Monday, 7 April 2014

What price experience?

Six games ago I read a piece on a leading football website saying the wheels of Liverpool's title charge would come off soon enough. Three away games on the spin - Southampton (a bogey team of the Reds), Manchester United (Old Trafford wins are a still a rarity for Liverpool), and plucky Cardiff - might lead to Liverpool getting no points from those games.

Presumably the author thought that Sunderland would be the easiest of the five games (in fact it was arguably the most difficult) whilst Spurs might avenge their defeat - nay their slaying! - earlier in the season. Sherwood's common bloody sense would win the day where AvB's thinking had got him in to hot water. The writer, from memory, hadn't given much thought to the West Ham game.  It was thought that those five games would see Liverpool dropping back to fourth or, even, fifth. It was conceivable that Liverpool would take a handful of points. Bubbles would be burst and the Scousers would be put back in their box. 

Six games later, six wins later. 20 goals in favour. Liverpool - even those of us who are worried that at the end of the storm is another storm - are top of the tree and have, for the moment at least, their fate in their hands.

That isn't to say that they are favourites for the title. Manchester City - with their games in hand, with their battle nous, with Yaya Toure and with the fillip of Aguero returning - must be and the bookies seem to concur. Betting against Mourinho is a generally a game for mugs and fools even though his mindgames, this year, are so deep that Rosgers and Pellegrini must think they've walked onto the set of 'Inception'

There will likely be twists and turns in the title race - wins here, inexplicable losses there, late goals, disputed penalties and all that jazz.  Liverpool's last title race was all but crucified by Andrei Arshavin of Arsenal and Federico Macheda of Manchester United. All those years ago few had worried about Michael Thomas drifting through the dark Merseyside night, few thought it would be Bruce's header that got United on their way to the title, most are still amazed that Liverpool beat Blackburn to put the 94/95 title on a platter for United only for Miklosko to play the game of his life for West Ham, and fewer still saw that game against QPR coming before Aguero pulled the title out of the hat.

It is always the ones you least expect who are lurking in the shadows with a stiletto waiting to end your waltz to silverware. There is plenty of room for someone to write history - and it is likely a black swan. 

One of the hoary canards, however, is that Liverpool lack experience in this situation. It is true that this group of players, led by this manager, have not been involved in the white heat of a title race together. That, however, is true of Manchester City too who have a new manager in place. It is largely true of Chelsea who only have Terry, Cech and Lampard from Mourinho's last title triumph. 

Of course, both Manchester City and Chelsea have cohorts of players who have played together in a successful title race.

Of Chelsea's team, ČechIvanović, Cole, Mikel, Lampard, Terry, and Hilário all played in 2009/10 season (Matić was a squad player).

Of Manchester City's squad, Richards, Kompany, Zabaleta, Lescott, Milner, Kolarov, Nasri, Silva, Clichy, Hart, 
Pantilimon, Toure, Džeko, and Aguero all played in 2011/12.

Both have men who have won other championships with other clubs beside. 

Liverpool haven't won the league title in many a long year but they have a cohort of players who have been involved in a title challenge with Liverpool (Agger, Škrtel, Gerrard and Lucas) who saw Liverpool finish 2nd to United in 2008/09. Moreover, they have three men who have won the league in England (Toure with Arsenal in 03/04 and City in 11/12, Johnson with Chelsea in 04/05, and Sturridge with Chelsea in 09/10).

As well as this, Škrtel (Russian league 2006/7), Cissokho (Portuguese league 08/09), Sakho (French league 2012/13) and Suarez (Dutch league 2010/11 - though he left halfway through the season) have all been part of championship winning teams in major European leagues. Numerous players have won other national league titles or equivalents (Agger, Toure, Lucas, Suarez, Coates). It isn't quite the case that Liverpool's players haven't got experience. It is the case that they haven't together - but how much does that matter?

Comparing to other teams who won the league for the first time in a long-time this Liverpool fair well.

  • Leeds - in 1991/92 - had three league winners in their midsty (Lukic, Strachan and Cantona).
  • Manchester United - in 1992/93 - had Schmeical (who had won in Denmark), McClair (Scotland), and Cantona (France and with Leeds the previous year).
  • Blackburn Rovers - in 1994/95 - had only the on loan Witschge and Batty (who was injured and refused a medal).
  • Arsenal - in 1997/98 - had a group of players from their triumphs of the early 90s (Bould, Winterburn, Dixon, Adams) as well as Viera (Milan), Bergkamp (Ajax), Petit (Monaco) and Grimandi (Monaco).
  • Chelsea - in 2004/05 - had a group of players who had won league titles elsewhere: Makelele and Geremi with Real Madrid, Kezman and Robben for PSV, Carvalho and Ferreira for Porto.
  • Manchester City - in 2011/12 - had a larger cohort of previous title winners. Bridge (Chelsea), Kompany (Anderlecht x2), Dzeko (Wolfsburg), Hargreaves (Bayern, Manchester United), Clichy (Arsenal), Tevez (Manchester United), Balotelli (Internazionale), Toure (Barcelona) and de Jong (Ajax)
This shows, pretty simply, how much football has changed in the last 20 or so years. Given the globalisation of football, most teams at the top end of the league will have numerous players who have won major leagues in their career playing for them. It seems positively quaint that Leeds United had three league title winners in their squad.

Perhaps more significantly though is where the teams finished the season before they won the league.
  • Leeds United: 4th in 1990/91 (Arsenal, Liverpool and Crystal Palace were ahead of them. Only Arsenal were in the top four in Leeds' title year).
  • Manchester United: 2nd in 1991/92 (Leeds won)
  • Blackburn Rovers: 2nd in 1993/94 (2nd to Manchester United)
  • Arsenal: 3rd in 1996/8 (Manchester United and Newcastle United finished ahead of them)
  • Chelsea: 2nd in 2003/4 (Arsenal won the league)
  • Manchester City: 3rd in 2011/12 (Manchester United and Chelsea finished ahead of them).
There is an old fisherman's tale that one must lose the league title before one wins it. The above seems to suggest that this isn't utter nonsense although it isn't a hard and fast rule. All the teams were close to winning the title before they did get their hands on the prize properly.

Liverpool finished 7th last year with 61 points and 16 wins. The previous three years the club had finished 7th in 09/10 (63pts/18 wins), 6th in 10/11 (58pts/17 wins), 8th in 11/12 (52pts/14 wins).

To win the league will be an astonishing turnaround especially given the strength at the top end of the league. A team that has not - despite its illustrious history, large crowds, spending, and star players - been in the top five since it finished 2nd in 2008/09 even being in the running for the league with five games to go in this era is worthy of comment.

It may be, however, that the experience of winning isn't the important part here. Agger, Škrtel, Gerrard and Lucas have all experienced a title run in and saw their best efforts dashed. Subsequently, they have seen the club fall away from those heights when the promised land was in sight. They've seen managers come and go and talent after talent leave the club. They've seen the club almost go into administration before it was saved at the last. Might it just be that it is this experience - the experience of missing out and falling, the years in the wilderness - that has made these men (and others) battle-hardened? 

Possibly. Sometimes what you need is a grizzled old head that has been through the wars and come out the other side. Gerrard hasn't won the league but he has lost it before. One imagines he won't be keen to do so again.

Rodgers, perversely, seems more at ease as the pressure comes on him. The Brentisms seem to be being replaced by measured answers. The team is flying, playing well, winning games and in control - for now. The pressure is unexpected and novel. Even a Devon Loch style finish would likely see the team finish third which is beyond the expectations of most fans and commentators. 

Will Liverpool do it? The odds are that they will be overhauled by the blues of Manchester but the likelihood of the Redmen pulling off a title win becomes a little more likely with every win that happens. Will it be down to experience? No. It'll be down to squad depth and, ultimately, money. Plus ca change...



Metatone said...

Good luck!
I won't be betting, I think it's too close to call.
A draw or a win on Sunday should put Liverpool in the driving seat.

But City are the strongest team Liverpool have played this year. Other teams have posed problems, but City have a much stronger squad and mentality than most.

dearieme said...

They've played such wonderfully exciting counter-attacking football that I'd be very happy to see them win it. They remind me a bit of the ManU attack of Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney.

I'd rather not have Chelsea win it: they deserve punishment for not having bothered to recruit a decent centre-forward, and for the madness of the Torres purchase. Anyway, Mourinho.

I wouldn't grumble much at a Man City win; they can seem like a remorseless but unexciting machine whose components are assembled by outspending everyone else, but then I think of Silva. At his best he's just about worth it on his own.

Rob Marrs said...

Well, I obviously have my biases - but, yes, Silva really is wonderful.


dearieme said...

I wish Silva could have played fly-half in the era before every rugby player had to be all muscles. Imagine having that deft wee fella running at you.

Metatone said...

Well that all went rather well for Liverpool.
Kind of sad for Kompany that he's getting some blame, the knee injury probably hampered his clearance.

This is off-topic, about Hillsborough, but very emotionally affecting:

You have to respect Bruce more after hearing this conversation.