After last season’s thrills, spills and ultimate belly ache there were high expectations heading into the new season.
But Liverpool’s season has been a disheartening, disjointed, limp mess. With six league games left their chances of finishing in the top four look remote and they were eliminated from both European competitions embarrassingly early by mediocre opposition. There’s still the FA Cup left to play for, but at this stage of the season there was supposed to be more on the line than that.
And so the inquest has begun. This dismal recidivism has become an integral feature of most Liverpool seasons during the last twenty years.
Regardless of whether these pre-season expectations of title contention were fair or realistic it would be prudent to first document why Liverpool is in this position. It all started with the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. The club hierarchy could be criticised for agreeing to a binding release fee clause in his new contract, but even so, it only applied to foreign clubs and it ensured Liverpool received the third highest transfer fee in history. The main lesson to be gleaned from this is that even in a culture, and a sub-culture, obsessed with money, certain things are more valuable than it, and any team is likely to decline if you remove thirty-two goals from it. Only now do we fully appreciate that the influence Suarez’s manic esoteric style of play had was difficult to quantify before his departure, and confirmed as nearly impossible to replace after his sale. He encouraged fear and chaos in the minds of opposition defenders and simultaneously galvanised his teammates. Regardless of how you feel about Suarez, it would be foolish to deny that last season’s performances put him elite company, behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, clearly the world’s two best players.
Even with Suarez’s departure Liverpool had the resources and the players to build a competitive team. But things certainly haven’t gone to plan. Some of these wounds have been self-inflicted, others not. Nobody could account for Daniel Sturridge getting repeatedly injured throughout the season. Now the striker partnership that produced over fifty goals between it last season had been decimated. This was further compounded by several of the new signings, particularly the strikers, failing to integrate immediately and or performing poorly largely due to being ill-suited to the tactical and philosophical requirements of manager Brendan Rodgers. Daniel Agger was replaced by Dejan Lovren, who has been and is a catastrophe. Adam Lallana, Liverpool’s most expensive summer signing, appeared in all of Southampton’s league games last season, but has missed chunks of his debut Liverpool campaign due to injury. Steven Gerrard seems to have aged in dog years in six months. Jordan Henderson has come to believe that an effective midfield performance means continuously playing at a speed akin to a Golden Retriever chasing after a tennis ball, and that being made vice-captain, with the implied knowledge he’ll be made captain next season, means trying to replace Steven Gerrard by mimicking him. Sadly Henderson clearly lacks the skill, intelligence and inspirational qualities to carry it off and so Liverpool are left with an impoverished affectation of Gerrard instead of a player playing to his strengths.
Given all this, it was unsurprising that the early season performances and results were dismal. With the team struggling to score goals the pressure built and affected the confidence and form of many players. While Rodgers, even if it came too late, resorted to adaptation to help restore the confidence required to pull Liverpool back into the top six, it isn’t a long term solution or evolutionary step, and so Liverpool are essentially where they were six months into Rodgers’ tenure – a team with potential still to be realised.
While Rodgers has already proven he can develop a team from that position into contention, you can understand why Liverpool fans would be frustrated with him, the players and the ownership for finding themselves back where they started. After the debacle of the Hicks and Gillett tenure, which saw the club lose Rafael Benitez, Xabi Alonso and Champions League football all within the space of a year, followed by another period of instability (this time on the field only) after FSG salvaged the club from the brink, there was finally something to be positive about. If not ultimately the best, they had the most exciting team in the league, and it was young too. They’d waited five years ‘to be back’, only to take several steps back in a matter of months.
But that recent history and what’s happened at Liverpool over the last eight months should be instructive of how difficult it is to succeed, never mind dominate in today’s Premier League, and how quickly things can change in football. Constructing a competitive team is fraught with difficulties and takes time, and frustratingly the declines of successful teams are often precipitous.
Invariably the agony of perpetual disappointment or perceived stagnation leads to increased revisionism and convenient selectivity. This happens among fans of all clubs, but it afflicts Liverpool’s fanbase differently, too many have become enamoured by a romanticised nostalgia and a mythologizing of the club’s historical achievements, foolishly applying them to analysing contemporary concerns and often doing so just to find fault.
Liverpool’s success throughout the seventies and eighties is, in the modern context, an aberration and an irrelevance. There were no oligarch owners. There were no additional millions in revenue for selling hundreds of thousands, even millions, of replica kits, or kitsch tat emblazoned with the club logo in China, India, the US, Thailand, Japan and Malaysia. There was no gargantuan Sky TV deal that saw salaries and transfer fees mushroom. Andy Gray was still playing football, badly it must be said, and Richard Keys, with no Haytch Dee to contend with, wasn’t required to shave his forearms like a good misogynist should. Without the Champions League monopoly there was no incentive for any club to be satisfied with anything less than first place and there wasn’t any discernable advantage between finishing fourth or fifth in the league, which is now perceived as so critical to a club’s chances of succeeding the following season. There was less movement of players between countries due to the limits on foreign players. Having a tactically astute manager and a club’s ability to scout and develop mostly British players counted more than its bank balance.
So when someone with an average income is faced with ticket prices rising well above inflation and the utterly shameless and institutional greed in today’s game, rejecting it in disgust, and pining for those halcyon, simpler times, is an understandable reaction. However, if you’re happy for your club to reject it too, you must accept the consequences, one of those being that the club is unlikely to compete for league and European titles.
The problem for Liverpool is that past successes have fomented contemporary standards and expectations. Liverpool FC ‘exists to win trophies’, so to maintain this tradition the fans must accept a woeful paradox: that the club will have to adopt the many ugly facets of modern football’s culture to succeed. But even in that concession a pious sense of entitlement reveals itself. They want success and the wealth that’s required to achieve it, but only a specific kind, the kind that’s earned. Ask most Liverpool fans and they’ll say they certainly don’t want to be owned by a “sugar daddy”, because in the eyes of most reliance on an oligarch’s philanthropy has devalued the achievements of Chelsea and Manchester City.
So it seems odd that Liverpool are now being impatiently chided by many of these fans for trying to methodically bridge the financial gap to the oligarch owned clubs and Manchester United with the only feasible route that can appease them. One that will maintain their place on the moral high ground and gives them what they claim to want – a model which is reliant on an old fashioned way of succeeding; living within your financial means, expanding the ground’s capacity and being better at scouting and developing players than your rivals, the ‘Liverpool Way’ even.
With the club working in such a small margin of error and starting from an acknowledged disadvantage not of their own doing, Liverpool’s season should be seen as a setback not an irredeemable failure. Not so. Now someone must be held accountable and something or a number of things must change.
It was an interesting coincidence that just as the inquest started and blame was being apportioned, after Liverpool’s defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal all but extinguished Liverpool’s chances of meeting the minimum requirement – Champions League qualification – Raheem Sterling was being derided for his ‘excessive’ contract demands.
Sterling’s desire to be paid his market value and play in a side that’s contending aligns with many Liverpool fans wishes, yet when he publicly asks for a contract befitting the status he’s achieved as one of Liverpool’s better players, he was roundly characterised as being greedy. Tellingly Sterling predictably and lazily got linked with moves away to many of Liverpool’s competitors and financial superiors. The hypothetical manifestations these reports allowed many Liverpool fans to indulge in were illuminating, as it was instructive of the contradictory standards which fans are judging the club by. Many immediately quoted the prices they’d happily sell Sterling for, yet used Liverpool’s refusal to capitulate to his demands as evidence of the club’s lack of ambition for not paying the necessary wages to keep its best players.
This poses a number of questions. Should Liverpool, or any club for that matter, not negotiate with its players to get the best deal it can, so that it can use resources to improve elsewhere? Isn’t it possible Liverpool will be trying to do this with Sterling and every player? Should the club pay to keep its best players, which will make it more likely to contend, or not bother? And regardless of a player’s perceived value, or whether you agree with his market valuation, where does continuously selling your best players get you? After all, Luis Suarez’s departure really drove Liverpool on, didn’t it?
These questions are redundant anyway, as Liverpool currently have the fifth highest wage bill in the Premier League, not the fifteenth, so they can afford to pay wages at the high end of the scale, and in certain cases do so already.
But here I must concede the point, following a football club always includes such instances of myopia, partisanship, passion, even a certain amount of self-loathing and suffering, and it would be far less interesting without these experiences. The most uninteresting mediums, whether sporting, political or artistic are always the ones that provoke no reaction whatsoever. Blandness is the worst crime of all.
However, in general, Liverpool fans seem to be in a permanent existential midlife crisis, and it’s completely fucking bland and craven. They know what they want, but they don’t know how to get it. Or they do know, but that way isn’t ideal so they adopt destructively short term attitudes to players, the manager or how the club operates. Some just have no clue at all. So round and round in circles they go, searching for something that isn’t there. There’s always a simple reason for failure, and or a simple solution those working for the club cannot see.
Suitably there’s an ever evolving cast list of villains to choose from, and in that process the club’s staff is compartmentalised to elide several truths; acknowledging the reality of the club’s current status, that nearly every relevant employee at the club is responsible for its performance and a latent dissatisfaction at a sanctimonious fan culture that’s seeks to inhibit outbursts of unfettered aspiration.
So, depending on your purview it’s the owners, it’s their philosophy, their inability and or refusal to pay wages or transfer fees that other richer clubs can, but remember, most fans don’t want a sugar daddy or an oligarch’s charity.
Most often it’s the manager fault, the softest of targets. The justified worship of Bill Shankly has been bastardised into a destructive legacy, with modern Liverpool managers being assigned a disproportionate amount of importance relative to their modern function. Not that this has altered the stock arguments, those remain the same; he’s naïve, too inexperienced, a megalomaniac, he’s Roy Hodgson (fair enough on that one), too hard headed, too defensive, too attack minded, does he understand English football? He failed at his previous job, or his teams play shite football, or, as it is now, that a better manager would mitigate the tactical deficiencies the team plays with and in doing so eradicate the financial disadvantages the club has to overcome.
But there’s more good news, a new concern has emerged – usually after a failed signing, because those never happen at other clubs – focusing on the transfer committee, or that Liverpool has a transfer committee at all. Very little is known about said transfer committee, or how it functions, but when faced with a fifth placed finish that doesn’t matter.
Failing that, it’s the players that aren’t good enough (but this is related to the owners, wage structure, manager and transfer committee, isn’t it?), including those valued at £50m, or you wince at the pointless lamentation that a player at another club is better than one currently in Liverpool’s team, like Suarez is now.
It’s hard to believe that Liverpool managed to challenge for, and nearly win the league with this defective philosophy, inferior wage structure, manager and players. Equally alarming is that last season, and how narrow the margin of defeat was, has been forgotten so quickly. Or perhaps it was just luck and or it was the inadequacies of others that allowed Liverpool to go so close? If you constantly shift the goal posts, and frame the club’s situation and approach with pessimism in times of failure, nothing can ever work.
But let’s be reasonable and recognise that the alternative is too grim to accept; life isn’t fair, things are different now, no club can remain the best, that Liverpool is no longer it, and if they do succeed chances are any success probably won’t be sustained as it was during some bygone utopia. But things could be worse. Liverpool has the resources to contend, unlike a lot of other clubs. But just like the psyche of your average Liverpool fan, looking at things as they really are isn’t that simple, unless it works, and the club succeeds, then it’s the ‘Liverpool Way’.