 appearances for Newcastle in his first season in England. Perhaps then, ‘Premier League proven’ is irrelevant if the player is just very good and settles quickly?
On the face of it, Oxlade-Chamberlain has done little to impress during his time at Arsenal. He’s made 124 appearances for them and scored just nine goals. As always, though, nuance plays its part. How many of those appearances were as a substitute? How many times did he start matches in a row? We all know from experience that players tend to get better when they’re allowed to bed into a side rather than dropping in and out with little playing time. How many players in the same team with the same amount of game time scored more than him?
If Liverpool were to spend £35m on Oxlade-Chamberlain — and it’s a big ‘if’, so I’d urge those losing their heads to wait until it actually happens before slagging the club off for something it hasn’t even done — then would the fact that he know what it takes to play in the Premier League mean he’s worth £10m more than a foreign player we could sign without that same experience?
Football, like life, is a complex beast. Viewing it in black and white glasses on will only leave you feeling confused and looking foolish when things don’t turn out as you expect them to.
Neil Atkinson spent this week running around town whirling his top over his head when rumours emerged of Liverpool being interested in signing Chris Wood from Leeds United. Other supporters might not have been so happy to hear that, yet those same people want us to be better at beating the dross. Wood may not be Premier League proven, but he does know how to steamroll teams filled with yard dogs. Would he be a success at Anfield? The answer, I imagine, is probably filled with nuance…