As always, this past Premier League weekend threw up a few sideshows that were probably best ignored. In spite of myself, and maybe because Liverpool’s business was out of the way earlier than usual, a couple involving two of Sky’s most highly-touted pundits caught my attention.
The first of these trivialities came in the aftermath of that impressive 2-1 victory over Chelsea on Friday night, when former Reds defensive lynchpin Jamie Carragher once again gave a trolling radio presenter what he wanted by ringing in and having it out with him over the airwaves, this time in relation to comments suggesting that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side is no better than that of his predecessor Brendan Rodgers, in particularly defensively (the term used, I believe it was “Brendan Klopp”, doesn’t leave much room for misunderstanding about what was meant). To be fair, at least Carragher’s intervention made some kind of sense on this occasion given that both he and Jason Cundy are now on the same individual’s payroll.
In any case, news of this needless piece of theatre actually got me to thinking. While it is undeniable that conceding 8 goals in 5 games (for an average of 1.6 per game) to start the season is unsatisfactory (only two sides outside the relegation zone, Watford and Bournemouth, have conceded more), in many respects it is stupid to make such stark pronouncements about a side so embryonic that its manager and his coaching staff have been in their jobs for less than a year. Due attention should also be given to Liverpool’s opponents in those games, which included last season’s top 3 and the previous year’s champions, and only one of them at home.
It is far too early to say anything definitive, good or bad, about this version of Liverpool, but it seems especially awkward timing to pick on defensive frailties after Klopp’s team have gone into Stamford Bridge and held players of the calibre of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian to nothing more than scraps, their goal facilitated by an uncharacteristic mistake from a player who was otherwise head and shoulders the best defender on the pitch on either team (Joël Matip). But perhaps reason is too much to expect from a presenter whose team have just lost at home to a rival and who is working for a radio station which has long since made the irrational its stock-in-trade.
Hey, ultimately he might end up being right, who knows? By my calculations Liverpool have actually averaged more goals conceded across Klopp’s 35 League games to date (1.34) than they did in the 122 under Rodgers (1.24), although it might be worth pointing out that the German has only recently begun adding reinforcements (in the shape of Matip, Ragnar Klavan and goalkeeper Loris Karius, the latter yet to make his League debut) to a defence which conspired to concede half a dozen goals to Stoke City just over a season ago and lose Steven Gerrard’s last 2 appearances for the club by an aggregate score of 9-2.
The point I would make is that if speculation about what the future may hold is the name of the game, then we could just as easily highlight a few startling differences which are already becoming clear between the two Liverpool vintages in question and which might cast a more optimistic tone on what this team can become. Off the top of the head rolls Klopp having reached more cup finals in 8 months (2) than Rodgers did in over 3 years (0), or being able to rest 6 of the players who started at Chelsea on Friday night and still comfortably see off a decent Championship side (which made the playoffs last season) 3-0 away from home, whereas the last act of Rodgers’ Liverpool in the same competition a year ago was a laboured penalty shootout win at home to League Two Carlisle United.
It is also striking that the German’s side has now taken as many points from 6 visits to what are traditionally the League’s toughest grounds (i.e. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham), and against the teams which are most likely to be Liverpool’s rivals for the Champions League places come the end of the season, as Rodgers managed in 17 attempts (14), and has averaged almost an entire goal per game more in the process (2.3 vs. 1.4). Statistics like that, however, are not very likely to goad Liverpool supporters into a response.
What about the spread of goals across the respective teams? Liverpool’s 11 so far this season have been shared out amongst 7 players in 5 games (Philippe Coutinho x2, Adam Lallana x2, Sadio Mané x2, James Milner, Roberto Firmino x2, Dejan Lovren and Jordan Henderson). Even in his most successful season, 2013/14, it took Rodgers’ side until early December and the 88th minute of the 14th game to register that many scorers. Daniel Sturridge, already on 8 goals by that stage and who is still widely regarded as the team’s best centre-forward, has yet to find the net this season and yet Liverpool are nonetheless third-highest scorers in the division, behind only Manchester City (15) and Arsenal (12).
This is likely because of how heavily dependent Liverpool were on a small group of players for goals under Klopp’s predecessor (and beyond, to be fair). The top 3 scorers during Rodgers’ time in charge (Luis Suárez, Sturridge and Gerrard) accounted for over half of Liverpool’s Premier League goals in that period (roughly 53 per cent, or 122 goals out of 232), and that’s with Suárez and Sturridge both effectively missing the entirety of the bitterly disappointing 2014/15 season. Under Klopp, with a virtually identical goal average to that of his predecessor so far (1.9 under Rodgers, 1.89 under Klopp), this percentage drops to around 42 per cent for Firmino, Coutinho and the departed Christian Benteke (28 out of 66), a decrease of 11 per cent which tends to confirm the more even spread of goals throughout the team.
This is another encouraging sign and might explain why there was no dip in performance on Friday when Firmino, statistically the most prolific forward so far under Klopp, missed the trip to Stamford Bridge. A related point is that last season, with Liverpool pushing hard in the Europa League throughout the final weeks of the season, both Emre Can (injured against Dortmund) and Divock Origi (injured against Everton) were rushed back ahead of schedule, the former for the crucial second leg of the semi-final against Villareal and the latter for the final against Sevilla, such was their importance. This season they have barely played and Klopp can now afford not to risk Firmino in a big game because his medical staff cannot guarantee him that the player’s injury will not worsen.
The most important difference of all, potentially, concerns what can be termed the “pick your poison” principle. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect about Friday night is that Antonio Conte clearly set his side up to negate what has been arguably Liverpool’s most potent attacking threat this season, succeeded in doing so and still lost. Having seen Michel Vorm compelled to sprint from his goal to keep the ball from Mané on a number of occasions across town a few weeks earlier and Kasper Schmeichel being caught out attempting to do similar at Anfield the weekend before, perhaps Conte had terrifying images of Thibault Courtois having to lumber forth from his penalty area to try and confront the Senegalese livewire, or else maybe the returning David Luiz facing him one-on-one?
And so his approach, on the evidence of the first half certainly, was to compress the space available for Liverpool to an extent that we don’t often see from such an expensively-assembled team playing at home, one which still contains the majority of the 2014/15 title-winning side. He did this to such a degree that when Henderson sprinted back into his own half towards the away fans in celebration after his goal on 36 minutes it was as though he was leading an exodus, every red shirt on the pitch evacuating the Chelsea half where they had been stationed and leaving only the 10 in blue trying to maintain a cordon around their own penalty area.
The thing is, Conte’s tactics did what they were supposed to. They worked. The away side, even while dominating possession during the first half, created little in the way of clear-cut chances and Mané’s influence was undoubtedly as diminished as we’ve seen it so far this season. And had it not been for a poorly-defended set-piece and a worldie from Liverpool’s captain, this would have been a game that Chelsea had every chance of winning 1-0, a routine save from a speculative Sturridge shot and a fantastic stop from Origi’s header towards the end (when the game was more stretched) the only other times that Chelsea’s goalkeeper was forced into meaningful action on the night.
Yet against a team hell-bent on disruption and prevention, Klopp’s side still found a way to win. This is undoubtedly a cause for guarded optimism, particularly given the team’s struggles to break down Burnley earlier in the season, a game which Mané missed altogether. The sharpest weapon amongst them blunted, they were nonetheless able to say to Chelsea on Friday: “pick your poison”. Attack us and we’ll go about destroying you on the counter-attack; sit deep and we’ll just compress you like a vice until you break. Against the same opposition in the pivotal game of the Rodgers era in April 2014, Liverpool were forced to play on similar terms and simply had no answers.
None of which is to stick the knife in Brendan Rodgers, who largely did a good job at Liverpool and never reneged on his promise that “I will give everything to make the football club better”. But the very idea of “Brendan Klopp” is enough to make you wince in second-hand embarrassment for the person saying it, or at least it would be if Cundy wasn’t almost certainly getting paid a mint for it. This brings me nicely to the second of those aforementioned sideshows last weekend and another overpaid product of the modern football/media complex, Carragher’s Sky colleague Gary Neville.
At some point after Friday night’s game, perhaps even as Carragher was still on the phone to Cundy, a Manchester United fan account on Twitter was tweeting the following: “Big thanks to Liverpool for beating one of our title rivals. Another three points towards your battle for 6th”. Good banter, perhaps, in a world where Manchester United didn’t themselves finish 3 points above 6th a few months ago and didn’t currently sit in 7th. By Sunday, Liverpool’s official Twitter account had responded in the wake of Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat at Watford. The response said simply: “Delete.” A little unusual, perhaps, but nothing to get too upset about and unlikely to ever happen again I would suggest.
It was when Neville got involved that my own interest was piqued. The former Manchester United full-back wondered on his own Twitter account at the wisdom of the “official club account mocking greatest rivals 5 games into a season with a game coming up in a few weeks” (which suggests that the proprietors of the “United Stand MUFC” Twitter account are now Liverpool Football Club’s greatest rivals) and later elaborated that “I’d be embarrassed!” if his own club had done the same.
Neville’s wisdom on the subject of mocking rivals and the potential for it to backfire should be taken seriously. On 22 January 2006 he responded to a late Rio Ferdinand winner at Old Trafford by sprinting down the pitch to celebrate in front of the visiting Liverpool supporters, screaming and clawing at his jersey like a madman, as inflammatory and provocative as it gets really. At that point, of course, the draw for Round 5 of the FA Cup had yet to be made. On 18 February, 4 weeks after his antics at Old Trafford, it brought Neville into the cauldron that was Anfield and 40,000+ Liverpool supporters who were eager to give him some of that passion back with interest. Manchester United lost 1-0.
That, however, is about the sum total of what comes out of Neville’s mouth (or from his fingers, in this case) that I can take seriously. I am not an avid watcher of Sky but what I have seen of his football analysis calls to mind the proverb that “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” (in that, amongst his pundit brethren, he admittedly provides far more insight than Paul Merson or Jermaine Jenas, for example), while the most famous moment of his commentary career so far was also one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard (his orgasmic reaction to Fernando Torres’ late goal for Chelsea at the Nou Camp in 2012). As a manager he wasn’t at Valencia long enough for me to catch any of their games and I have about as much interest in reminiscing about his playing career as I do Jason Cundy’s.
He is nonetheless a genuine source of wonder to me as a man who began his media career by accusing Liverpool of deliberately throwing a game in order to stop Manchester United winning the title, yet has nonetheless gone on to become so successful in his second career that he reportedly makes over £1m per annum and even has Liverpool supporters swearing by his punditry.
Let’s go back to May 2010 and set the scene. With 2 games of the season to go, Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea need only to beat Liverpool and recently-safe Wigan Athletic to clinch the title. With Neville’s Manchester United only a point behind, though, any slip is likely to cost them. Having seen Wigan already lose 9-0 at White Hart Lane earlier in the season, however, everyone knows that Chelsea’s trip to Anfield on the penultimate weekend is likely to provide Manchester United’s only hope. And with Liverpool themselves still in with an outside chance of a top-4 finish (5 points behind and depending on slip-ups from 3 teams ahead of them), The Reds certainly have the motivation.
Chelsea subsequently won 2-0 at Anfield and hit 8 against Wigan a week later to win the title by a point. A week after that, they clinched the Double. Writing in September 2011, Neville gave his recollection: “Chelsea had a little helping hand to win the 2009-10 title. Some thought it would be a big test for them playing at Anfield with a couple of games to go and the title still up for grabs, but at United we knew that Liverpool would ease off if that meant depriving us of the championship, especially a 19th championship that would take us past their record.
“We’d heard rumours during the week that some Liverpool players had turned round to one of their young lads and said: ‘There’s not a f****** chance we’re going to let United win this league.’” While Neville subsequently admitted that “I’ve no idea whether that rumour was true or not,” he went on to say that “you could see the game was a nice end-of-season stroll for Liverpool. You could see half their players were on their summer holidays. Yet we couldn’t complain, not publicly. It was up to us to make sure we weren’t in a vulnerable position. But it didn’t say much for Liverpool.”
It does make you wonder why “we couldn’t complain, not publicly”? A lack of evidence, perhaps? And yet here was Neville, in his new role as a newspaper columnist, doing just that. What he chose not to do was provide context, something you might expect as a minimum from any aspiring journalist or broadcaster. The suggestion that they were likely to “ease off” against Chelsea, for example, is particularly laughable given how badly Liverpool’s season had gone: manager-sackingly badly. “Ease off” what, exactly? The relentless fire, energy and skill which had seen them drop from 2nd a season before to 7th? Did he and his teammates really think that Chelsea, on course to score over 100 Premier League goals for the season, needed Liverpool (whose bench that day read: Cavalieri, Degen, Ayala, Babel, Ngog, El Zhar, Pacheco) to go easy on them?
But of course Liverpool were going to throw a game to spite Manchester United, hadn’t they done it before on the final day of the 1994/95 season? Not quite. Liverpool knew that beating Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn Rovers in May 1995 would almost certainly hand the title to Manchester United but they did it anyway, regardless of having arguably the club’s greatest legend sitting on the opposition bench (the look on Jamie Redknapp’s face after he scored the winner said it all). In fact it was only Luděk Mikloško’s finest hour in a West Ham shirt which prevented it from happening (a game in which Neville played), so the only available precedent for this situation was actually for Liverpool helping Manchester United.
15 years after that 2-1 win over Blackburn, Liverpool were now being asked to do it again but circumstances had changed. They had just endured an awful season by their recent standards, eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League and eventually finishing 7th. It was a season which would ultimately cost manager Rafael Benítez his job and throw the club headlong into the Roy Hodgson era. The club was no longer comfortable in its own skin, the supporters were at odds over any number of issues, criticism of the manager leaked freely from the dressing-room into the media, and the struggles over ownership and the debt piled onto Liverpool by their then-owners would rumble on into the following season as the club came within hours of being placed into administration (and everything that entails – just look at Portsmouth).
In other words Liverpool tails were firmly between legs, not pointing straight up, when Chelsea came to town in May 2010. On the pitch, the team had played 120 minutes in a losing effort against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-final just over 2 and a half days earlier, finishing at roughly 10.30 on the Thursday night and unbelievably being expected to kick off against Chelsea at 1.30 on the Sunday afternoon. Emotionally and physically shattered after that defeat and without talisman Fernando Torres, 9 of the same players who started against Atletico (and 6 of whom had played the entire 2 hours) nonetheless began the brighter of the two teams and might have scored first with an Alberto Aquilani drive which clipped Petr Cech’s crossbar.
Over the 90 minutes Chelsea’s class told, but according to the BBC report of the game “…suggestions that Rafael Benítez’s side would stand aside…proved incorrect. Liverpool were not betrayed by a lack of effort, it was a lack of energy after playing through 120 minutes against Atletico Madrid on Thursday to no avail that was part of their downfall. And more crucially, in a condemnation of a managerial reign that may well be coming to a close, it was a lack of quality and squad strength assembled by Benítez that was brutally exposed by Chelsea.” It doesn’t sound like “a nice end-of-season stroll for Liverpool” to me; if anything, it sounds like Manchester United should have been thanking their rivals for a herculean effort under difficult circumstances.
Personally, I always dismissed Neville’s accusations as bitter nonsense, a way of trying to play the hero to Manchester United supporters even in retirement by throwing another dig at their rivals from down the road while perhaps taking some of the sting out of his team’s own failings (after all, they had lost to Chelsea at home 4 weeks before the game in question), behaviour which certainly “didn’t say much” for the level of journalistic integrity we could expect from his post-retirement career. And Liverpool shared my view judging by the lack of a reaction from Anfield, which you can understand.
What makes the allegations particularly serious, even heinous, however, are the implications implicit in the way the game unfolded. Chelsea’s first goal, which arrived “as the opening half threatened to drift aimlessly to its conclusion” according to the BBC report, came courtesy of a badly misjudged backpass into the path of Didier Drogba by Liverpool captain Gerrard, the local heartbeat of the team who would surely have felt it more than anyone if Manchester United won a 19th title. The mistake was entirely understandable in many respects given the events of just over 60 hours earlier, and Gerrard had made similar errors in the past for Thierry Henry to win a penalty for France against England (at Euro 2004) and score for Arsenal on Liverpool’s last visit to Highbury (in March 2006).
However it does make you wonder that if Neville truly believes Liverpool threw that game, does he also believe that Gerrard played that pass to Drogba deliberately? “…some Liverpool players had turned round to one of their young lads and said: ‘There’s not a f****** chance we're going to let United win this league.’” And then Chelsea’s first goal is gift-wrapped, presenting them, as per the BBC report, with “a lead their lacklustre efforts barely deserved”. Would someone so apparently certain of conspiracy as Neville was 5 years ago see that as mere coincidence? We simply don’t know because he has never been asked to elaborate on his accusations, as you might expect, or clarify where exactly the rumour he mentions came from.
What has always fascinated me in particular is that not one of the players who were involved that day has ever said a single word in retort, neither Gerrard in his second autobiography nor Neville’s aforementioned Sky colleague, a Scouser himself who was also on duty against Chelsea that day (substituted at 0-2) and has since developed an apparent passion for challenging presenters and pundits on their opinions. Well after a weekend in which both men placed themselves in the spotlight with off-the-clock excursions into two separate medias, perhaps Jamie Carragher could take it upon himself next to investigate exactly what Neville believes happened at Anfield on 2 May 2010 and maybe finally get some answers, perhaps even live on air?
Now that’s one Premier League sideshow I think I’d like to watch.