JUST pick your strongest team.
That’s what they always say, isn’t it?
Why aren’t you picking your strongest team? It’s the FA Cup / Stoke away / [insert the most recent game here]. If you don’t pick your strongest team you’re disrespecting the competition / don’t know what you’re doing / don’t want to win / don’t understand how this country works.
We’ve heard all of this for years, haven’t we? A few of those, maybe all of them, being criticisms mainly reserved for managers who weren’t born with a UK passport wearing a cap and white trainers.
My absolute favourite is when the very same people who throw around the above disparaging comments then slaughter the same managers for working players into the ground. “It’s his training methods”, “he works them too hard”, “listen to the Fitness Egg” (I’m not sure anyone has ever said that last one, I just like referring to the Fitness Egg every now and then).
When football fans are saying things like this on Twitter, Facebook or scrawling illegible words on the side of training grounds, I just take it with a pinch of salt. In fact, I take everything written in any of those forums with a pinch of salt, given that the message scrawled in graffiti takes more effort than the other ways of communicating with the world suggests it’s a higher form of self-expression and should be ranked above them accordingly.
What really gets my goat though, is when ex-professional footballers castigate managers for these very points. But only when they lose. I haven’t seen any major criticism of Jürgen Klopp for leaving his three big hitters out of the team on Saturday because when the analysis is done with all of the benefit of hindsight, everyone can say it was the right thing to do because we won.
Compare that, though, to the wise duo of Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer after we were knocked out of the FA Cup by Wolves in January.
Don't get Klopp playing his reserves with no European football. Shows a lack of knowledge of the depth in English football and respect.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) January 28, 2017
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) January 28, 2017
Now, I generally like Lineker, but his tweet above says more about his knowledge than it does about Klopp’s. I remember at the time wondering how our participation or not in European competition this season had any bearing on our team selection for that game when we’d played 328 games in January and were already in the semi-final of another competition that most of the other ‘big clubs’ had long been knocked out of (ironically, one of his former teams being knocked out by us after playing a team full of its youngsters, which it will subsequently be praised for developing). As far as I know the Champions League and Europa League aren’t played in January, so they can’t possibly have any bearing on team selection for the FA Cup.
I’d love to ask any ex-professional whether when they were tired after an intense period of games, how they’d feel if the manager said to them “you’re playing again in two days but, don’t worry, remember you had a week off three months ago when other teams were playing midweek so you shouldn’t be tired”.
Is that how they think it works? Is that how they think any human body works? I can have a really great sleep in on a Saturday morning, but if I stay up all night that night I’m pretty tired again by the time I have to do some work on Monday. Isn’t that just fucking obvious?!
And don’t get me started on managers showing a lack of respect. That is definitely a reprimand reserved for “foreigners” who have the audacity to treat our great, traditional, British competition as anything other than the most important competition in the history of the world (whatever you do, though, don’t mention that time when the biggest club in the country, led by the second most successful British manager of all time, decided to fuck off the competition in its entirety. Respect.).
This argument will always inevitably lead to the old timers talking about how they played two games every day, all season and they were fine. I’m still waiting for Opta to start analysing some old games so that we can see how far the likes of Lineker and Shearer ran during a game so that we can compare it to the distances covered by the elite athletes playing the sport today. Something tells me the lads who went out for 20 pints after the match weren’t running as hard or as far as Bobby Firmino does in a standard training session.
All of this leads to the question that everyone should ask when managers are being chastised for not picking their ‘best’ team, which is:
“What the fuck does that even mean?”
Paul Tomkins wrote a great piece this week trying to get the mentalist Liverpool fans to calm down a little bit (good luck with that, Paul!) and, in the middle of it, made a great point about comparing players.
Is Divock Origi better than Luis Suarez when one has been brought in as part of the group to replace the other? The answer is generally no. But is a fit Origi better than a Suarez who has been banned for a year for biting someone again (a very real risk at the time we sold him)? Absolutely yes. I am a better option for the squad than a player who has been suspended and not available for selection (granted, I am only a marginally better option, but you see the point).
The whole concept of ‘better’ and ‘best’ is one we’d all do well to question going forward, in all walks of life. I’ve found that the most appropriate way to respond to a question of what is better/best in any given situation is to ask “in what way?”.
Is a Ferrari better than a camper van? It depends entirely on what you want it for. If your intention is to drive around a city attracting admiring glances and increasing your chances of picking up members of the opposite sex, then the Ferrari is almost certainly better. But if you want to take a family of eight to go camping in Wales, the camper van is the clear winner (unless your kids are good at holding on to the roof of a car at high speeds). I remember taking my Ferrari to go camping one year and it was an absolute nightmare, but that’s another story.
So, what is better, a team of youngsters who are all fully fit and raring to make an impression, or a team of senior pros who are all between 30 per cent and 80 per cent fit and are focusing on a much bigger and more important game a few days later, however much they might say they’re not?
What’s better, Phil Coutinho who has lost 3kg in a couple of days and can barely stand up, or a fully fit Ben Woodburn who can run his young bollocks off for 45 minutes?
The answer, usually, is it depends.
As Jürgen said after the game, he has the benefit of huge amounts of information these days, most notably from the sports science department, which he has to take into account when picking a team for any particular game. We all have the good fortune to be able to speculate on what he was doing or why he should or shouldn’t have done something, but we don’t have the information on which he based his decision, and we’re not judged after the event based on what we said before.
Maybe that’s what we should start doing, actually. Maybe we should all start writing down exactly what we would have done before every game and keep a note of how many times we got something completely wrong. It might give us all a bit more humility when assessing the elite managers who many of us think we know more than (a point that has always baffled me – if you are so sure you know more than Klopp, do your coaching badges and get started, I am assured that they are paid handsomely for what they do). My mates and I criticised Coutinho for shooting high against Joel Robles in the derby minutes before he shot high again and put one in the top corner, then criticised the manager for playing Origi down the middle instead of leaving Firmino there, minutes before he scored the third goal straight down the centre of the pitch. So what do we know?
On top of fitness issues, the real-life manager (who is judged on everything he does) has to make a decision based on the other things he has seen that week in training and historically when working with this group of players. I’m sure we’ve all considered that Alberto Moreno is better suited to playing left wing-back than Nathaniel Clyne, but the fact that Jürgen has overlooked him again in favour of switching other players around and picking two kids in the team tells us everything we need to know about his opinion of our young Spanish social media man. Unless he’s a complete lunatic, my guess is that Klopp leaves Moreno out because he can trust Woodburn and Trent Alexander-Arnold more to do what he wants them to do, and I’m perfectly at ease with that on the basis the big man watches these lads every single day in training and I’ve only watched them for a varying number of hours on match days.
Jürgen has to consider attitude, fitness, conditioning, mental state and a whole host of micro issues that wouldn’t even cross our mind. What if, for example, some of your players have told you discreetly that they just don’t like playing with one of the other players because he upsets their entire game with his madness? As fans we are unlikely to ever find out about that, but the manager has to take it into account.
The age-old “if he’s fit enough to be on the bench he’s fit enough to start” was put into clear context by Jürgen on Saturday and we could see what he meant with our own eyes. In the boss’s words:
“[If we had started them] as we understood it, the possibility would have then been pretty high that we would have to change after 30 minutes. We have a lot of numbers, we have different things we get from sports science and everything, and this was the moment when each alarm clock was ringing for both, if you want. You saw it in the second half – brilliant, brilliant and then [after] half an hour, it was really difficult.”
So, they’re on the bench because they can play for half an hour and the manager has the responsibility to decide which half an hour it should be. I, for one, completely agree that it should usually be the last half an hour in these circumstances. The pundits I mentioned before would no doubt say something like “you start with your best team, get the game won then go from there”, without any acknowledgment of the fact that even in the best-case scenario of starting with Coutinho and Firmino and going 2-0 up (which is unlikely at the best of times playing away at Stoke), once they depart the pitch at half-time (at the latest), your kids then have a half away at Stoke without the big guns and knowing that the manager can do very little else from the bench to help you.
All of this comes back to the point that as long as the majority of football supporters compliment and criticise managers and players based solely on results, what was right or wrong, better or best, depends entirely on whether the team ultimately won.
Unfortunately, the result rests on a whole host of factors over which the manager has no control (such as luck), which is why, for the managers themselves, it’s not quite as simple as we’d all like to think it is.