ARE people losing their heads again?
I’ve been away all weekend getting drunk and missed the match and the reaction to it, but can take an educated guess at what the Internet has been saying about us.
It will be the same that was said last time we were beaten by a team everyone expected us to beat. Character, squad depth, players aren’t good enough, manager can’t coach a team to defend, set bloody pieces, FSG don’t spend enough money.
Feels like we do this on loop, doesn’t it?
This season more than most others has felt like a long one to me, maybe because of that loop that seems to be played over and over again every few weeks.
I’ve just flicked through the fixtures and results for the first few months of the season and the Arsenal away game on the first day feels like it was another lifetime ago. When I remembered the Burnley defeat it brought into sharp focus the frustrations that all these months later we’re still seeing similar deficiencies in the team that were apparent from the start of the season. Regardless of anything else, I accept it would be remiss of us not to ask any questions about the quality of the players and/or the coaching when the same mistakes are still being made. Asking reasonable questions is different to losing our heads (again), though.
After defeats like the Palace one it’s easy to forget how good we were earlier this season, and easy to forget the hope and optimism that went with those early performances. After that Burnley shock we embarked on a great run that included a convincing away win against Chelsea and putting four goals past Leicester, five past Hull (albeit prior to them recruiting the greatest manager known to mankind) and six past Watford in a match that now feels like it was the pinnacle of the season. For all our recent complaining about squad depth, I remember thinking back then that we had a really strong supporting cast, but that was obviously before injuries began to ravage the spine of the team and we realised we couldn’t rely on Divock Origi and, more acutely, Daniel Sturridge, quite as much as we’d planned.
Back then, I think many of us thought we’d be in the middle of a title challenge come April. Instead, the oh-so predictable Christian Benteke goals remind us that while the Reds can claim to be the best in the league on their day, their day still isn’t quite happening often enough. The fact that we have just been to Stoke and West Brom and pulled off two great wins having been subjected to an aerial bombardment at The Hawthorns and coped with it with relative ease, only to allow Palace to do what Sam Allardyce sides have been doing to everyone for years on Sunday, shows the frustrating part of supporting a developing team.
The positive news is that it’s clear to everyone what we need. Having a bench that in a different life would have mainly been manning a McDonald’s counter (given their ages) is not conducive to beating Allardyce sides. And while I’m sure the doom merchants would have all been out in numbers straight after the match, we’re still not far off being the force we all long to be. Clearly a top four finish is imperative to prevent there being excuses when it comes to spending a war chest full of money in the summer, but there’s no reason we won’t achieve the main target for the season. If we do get there we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that at times we’ve been unplayable, which gives plenty of hope for the seasons to come.
Our owners will be able to look at results like Sunday coupled with the disastrous spell early in 2017 when we couldn’t buy a win, and their much-loved data will show without any shadow of a doubt that a lack of top quality replacements for our injured stars has contributed to the inconsistent form and results. That alone should be enough to give Klopp all the power he needs to buy whatever players he wants.
The other good news is the remaining games our rivals for the much coveted top four spot have to play, there’s still plenty of hope.
While we are away to Watford and West Ham and home to Southampton and Middlesbrough, in Manchester United’s last six games they play Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Southampton away, and are home against Swansea and Palace, with two games against Celta Vigo squeezed in the middle. If they can win every one of those league games they’ll deserve a Champions League place.
City’s run-in is similar to ours with the exception of having a derby to play, with Spurs having a fixture list more akin to United’s, playing the Red Devils, Arsenal, West Ham (away) and finishing the season with away games against Leicester and Hull.
The perennial winners of the fourth place cup, Arsenal, still have to play away at Stoke and Southampton, with big games against Everton, United and Spurs at home to throw into the mix.
As Neil Atkinson of these pages often says, these teams are battling for the top four because they’re inconsistent, which means we shouldn’t be overly concerned about any of them winning every game. Even if Spurs maintain their form, that leaves two places for us to attack, and if we can’t win enough of our last four games to finish ahead of two of City, United or Arsenal we don’t really deserve to play in Europe’s elite competition next season.
For what it’s worth, given our record of bouncing back from defeats this season, I still see us doing enough to get third or fourth. We keep hearing the same thing about our rivals, which is that they can’t all take maximum points seeing as they’re playing each other so often in the last few games, and looking at those fixture lists we can all start doing maths and be a little more confident that we’ll get there. Obviously, the bigger question for us is whether we can win our own games, and hopefully we’ll have some better injury news to brighten everyone’s mood over the coming days which will contribute to the cause.
While I’m as bad as anyone else for getting prematurely excited about potential title charges, the reality is that if we do secure a top four finish this season we have to see it as a success having only achieved that feat once in seven seasons previously. If we’d reversed our season and were finishing now the way we performed in the autumn, everyone would be talking excitedly about the mouth-watering prospect of next season with a few more top quality names being added to the squad. That’s always the issue with football (and life in general), we tend to look at things up close and focus on every little setback rather than taking a deep breath and looking at the bigger picture, and that picture is generally that we’re on an upwards trajectory.
It’s worth noting when we’re all at various levels of frustration sitting in front of our TV screens and computers, that United won the FA Cup last season, already had one of the strongest squads in the league (if not the strongest squad) and added to it one of the best managers in the world and the four top quality players he wanted to buy (including a world record transfer), yet they’re still the ones chasing us with a handful of games left and they haven’t at any stage looked like winning the league or played the type of football we’ve produced. The reality is that there are no guarantees in football. Buying more players last summer, selling fewer or buying in January would have had knock-on effects to the squad that we simply can’t account for, however much as fans we just want to see more lads holding Liverpool scarves above their heads talking about how they’ve always dreamed of playing for the Mighty Reds.
While we’re all impatient to reach the top of the mountain and we all want to get there now, the fact that we’re still moving forwards in the wider sense is hugely positive, regardless of setbacks like Sunday. In fact, often those setbacks are what help a team to develop as it reminds the owners of what’s missing and reminds the players that standards cannot be allowed to drop even for a second if we want to win the league.
The summit of the mountain is still ahead of us and we’re slowly but surely getting nearer to it, one step at a time.