“AS flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, they kill us for their sport.”
King Lear. As ever, this may not seem, initially at least, to be about football in general or Liverpool in particular but we’ll get there. First we need to talk about Shakespeare. At some point we may need to talk about Napoleon.
I was talking to my son last night; he’s entering that period where everything you’ve spent the last five years studying toward and preparing for is tested in the space of a month. You can take that as a metaphor to start with if you wish; you can treat it as a comment on how learning and development is judged in a short period of time and regarded as being concluded rather than viewed as an ongoing process of improvement. Think of it that way if you like.
We were talking Shakespeare. Matt’s studying Macbeth (“Is this a dagger which I see before me, it’s handle to my hand?”). I couldn’t really help him with that; I didn’t study Macbeth and, despite the copy of The Complete Works on my shelf (bought in 1987 and never actually opened) and the fact that I describe my job as playwright, I’ve never read it. I struggle with Shakespeare, I struggle with the language; unless it’s conversational I lose the flow. I’m a simple soul, I like ideas presented to me with context and in the easiest manner possible.
So, we talked about quotes and how those quotes could be used in examination to present an argument. Not specifically about Macbeth obviously as, as stated, I lack the knowledge for that. We could talk about general principles though, so we did.
Specifically, we spoke about the quote from King Lear that opened this piece. We talked about the fact that it stands as one of the lines from the play that has borne most scrutiny, most examination over the centuries. It is argued as the line in Shakespeare that most clearly shows how little ordinary mortals can affect the world around them, specifically in this play it demonstrates how we can offend and tempt fate in our open lust for glory.
Can you see where I’m going with this yet?
Last season I wrote a book. I may have mentioned this fact, you may even still be able to buy it; it might still be in bookshops, it’s definitely still on Amazon, I’ve just checked.
(An aside here, one of many, obviously: writing books is a joy, having them published is fantastic but, if you want to make your first million… do something else, nobody’s getting rich writing books about Liverpool.)
As part of the publishing and publicity process I conducted a pair of book signings. For sheer enjoyment and notable life moments they’re up alongside anything I’ve ever done. You sit at a table, talk to really nice people and sign their copies of your book. And it’s only polite to put a message in each copy.
I signed in August and again in December. And at each signing I signed each book with a variation on one simple message; ‘Champions elect 2017’, ‘It’s our year’ (the blues will love that one), ‘number 19’s on it’s way’.
“Do you think you’re tempting fate?” I was asked on far more than one occasion.
“No, look at how good we are, look at that squad, look at the bench, look at the strength we have, look at the options, the alternatives, how can we not be winning the league?”
In retrospect, I feel I may have been tempting fate. Just a little.
I mean, I’m not implying that the gods, whichever gods you look to, decided that they should torture Liverpool’s season — and worldwide support — with three months that offered so much only to rip it apart in the space of two short winter months, that we’ve only recently started to recover from, based solely on the fact that I was arrogant enough to believe. It’s not my fault. Jürgen’s involved in this too, as is everybody that sat/stood on The Kop on New Year’s Eve as we mastered Manchester City. New Year’s Eve is crucial.
Don’t think for a second that I don’t love Jürgen (or, for that matter, every single soul on The Kop), I adore Jürgen. There isn’t another manager in world football that I would currently exchange him for. I adore his attitude, I love the positivity, I love the plain speaking, I love the way that he says exactly what is in his mind. There are two moments though, two moments that I loved at the time, that I’d take back right now:
“Nobody can beat us!”
It’s a great save by Simon Mignolet from a penalty taken by Diego Costa, won by the same player ‘making the most of’ Joel Matip being in the same postcode as him. It’s a penalty that should never be given after Mark Clattenburg fails to award the foul on Dejan Lovren in the build-up. It’s a game we don’t deserve to lose, a game that looks like it may slip away due to yet another poor refereeing decision in a season littered with poor officiating at all levels and in all games. It’s a game where we will ultimately show again that, on a one to one basis, we are as good as any team in the league and this one mistake may alter that view. It doesn’t and the moment that follows is about relief and passion and satisfaction at some measure of justice being meted out, of the relentless tide of fate switching to our side at the end of a month that had seen one solitary win, and that against Plymouth Argyle. It’s clearly wrong; people clearly CAN beat us, Jürgen said as much and apologised for the outburst.
At the time? At the time, I didn’t want him to apologise. That’s exactly the level of passion I want in my manager, that’s the faith, that’s the belief. And if it works then it’s fantastic. February sees three games, only one of them, the Spurs 2-0 win, a victory; either side of that are away embarrassments against Hull and the newly manageress Leicester who had suddenly decide to start playing football again. We’re ineffectual in both.
“They won 13 games in a row. Not bad. Can you imagine how annoying it is when you win 13 games in a row and there is still one team only six points behind?”
Again, it’s the end of December; again, it’s the City game; again it’s New Year’s Eve. Bloody New Year’s Eve.
Again, at the time, I’m totally behind this; it’s a war cry, it’s a challenge, it’s mind games: “Look, you may be this incredible machine but we’re in touch, we’re still here, we’ll always be here, just waiting for you to slip up.” I love this, I love the fact that our manager is looking at what we can do and what we have in reserve and he’s confident. He’s confident enough to be outspoken; he’s sure that this will continue.
Plymouth, Spurs and suddenly it’s March until we look like a football team again.
“Mane’s scoring, all around us, Kopites singing, having fun, it’s the season, love and understanding, Merry Christmas, Everton.”
It’s four days earlier and we’re having a party. It’s eight days since Sadio Mane slipped the ball into the blue net and we’re dismantling Stoke. So we’re singing. We’re singing about our neighbours, we’re wishing them a Merry Christmas, though it’s quite clearly just that bit past Christmas itself. The whole ground is on its feet and its singing and partying, it’s joyous in its revelry and it’s the most fun, the most involved, the most enjoyable song that we’ve seen since half-time in Basel. Perhaps these things are linked? We’re having a party, though. We’re ridiculing the Blues from a position of power, safe in the knowledge that everything will always be this good, this much fun while they’re about a week away from wanting their manager sacked for his FA Cup exit.
I’m not saying we tempted fate. Me, Jürgen, you. I’m not saying that the way we spoke, the way we behaved, the way we wrote, brought this on us. I’m not saying that the gods killed us for their sport but… we stop winning games and Everton go from a position of disarray to basically winning every game at home until Chelsea visit at the end of April. You combine religion, superstition and maths and see what you come out with.
It’s not fate though, is it? It’s poor planning. It’s the fact that from August to December anybody could look at Liverpool and see that Mane was our best player. They could see that everybody knew that he would travel to the African Cup of Nations and nothing had been done to plan for his absence.
It’s that and it’s not that. We know that Jürgen tried to sign Christian Pulisic in the summer window, we’ve heard that somebody at Anfield went to Real with a 50 million euro offer for Marco Asensio and have no real idea of when that quickly rejected offer was made. We know that Jürgen was very clear in January that there was ‘nobody available’ that could strengthen his squad. That’s not saying that there was nobody that could ever strengthen the squad, simply that the players that he would possibly want to strengthen the squad with couldn’t be bought at that point.
There’s also the idea of balance within the squad; those of us of a certain age will clearly remember the season that Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle were clearly going to win the league with the brand of football that Newcastle fans tend to inexplicably believe is their tradition. They were a tight knit unit operating at a high level; all they needed was the last piece of the jigsaw. Unfortunately, the last piece of the jigsaw was Faustino Asprilla and everything went wrong from that moment on. That last piece of the jigsaw wasn’t the piece that the jigsaw actually needed. Did we really want to risk that?
Klopp has spoken this week about the challenge involved in keeping top players happy while having the possibility of limited involvement; he’s spoken about how additions to a fully fit squad could be left with a dearth of playing time, how that would not be ideal; he’s spoken of the fact that the club deliberately built a squad for this season. That’s a squad that was built with the knowledge that there would be no European football; a squad that was intended to challenge in the Premier League and two cup competitions, with chances for blooding the youth in the earlier stages of those competitions. There can be no point where Jürgen’s plans involved Ben Woodburn and Rhian Brewster occupying positions on the bench for the same league game. There can be no point where Jürgen’s plans involved Alberto Moreno being our most experienced available substitute.
You look at the squad that moved through August to December, a squad that had such strength that its bench included Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Emre Can, a squad that could see the recovering Danny Ings unable to make the first 18.
This is where we talk about Napoleon.
“I have plenty of clever generals, I want lucky generals.”
“I know he’s a good general but is he lucky?”
Pick any of the many anecdotal, possibly apocryphal, possibly mistranslated, quotes from the diminutive French emperor, they all mean the same thing; luck will always play a part.
Antonio Conte is a lucky general.
No disrespect to Conte, he’s clearly a magnificent manager; his decision, after losing to us and Arsenal in the same week, to revert to his favoured back three has been the making of his season. His inheritance of an expensive, experienced, ridiculously talented squad who had obviously reached a point where they were unable to perform for their previous manager, has been fortuitous, his ability to revive their abilities and attitudes decisive. That he can turn Victor Moses into an influential wing-back is a sign of rare genius, but the luck he’s had…
An article in The Telegraph at the end of April reported exactly how fortunate Chelsea have been with injuries in their drive toward the title: they have suffered 18 injuries defined as serious (ie over 10 days’ absence) with only West Brom suffering less. In contrast we have suffered 30, with Manchester United on 32, Arsenal a staggering 37, City 28 and Spurs 27; it’s almost as though injuries had an effect on the form of a team. Other than a week-long Costa flirtation with Chinese football (which appears to be approaching fruition for next season), Conte has not had to contend with the significant loss of influential players while we have suffered the loss of an entire spine for considerable lengths of time. We have lost twice the number of days to injury that Chelsea have; this cannot be ignored when it comes to assessing where this season faltered.
Were you to remove the equivalent of Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Matip, Mane and Sturridge from any of the other top six sides, their struggles would at least equate, and I’d venture, surpass ours. The fact that we may yet finish third with the injuries that we have suffered this season may indicate that we have actually punched above our resulting weight.
One would assume that Jürgen expected Sturridge and Origi to step up and show their importance to the squad at the point that Mane became absent through international commitment — that the former was lost to injury at the exact point that he would be first needed and the latter, despite five goals in five games, has never really showed glimpses of the player that we thought he was becoming prior to the Ramiro Funes Mori challenge — could not, in all fairness, be predicted. Speculated on, yes, but predicted, no.
Which isn’t to excuse any of our obvious failings across 2016-17, and most specifically those of the first two months of this year; we have lost far too many games which should have been regarded as sureties, we have dropped unnecessary points, defensive frailties, both systemic and individual and all too familiar, have risen repeatedly. There are moments that we cannot ascribe to poor luck, to ill fortune; there are moments that we can reflect on as choices made to cope with the injury issues which were, in retrospect as all things are, incorrect. For me, the moments where Jürgen seemingly insisted on moving Gini Wijnaldum to the right of midfield in order to accommodate Emre on the left, with neither player appearing comfortable in that position was an error. That we now know that Emre has struggled through portions of the season with his own injury issue may explain the move; it may have been a guarding, a protecting. It may also be that his time there has contributed to the recent return of the Can that we would regard as ‘the real’ Can; a player who currently seems able to carry the weight of the team, to dictate play.
Klopp’s first full season has been a time of beauty, hope, aspiration and expectation closely followed and punctured by frustration; a time when he may have found that members of his squad were possibly not as ready to fill the void unavoidably left by their senior counterparts as he had expected. It has been a time where he and we have had our faith tested and our expectations tempered. It may well have been a time when we have realised that when confidence edges into arrogance, no matter how wonderful, energising and enjoyable it may have been at the time, it can become misplaced.
Next season we may have to think about no longer verbally challenging Chelsea, not taunting our neighbours when they’re no longer in the same arena as us and, quite definitely, for those of you who may wish to document this or any other season, signing your books off not with ‘champions elect’ but rather a simple ‘all the best, You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
Ultimately though, this is what we’ve learned (or learnt, either are, after all, grammatically acceptable):
It’s not about fate, it’s not about tempting fate, it’s not about jinxing ourselves with behaviours; it’s about how we deal with the problems that arise. It’s about how we learn from what went before, it’s about how we view our own reactions to those problems and what we choose to take forward with us. You can view it as next season being the short period of time wherein we are tested on all that we have learned to date or you can view it like this:
Next season started in January and February of this season because learning is a continual process, an ongoing development. We don’t need a lucky general, we need a general who learns. I don’t know about you but I think that’s the one we have.
There’s another important Napoleon related quote. It’s not something he said, it’s something that was said about him. I don’t need to repeat it (although that would have required fewer words), you already know it. It regards a ‘bastion of invincibility’.
Time to start building it.