Liverpool FC: A lack of winners
In February 2007 I met the woman who would go on to become my wife.
Very quickly she was introduced to my obsession with football, and Liverpool Football Club in particular. Thankfully for me, she got onboard with this obsession almost from the off and has gone on to become a Liverpool supporter in her own right.
During our time together she’s been a regular matchday companion for me at Anfield and even gone to the match without me on occasion.
She’s cried when Fernando Torres left, adopted Lucas Leiva as her cult hero, celebrated the genius of Luis Suarez and raged against the incompetence of Roy Hodgson. She’s revelled in victories and wallowed in defeats.
She’s done all of those things. Yet she hasn’t celebrated a major trophy win for Liverpool. Because in her 11 years of supporting the club, all she’s had to show for it is a solitary League Cup victory over Cardiff in 2012.
Yep, 11 years of supporting one of the most storied clubs in English football and the most she’s had to truly savour is a victory on penalties, against a side from a lower division, in an insipid performance where Stewart Downing was the man of the match.
You could say, quite justifiably, that in comparison I should consider myself fortunate. Outside of the League Cup I’ve borne witness to FA Cup, European Cup and UEFA Cup successes. But those successes feel like a lifetime ago. Like they happened to someone else. I was single for a start.
Liverpool’s latest tragedy in the hunt for silverware, the calamitous exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Alan Pardew’s West Bromwich Albion side, has only served to make those victories feel even further in the past.
For a club of Liverpool’s stature, a solitary League Cup win in 12 years, simply isn’t good enough. Not when you consider the players that have passed through the door in that time. Luis Suarez, one of the most gifted players in the world, had that game as his solitary success whilst playing in a red shirt.
Other gifted players have left with nothing to show for it at all: Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres and Phil Coutinho.
It all points to a lack of a winning mentality throughout the club in recent years.
Whilst it’s unfair to level 12 years of almost exclusive failure to win trophies upon the current regime and squad, it’s not unfair to state that thus far they haven’t been quite up to scratch. That they have played their part in the failure to win trophies. As illustrated by the latest FA Cup fourth-round exit.
Following this defeat, I questioned the mentality of the existing squad and was subsequently asked to quantify what I meant by “mentality”. The term was deemed too vague and unsuitable for use when talking about a squad of footballers.
My response was that mentality means exactly what a quick google search will throw up: the characteristic way of thinking of a person or group, mindset, mental attitude, the capacity for intelligent thought. The capacity to concentrate your thinking on doing the right things to win a game of football, whilst in the midst of that game of football, against another gang of lads who are trying to do the same thing.
My concerns around this squad’s mentality were nicely backed up (as well as vindicating my use of mentality in the first place) by none other than Steven Gerrard, who, following the WBA defeat said that after scoring the first goal “Liverpool were still celebrating that goal, they hadn’t switched their mentality back into game mode”. The implication being, their mindset was not correct when it came to actually seeing through the business of winning the game.
The West Brom game was the perfect microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the mentality of the squad. The sloppy defending, the inability to find the patience and technique to break down a staunch defence, the switching off, the passing on of responsibility and not turning up when it really mattered. All of it points to players unable to adopt the correct frame of mind to win the game.
This has been evidenced multiple times within Jurgen Klopp’s tenure. Two losses to Swansea when bottom of the league. Leads being let slip to allow teams back into games. Victories that turn into draws. Losses in Cup Finals. It all points to a group of players, who, when the chips are down, don’t quite have what it takes.
Following a defeat or a listless draw, I hear Liverpool supporters say “Well we had chances to win the game, had we taken them the performance would be viewed differently and people wouldn’t be so down on the team”. I can’t get my head around this statement. Sit and think about it, it’s nonsense.
Of course, people would react differently if we had taken the chances because if we’d have taken the chances, we’d have won the game. The performance would have been to the required standard because we’d have completed the purpose of the game. But the fact is we didn’t take the chances. So we didn’t win. So people are unhappy because ultimately it wasn’t good enough and you can’t tell me otherwise because we didn’t win.
The only team that did enough to win the game, was the team that won the game. They’ve proved that by winning it. They stuck the round thing in the rectangle thing more times. You know, the sole way that you can win a game. They did that.
Am I supposed to not care about winning and be happy in the knowledge that we could have won? Is “could have won the league because we had the chances” as good as “actually won the league”?
I’m not suggesting for a second that any player in the team wants to lose. You don’t get to the point of playing professional sports at a high level, by not caring about winning or losing.
But you do separate yourself from your peers at the absolute peak of professional sport by being that bit better when the game or season is really on the line. Not only that, you do it on a more regular basis.
That’s what separates the great teams and players, the trophy-winning teams and players, from the rest. They don’t win every game, that’s borderline impossible, but they win games more regularly than anybody else. And they win games when a trophy is on the line.
In elite level football, the difference in pure ability and technique from one player to the rest is nominal. They were all the best footballer in their school and local area. They can all do things with a ball that the majority of people on the planet can’t. So what separates players at the highest level, is their mentality. The ability to perform their particular skill, when the pressure is really on.
For the majority of their game against Alaves, Barcelona looked like Liverpool. Pedestrian in midfield, unable to break down a solid defensive unit and vulnerable to the counter. Big chances were missed. Big chances were missed by Luis Suarez. And then suddenly, they weren’t. Having chances and not taking them wasn’t good enough for Barcelona. The quality told. The big players stepped up. Suarez tucked a chance away. Leo Messi stepped up and hit home a freekick. Game over. Barca win.
Barca win, because Barca win.
Yes, they have arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen. But that’s not enough for them. Not to win consistently. So they go and buy Luis Suarez. They buy Phil Coutinho. They realise they need quite a few great players to win consistently. To win big trophies. So they keep developing and bringing in great players and they keep winning.
They get players who have the combination of high ability and the right mentality to overcome obstacles. Players who, more times than not, perform when it counts. Players who win. Because that is the point of sports at the elite level. Winning.
Too often when Liverpool have had great players, they have been surrounded by talent that doesn’t quite match up to them. They have been alone. There aren’t enough of them to put in enough winning performances over the course of a campaign.
This current squad, now minus it’s most gifted player, has that same feel. There’s quality. Firmino, Salah, Mane. But not enough.
There are too many players in the squad that only perform well when the team as a whole is playing well. When all around are losing their heads, there are few who are able to step up, rise above it and get Liverpool through the game.
Take Georginio Wijnaldum and Joel Matip. When the team, the collective unit, is functioning well, they perform well. When it’s not, they’re hopeless, unable to rise above it. Only Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah seem able to set themselves free from the performances of their teammates.
There’s also a lack of winners. Yes, the manager is a winner. But who else? James Milner has tasted success at Manchester City, whilst Daniel Sturridge made contributions towards successful squads at Chelsea. But who else besides them? Only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has won the FA Cup twice with Arsenal. I don’t think anybody would argue that Mohamed Salah contributed much to Chelsea’s successes whilst he was at the club, nor Emre Can at Bayern Munich.
Even if we decide to count up almost any old trophy, this Liverpool squad comes up short. According to The Times, at the start of the season, Manchester United, helped by the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has won 20 club trophies in his career (11 leagues, seven cups, one Europa League and one Club World Cup), had the most successful squad in the Premier League with a total of 139 trophies between them. Chelsea, whose most successful player was Pedro with 14, were second with 112 trophies, while City had 97, five more than Arsenal.
Prior to the arrival of Van Dijk and his three medals from Celtic, this Liverpool squad had around 30 trophies between them. That’s including Austrian Cup wins for Sadio Mane. Zlatan alone has two-thirds of the amount of this entire squad. It’s a pitiful total and demonstrates the scarcity of winning experience within the squad.
Following the Swansea defeat, I bemoaned the lack of winners in the squad on the Anfield Index Writers podcast. I felt then and still feel now, that it’s a factor in our constant failings to win silverware.
Winning breeds winning. Nine of the last eleven FA Cup wins have been by Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United. You know, those squads full of winners. Since 1995, Leicester City are the only side to break the stranglehold held over the league title by Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. For 23 years, just four clubs have dominated the league.
So how do we overcome that? How do we inject winners into the squad?
Firstly, via recruitment. Getting players from the likes of Southampton, with proven Premier League experience and the potential to improve, is a sound principle in player recruitment. But it can’t be the only one. We can’t only be interested in players of that profile.
Because those players coming to us from clubs like Southampton haven’t won anything of note. We need to recruit players who are not only reaching their peak but have already won major trophies. We need to recruit winners.
This idea doesn’t seem to be one that exists within the confines of the club though. Liverpool seem happy to sell their best player, one of the few players in the squad able to transcend the talent around him, without any replacement in sight.
The alternative to buying winners is creating winners by winning a trophy ourselves. A methodology that has so far proved unsuccessful.
Were it to work, it could be effective. The hope is that by getting a win across the line, the player’s mentality will change. They’ll have experienced winning. They’ll know what it takes. This should hopefully breed more winning.
But with Manchester City running away with the league, another domestic cup failure and the difficulties of winning the European Cup ahead, that hope has to be put aside for yet another season. All that remains for this season is an outside chance in one of the four competitions we entered at the start of the season.
Once again, we have to accept that the methodology has failed. We have been unable to create winners. And as long as we don’t have winners, how can we be expected to win?