WHAT makes a good defence?
Is it clean sheets? Is it a high tackle percentage? Is it restricting your opponents to as few goalscoring chances as possible?
Or is it just the way we feel about it?
I spend a lot of time these days paying careful attention to the language we all use in every aspect of life, not least, for the purposes of these pages, in relation to what we all think about football and Liverpool FC.
Something that has struck me revolves around the above questions and links to interesting articles that I’ve read in recent months relating to how facts don’t change our minds. Search the term “why facts don’t change our minds” on Google and you’ll find a number of pieces quoting various studies carried out at elite academic institutions over the years which refer to this unusual phenomenon. As you would expect given the political landscape of recent years, those articles largely relate to politics and our opinions related to topics close to our hearts at a national and international level.
What’s of interest here, though, is how the same quirk of the human condition applies to what we think about our football team, its players, manager, coaching staff and everyone from the people in the canteen to those in charge of the ownership group.
In relation to the defence in particular, I’ve heard various people say over recent weeks, even after fairly convincing wins, that they just don’t “feel” that they can trust the defence not to throw games away from winning positions. Someone even said to me after we won 4-1 away at West Ham that they were sick of us throwing points away from winning positions. My pointing out the fact that we hadn’t thrown anything away from a winning position that week didn’t appear to even scrape the surface of their belief and their feeling that the defence is unreliable.
It’s worthwhile, then, us taking a look at some facts to put everything else here in context.
So far, we’ve conceded 20 goals in 18 league games, or an average of 1.1 goals per game. Twelve of those goals came in three games away at Watford on the opening day of the season, Manchester City (four goals being conceded after Sadio Mane was sent off) and Tottenham Hotspur (no mitigating factors to report).
Which means that if we exclude those three performances as outliers given that they represent only 16.67 per cent of the league games we’ve played, we’ve conceded eight goals in 15 games, or an average of 0.53 goals per game.
The benchmark against which everyone is being compared this season, Manchester City, has conceded an average of 0.67 goals per game across its 18 league games (albeit no exceptions need to be made for games in which the City team has imploded defensively).
We’ve also already had eight clean sheets, against the 12 we had in the entirety of last season.
Similarly, in the Champions League, we conceded an average of a goal a game through the group stage and kept three clean sheets, meaning that we conceded six goals in three games, five of them home and away to Sevilla.
Despite all of that, I think that our fan base would, largely, have the same opinion as those people who have expressed their feelings to me lately, and that the relaying of facts that show, as a whole, that our defence is actually fairly reliable, won’t make a blind bit of different to the way many people think.
This might be linked to another interesting condition of the human brain that I read about a few weeks ago and mentioned on a TAW Player Review show, which was, basically, that our memories are based on peaks and troughs in emotion rather than on a general average of how we feel over any consistent period.
The example given was a family day out to a theme park. If you have ever been to a theme park with your family and think carefully about how that day felt on a minute-by-minute basis, the chances are that generally speaking you would have been happier sitting at home on your couch watching TV.
There’s the endless queueing, the high prices and the rip-off fairground games that are by design practically impossible to win. But then there are the highs. The fun, exhilaration and laughter of going on a rollercoaster that made your mum wet herself (figuratively speaking of course), or the log flume that got you all soaking wet while laughing hysterically at each other every time another wave crashed into the pretend canoe.
The key thing is that when you look back at that day, it’s likely that a smile creeps over your face at the happy memories, and the general misery of the minute-by-minute part fades away.
In my (absolutely-not-qualified-to-give-a-real-opinion-about-psychology) opinion, the same trick is at play constantly when it comes to football.
We form an opinion based on a series of specific experiences, which then sticks steadfastly in our minds regardless of any pesky facts which support a contrary view. The same point applies to supporters reminiscing about football, or life in general, in the good old days. To listen to supporters who remember the days of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, it often sounds as though a Liverpool player never misplaced a pass, never conceded a goal (especially from a corner) and the team never lost any games. The seven trophy-barren years under Shankly are conveniently forgotten and replaced, instead, with a warm, comforting memory of how great things were back then.
Think for a second about Dejan Lovren and what immediately springs to mind? For me it’s him charging at a header on the halfway line against Spurs and completely missing it, allowing the opponent to break and score. But, since that calamitous game, Degsy has been playing for weeks now in a solid defence that has been pretty reliable, keeping seven clean sheets and only conceding seven goals in 12 games in all competitions, with only four goals conceded in nine Premier League games.
That’s pretty impressive by any measurement.
What clearly affects most of us, then, is the fact that what we believe or feel about Lovren, Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip, Alberto Moreno, Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius in particular is that, while they might be able to put a run together, they’re ultimately unreliable and will, sooner or later, make a mistake which shows their true colours.
But isn’t that every defender and goalkeeper in the world? Don’t they all, sooner or later, make a mistake? I said after the Spurs embarrassment that something we don’t often see from these Liverpool players is them digging each other out. John Gibbons said on the most recent Anfield Wrap free show that Lovren never seems to get away with making a mistake, which I completely agree with.
The fact is that every player makes mistakes, including legends who played in great teams for Liverpool and for our rivals, but, importantly, they were often spared their blushes by a teammate who rescued them, which means that no one remembers the mistake and, instead, we can focus on the great saving tackle that they made in a cup final which dominates our memories like a rollercoaster at a theme park.
When I think of Jamie Carragher, I think immediately of him dragging himself around the pitch during extra time in Istanbul, screaming at his teammates while making last-ditch interceptions to prevent AC Milan from breaking through. Carra made multiple mistakes in his career that he’ll acknowledge himself, but our overall memory is that he was great, which was no doubt helped by the fact that he had the likes of Sami Hyypia to rely on if things went wrong.
My overall view of our defence and its constituent parts is summed up by reference to Carra. I think we’d all say that he wasn’t the most gifted player ever to wear the red shirt as part of the last line of defence, but he had some important characteristics that I think have been lacking in recent years and which have led to many of the problems we’ve faced.
Carra showed grit and determination in abundance, and very rarely missed any games.
Those factors meant that, alongside his colleagues who showed similar characteristics, we often had a settled core which could learn to play together and cover for each other. My biggest concern with all three of Lovren, Klavan and Matip is that they all seem to miss games regularly for mysterious reasons. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a centre back being ill as often as Degsi, and Matip is currently out again with one of those rolling one-week injuries picked up in the Asda. It can be no coincidence that Lovren and Klavan have had a few games alongside each other, allowing them to get used to the other’s movements and particular way of playing, which has led to a generally more stable appearance at the back.
Obviously, however, it’s up to the players themselves to change whatever image we have of them by performing consistently over a long period of time, which should slowly alter opinions and allow individual mistakes to be put down to precisely that, rather than us all using them as confirmation of what we already feel and believe. If that isn’t possible, we simply need to find individuals who can perform consistently at the levels we’ve seen in recent weeks.
When looking for new players, especially at centre back, my number one priority would be to secure recruits with impeccable attendance records, which often goes hand in hand with a high level of grit and determination. They can have all of the ability in the world, but if they’re not available for selection consistently it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
After all, I can’t imagine Carra ever missing a game with a cold.