THERE’S a tension knocking about. I am happy to accept that Liverpool have tried to spend over £120million on two players and would have gladly done so. I will take that at face value. Some might not but I will. The tension comes at the point where Liverpool may choose to spend £120m on no one if deals for those two players can’t be brought about.
The tension is best described as having spent too many years wondering “what if” versus having a long-term plan for development of a football club.
Wondering “what if” is the worst feeling to be left with in football when football is done properly, when clubs are run properly and not like madhouses. It happens up and down the country every week. Better to be vanquished than to wonder “what if” in many senses. What if the offside goal had been rightly disallowed? What if we’d made our sub earlier? What if we started Peter Crouch against Milan? What if he leaves Didi Hamann on?
Better the question is put to bed rather than to be left pondering, there comes a point on some level where it is better to be outclassed than left with small margins haunting your memories. Liverpool in 2008-9 is a what if. What if Federico Macheda’s football career never really started in reality? What if the hierarchy of Liverpool wasn’t a madhouse? What if we had had one more very good player?
That “what if”, that last one, what if we’d have had one more very good player is the one which has marked all Liverpool title disappointments. It’s there in 1996, when Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman are left one attacker light far too often, Liverpool one more good player away which led to the cliche of the final piece of the puzzle. It is there in 2002 when Arsenal steam the league but Liverpool are out on their feet having signed only one outfield player the previous summer, adding Abel Xavier during the campaign. What if.
It’s there in 2009 when Robbie Keane goes and Liverpool replace him with no one. I remember talk of Emile Heskey coming home. I remember Nabil El Zhar replacing Dirk Kuyt at the death against Arsenal. I remember being jealous of Manchester United four deep in attack, what a front four. And it happened in 2013-14, when Liverpool got on the march but when Liverpool’s legs fell off in the home straight, unable to replace Jordan Henderson, unable to replace Daniel Sturridge; Luis Suarez blunted just enough.
In all these instances Liverpool managers can be questioned. What if Roy Evans/Gerard Houllier/Rafa Benitez/Brendan Rodgers had done X differently? What if? But the fact of the matter is that all lost league titles to squads who look that “what if” stronger. That one more, two good players more deep. This fact isn’t true in retrospect, it was true before balls were kicked, before seasons were started. Only perhaps Houllier looked sufficiently equipped and then his heart stopped in the dugout.
Currently Liverpool look a quality centre back light, one or two light in the middle of the park and in wide areas. It was thrown into sharp focus by Adam Lallana’s injury, putting him out of action till December. The focus was stronger still when the Hoffenheim draw was made — the fixture list filled to the brim. Five games in 15 days. In truth, it should have made no odds. Liverpool will face Southampton in their cup final on November 18. They face Burnley on January 1. Forty four days and between them 11 league games. Not great. A league game every four days. But add into that a League Cup tie if Liverpool are through and two European fixtures, likely with a lot riding on them. That averages out at 3.14. Liverpool may well play a game for every value of Pi across a month and a half.
This is the tension. This is the potential “what if” writ large across a season. This is the “what if” we have lived over and over again.
Make no mistake, this Liverpool side has the potential to be very good indeed. They played the best football in the country until November last season and they look stronger now than they did then. The Liverpool manager is clearly a brilliant manager of elite players. He isn’t alone, so are the rest of the managers in the top six. Last season Liverpool played the best football in country till November, held on till New Year’s Day and then the wheels fell off in January and early February (while still getting some creditable results) before straightening up and knuckling down and finishing strongly, albeit strongly with an often very weak bench.
Jürgen Klopp may look at this and rightly think he and his squad are stronger now than this time last season. He will muse on Sadio Mane staying for the duration and thrill at Mohamed Salah. He will see many of his players are another year older and reflect this is really only bad news for James Milner of his starting crop. It’s good news for many others in the squad. Older, wiser, stronger. We know the names and the profile of the two extra players Klopp wanted to add but we can also surmise there aren’t a load of alternatives Liverpool are looking at.
Klopp may well be thinking he doesn’t want to compromise on a signing to get in the way of some of his young talent. This would make sense. It does make sense. It might even be the right course of action in building a football squad if one can be properly detached from the process. If there is the idea that you will be Liverpool manager for five more years then why take those chances if you aren’t sure, if you know how good your young players can be, if you remember these lads got you 76 points last season and if you already expect more from them, if you have the experience of getting a side to two titles with passion and excitement and free-flowing football.
The point of football is that there are no guarantees. No side can feel as though they can precisely pinpoint everything that will happen across the course of a campaign. People who run football clubs take gambles all the time. Paris Saint-Germain have just taken an enormous one. Tottenham are taking another, very different one. These two sides could meet over two legs this season and we couldn’t predict the outcome with any real certainty. Football isn’t rugby union and is far, far better for that fact.
And yet. I can think Klopp is right and wrong simultaneously. He can actually be right and wrong simultaneously. There are no guarantees but there is getting as close to a guarantee as you can. When six sides can win the league that means there are six who will fancy top four. Not finishing top four jeopardises the whole five years. There may be the right way to do things, the right way to go about a project, but sometimes the ends justify the means. I have no doubt Liverpool will try to sign Virgil van Dijk between now and August 31. I don’t know if they will look to add in other areas but I can worry myself sick that failing to do so means we will yet again be left with a “what if”.
Further, the league title would mean everything to this football club. It has been just too, too long. Risking the best possible shot at that now because we may well act in a way which means our shot could be better in two years is difficult to compute.
Lastly, I can think these three thoughts simultaneously:
1. The way this club mostly likely wins the league is by being somebody’s project.
2. I don’t want Liverpool Football Club to be somebody’s project.
3. You know I need you more than want you. And I want you for all time.
Your correspondent turns on the shower and gets in and says to himself “we can be champions”. He toasts drinks to “a championship season”. I make myself do things I don’t want to do by pretending if I do them it brings the title closer. My inner monologue is never far away from referring to the football league. There’s a tension knocking about. Football managers may think about process and may be right to do so, may be right not to get embroiled in the above madness, may need to stay away from the fray. But I need you more than want you. And I want you for all time.
See you Saturday, handsome. See you Saturday, gorgeous. Until then, charge your glasses. Here’s to a Championship season. Here’s to not asking “what if”.