As 2017 comes to its creaking and inevitable end, perhaps it’s time to take stock and look at the state of our Red nation – to make a brief assessment of where we are; to ‘take our temperature’ as Leo McGarry says in the West Wing.
The last month has provided a perfect cross section of where Liverpool are and, possibly, where we are headed. The seven games in 24 days (which, in itself, is nuts) has included the massacres of Spartak, Brighton, Bournemouth and now Swansea, but also three winnable games which ended as wasted draws. Liverpool, however, have not lost.
We’ve scored 25 times in those games and conceded five and it’s those goals against which have rankled the most.
The two non-penalties at Brighton and the derby (I’m still not having it) and the three ludicrous strikes at Arsenal point to either poor luck or fragility.
Most goals can be put down to a collection of individual errors, but what is more striking is the timeframe in which they came. To concede one goal may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose three in five minutes looks like carelessness.
When Liverpool’s sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. (Sorry, I got a literary quotation book for Christmas) and it’s hard to put the cork in the bottle once the poisonous air has been released. This side is susceptible to conceded goals in clusters rather than the odd consolation. This team gibbers at the sight of Mignolet’s bulging net with a ‘here we go again’ expression.
This season alone we’ve thrown away multiple goal leads to Sevilla twice and Arsenal while conceding late goals to Everton, Chelsea and Watford. At least City and Spurs had the decency to batter us through simple superiority.
Clearly, mental strength or tactical gameplay (cheating) is lacking despite having several senior players in the team. Last week James Milner talked about learning how to close games down and frustrate a rampant side following the five minute surrender at the Emirates. He seemingly forgot that the man in charge of doing precisely that was the captain – one James Milner.
Those weaknesses, along with the goalkeeping issue (I suggest we try to play a proper one from time to time), will mean that this side is still some distance away from making a title challenge even without Manchester City’s freakish campaign. A win at Arsenal would have seen us only three points behind United in second, but we couldn’t get over the line. So near yet so far.
At yet, at the other end of the pitch Liverpool can be absolutely unplayable, to such an extent that Sadio Mane is having a terrible time of late yet and it’s hardly been noticed by anyone outside the club’s support. Mo Salah has been a revelation and looks nothing like the shot-shy player Chelsea bought from under our noses. We all thought we’d missed a bullet there – the reverse situation of a time where we once thought that stealing Glen Hysen from under the noses of Man Utd would result in another ten titles.
It’s that disparity in either end of the pitch that makes this side such an enigma. While the manager has either bought or used attacking players with unparalleled success, it’s his failure – at time of writing – to equal that in the midfield and defence which is so baffling. So far, Jurgen has not spent a single penny on centre backs while only adding a half complete keeper in Loris Karius.
And the midfield is equally fascinating. Henderson, captain or no depending on your taste, has had a quiet season while there are times when I think Gini Wijnaldum should be charged for a matchday ticket such is his increasing role as an on-pitch spectator. Add to this the constant debate on whether Emre Can is either a mixture of Claude Makelele and Michel Platini or Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou and you have a ragbag conundrum of a midfield with no obvious starters. That could be a good thing or otherwise, but given that the back four can easily be upgraded while the forwards are just about ideal, it’s the centre of the park which is the most confusing. My views change daily.
Take Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s made a decent start in his Anfield career, scoring three goals already when he only managed three times that amount in six years at Arsenal, but his role in this side is yet to be defined. Wide on the left seems to be the best bet, but he’s been all over the park so far. He even played as a wingback for the Gunners. Is he a starter or just filling in?
This could be exactly what Jurgen wants. Players with the ability to fit into any system and play multiple roles in a manner reminiscent of the Dutch side of the mid 1970’s. After all, if the opposition look at the team sheet and not have a clue who is playing where, then there’s an advantage to be had.
But there’s one player who needs to stay fit in order to make everything work. It’s not Salah with his pace and (usual) unerring ability to score, nor is it the genius of Coutinho, though I’d like to see him sign a forty year contract and move in above the Albert pub next to the Kop. No. This whole team is about Roberto Firmino. The only player to play one role. The one role no one else can match.
There are times when he can match Gini in the silence stakes, but if you trace his partners’ successes in those games they have his signature on them. A run to take out a defender here, a drawing of a consequential foul there, it’s all about him. He is absolutely integral to how that front line works. He’s everything.
So where are Liverpool now? Well, they say the league table never lies so we’re the fourth best team in the country which is good, and miles behind the best side, which is less so. Maybe fourth is par for this side.
And yet I’d love to see a trophy. I’d bite your hand off for the FA Cup, but being that the footballing Gods don’t always rely on form books and approves of the odd miracle so there’s always the…no, I can’t say it.
This is a good side, but not a great one. There is so much work to do and the project will never end, but we’re in a decent place.
Whether this manager is the man to take us to the trophies or just someone to move us close to them remains to be seen.