Liverpool may have to compromise on a defensive midfielder at this point in the transfer window, but fans shouldn’t feel embarrassed by that…
A LOT has gone on and will continue to go on across the next few weeks. Tomorrow we may do actual names.
But today let me recommend a couple of pieces which have points I agree with, points I disagree with and bits that frustrate me. First up this by Ryan O’Hanlon on flexibility. And this by Paul Tomkins on the notion of Unearthing Hidden Gems.
Both are very much worth reading and it will help if you do.
And there is, of course, Bill Shankly’s maxim around eight to carry a piano and three to play it. Which has often begged the question – how often have you seen three people playing a piano at once? Who aren’t actually The Muppets?
I suppose what frustrates me in all three parts of this is they end up slightly overarguing their point. Harsh on Bill but here we are.
(I am aware of the sheer, deep hypocrisy in this as a man who continually overargues his point. There is practically no point I have that I don’t take to the absolute cleaners and grind into the dust.)
In short, Liverpool don’t need a pure defensive midfielder for every game, nor do they need to set up in a way which leaves one footballer in the middle of the pitch with an awful lot of work to get through. But having a good, trustworthy one or two in the squad would be a good thing.
The observation that eight of the most expensive nine have been bought in the last 13 months from O’Hanlon, I like a lot – it feels like a correction rather than a bubble in a sense, but it also overrates a chain of events depending on setup.
And, also in short, Liverpool’s transfer success hasn’t been about unearthing hidden gems, but it was built on backing a manager to get 110 per cent out of a footballer and a footballer to get the same out of himself.
It was taking a chance on the slightly less-fancied option because there was a skillset you could work with and seeing if the player could grow beyond that with his own work ethic and the alchemy of Liverpool FC, Jürgen Klopp and his teammates.
Alchemy is an important notion – it has elements of sheer mysticism rather than the pure science of chemistry. It is harder to define and it is an aspect of players playing well together.
The idea that a footballer is just plug and play is chemistry. What Liverpool have done brilliantly with Jürgen Klopp is develop an alchemy, have mined a rich seam of form when it was there to be mined and adapt to the footballers who are at their disposal.
You can’t dollop out the credit for this precisely because you can’t measure it precisely. It doesn’t defy analysis as such – you can see all the ingredients as they go into the pot, but the cook doesn’t appear to be measuring them out purely and maybe that was a pinch of nutmeg? They didn’t really say while on the quickcut TikTok.
It’s also not unique to Liverpool – part of what has been intriguing about Manchester City across the last three years is that despite the money it has all felt a bit more alchemic than the period pre-2020. Pep Guardiola has been growing his own nutmeg and stirs the pot accordingly.
My argument has been for some time around this squad that they need to allow more room for alchemy, especially in the particularly alchemic positions. The forwards, god, you want them to have alchemy, but you love it when they have pure magic. It is alchemy that helps get the best out of the rest of the side and out of the magicians themselves.
Everyone grafts; nothing else makes sense any more, everyone carries the piano really or, more accurately, everyone is Black Flag – drive your own van, do your own soundcheck, sell your own merch – but having that special alchemy that builds a platform for magical moments matters.
At the weekend, there was a particularly instructive performance from the captain. Virgil van Dijk never shone – he has been capable of magic so often since getting here, but on Sunday he played the sort of game a really good centre back would play. He won his battles, distributed the ball well, got in the way and stayed calm.
There wasn’t a hint of magic about it. He was just very good at his job.
There was magic elsewhere and it is worth pointing out that Enzo Fernandez, on O’Hanlon’s list of nine, was responsible for a fair amount of it. That said, if you are asking me which, of that list of nine, I would most want to watch every week then him and Rodri are numbers one and two by a trillion miles.
But even he needed an odd platform – a structure of seven other outfield players plus a goalkeeper, themselves a mix of alchemy and graft, built a platform that helped a three of Fernandez, Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Jackson sort of shine.
Maybe I am wrong and Bill was right – eight carrying, three playing but even here it was mostly Fernandez as a virtuoso. And they were always at least one attacker light, one more magician away, but one more magician would have made the platform less stable.
Where O’Hanlon is right is there isn’t just one correct answer. And where Tomkins is right is that Liverpool have actually been brilliant at buying magicians. They’ve bought attackers with panache at a time when our rivals have struggled and have an array of options.
This, for me, is why the idea that anything is burning or should be panicked about is ridiculous. The magic and alchemy can be equally tough, but the manager is good at the alchemy.
This feels like something that has been forgotten inside and outside the club itself. The manager doesn’t need plug and play. He needs strengths and attributes and attitudes, yes, but part of his brilliance is getting a Kevin Großkreutz to the top of world football.
We don’t like this because it feels like we are talking players down. I adore Joel Matip but he has had the oddest Liverpool career in a number of ways and he has climbed world football’s mountain.
Often I wonder how good “is he really?” But that only matters in the cold analysis. In the warm alchemic cauldron he has been brilliant and that is where the cold analysis should lead – the idea that Liverpool can find a way.
This is why I am not embarrassed and why I am not at all interested in anyone feeling sorry for themselves and why I don’t believe anything is ruined from Liverpool’s point of view. I’ve found that fragile muttering infuriating.
Your status isn’t linked to your football team’s actions, you are not lessened by them and you are not humiliated by them. A football team isn’t lessened by what happens in the transfer market either. They can be by its ramifications on the field, don’t get me wrong, but nothing is finished there yet, far from it.
The idea that there is only one way to play, or only one way to do it, or one way to live, or one way to achieve one’s goals is fatally undermined by, well, points at all of football and life itself.
There is an easier way to do it, but then I genuinely don’t think Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp have been that well served by trying to choose the easier road, or at least trying to make the road they have chosen easier.
I don’t think the easy road suits everyone; it certainly doesn’t suit me. This is part of the alchemy – reacting to the challenge rather than avoiding the challenge. It’s a difficult mojo, one that is too easily lost. Part of making it should be making it easier, it intuitively feels.
In short, if you haven’t got the stomach for it then just don’t bother. If you think this is the stuff of embarrassment you need to have a really hard think about other people.
Be careful about what you give power and status to and how that rebounds on you. Think through where and what credibility actually is, how it operates and who you share it with.
Crowing of supporters of other sides who have never lived an ounce of Gini Wijnaldum scoring a brace against Barcelona isn’t worth paying any heed to. Craving that again is perfectly natural. But it only happens when the alchemy is right. Only happens when the road is hard (three goals down for god’s sake) and when the effort has been worth it.
No one feel sorry for themselves. Or the corporate behemoth which is Liverpool Football Club, who have at least tons of money to spend. Or Jürgen Klopp.
Crack on instead.
“In the way with Manu Kone you can see him coming into the team and being much better than he already is, I don’t necessarily see that as much with Sangare.”
“The reality is there are still lots of people who we are interested in who haven’t moved yet.”
🗣️ The Gutter pic.twitter.com/Xmf484gA3g
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) August 16, 2023