One night last week, I was in the car with my Dad and we had the radio on, listening to some guys call-in show on the New York ESPN radio affiliate. The first couple of hours we had to listen to this guy talk about his New York Jets, and I was performing my usual routine of making snide comments between his points to make my Dad laugh. Eventually, for the last thirty minutes, he got to talking about the New York Giants, who, as you probably know, my family has had season tickets with for 50 years (that’s not even an exaggeration: my Grandfather’s first year as a season ticket holder was in 1963, back when the Giants played in Yankee Stadium). The host stated his belief that the main obstacle standing between the Giants and a playoff appearance was the running backs, and asked his callers a simple question: “Do you think that Andre Brown and David Wilson would be good enough to carry the load for the Giants for an entire season?”
Just so we’re clear, my answer to that question is a resounding YES, but I have doubts about the offensive line. But that’s not the reason why I bring this up. The callers all started calling in and talking about how they thought Wilson was an explosive running back, but the main concern is his fumbling problem. The host, after hearing around five callers bring up David Wilson’s “fumbling problem,” asked one of the callers how many fumbles he thought David Wilson had last season. I immediately yelled out “ONE” while listening in the car, fully aware of his stats from the previous season. The caller thought about it for five seconds, and then said “seven to ten.” The answer? One.
That begged me to ask myself the question: Why do Giants fans believe that David Wilson has a fumbling problem? After thinking about it for a minute, the answer is really simple: the only fumble that he’s lost all season took place on his debut against the Dallas Cowboys, and it left a lasting impression on the minds of Giants fans. The fumble turned the tide of the game (which the Giants lost), and has not been forgotten since. He got 70 carries last season, averaged 5 yards per carry, scored 7 TDs and returned kickoffs better than any Giant I’ve ever seen (except maybe Ron Dixon), but has been unable to shake off that label that he can’t hold on to the ball.
Flash forward to last weekend, as I’m up early watching Liverpool-Stoke City in the opening English Premier League match of the season. Liverpool are 1-0 up in the closing minutes of the game, when Daniel Agger conceded a very stupid penalty, putting his arm up in the box when he had no need to and making contact with the ball. Jonathan Walters stepped up to take the penalty for Stoke City, facing the newly-bought Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet, who was making his competitive debut for Liverpool. Walters shot it to the Mignolet’s right hand side… and Simon saved it! The ball was loose, Kenwyne Jones ran up and fired another shot at the net, which Mignolet also saved, as it scrambled out for a corner, with the Anfield faithful going absolutely ballistic. The players all jumped on Mignolet to congratulate/thank him, before he pushed them off and made them get in position as Stoke were trying to take the corner quickly. Liverpool held on for a 1-0 win, and Mignolet made a really tremendous first impression on the Liverpool fans watching, not only in the ground, but on TV sets all over the world.
Online afterward, I noticed that many, many fans were praising Mignolet for his penalty save, and seemingly were willing to forget all of the rage they felt after the club loaned out Pepe Reina (remember him?!) in order for Mignolet to start. I remembered how David Wilson’s fumble in his first game forever imprinted negative thoughts on the minds of Giants fans, and really do wonder how Mignolet’s crucial penalty save on his debut will be felt by fans in the long term. This also made me ask myself a deeper question: how much stock do we, as sports fans, put on a first impression we get from a player? In addition, how much should we get out of our first impressions of a player?
I’ve been watching sports for as long as I can remember. I’ve honestly lost count on the number of games I’ve attended, and to remember every debut I’ve seen both in person and on TV would be rather ridiculous. But there are some first impressions I’ve gotten from watching games that do stand out in my mind.
I remember watching Hideki Matsui’s Yankee Stadium debut back on Opening Day in 2003, when he hit a Grand Slam against Minnesota into right field. He ended up being a mainstay in the Yankee lineup for around seven years. On the contrary, I remember Kazuo Matsui’s MLB debut (not related to the aforementioned Hideki), where he hit the first pitch he’d ever seen out of the park in Atlanta. Kazuo ended up hitting .256 as a Met over the next two years before he was traded to Colorado, never truly living up to the hype the Mets had set for him, and that he had set for himself with that first pitch homer.
And with that, we find one of the factors that goes into a first impression: the hype beforehand. In American sports, when a player is selected as a first round pick, there is a certain amount of hype that goes with that player. He’s tabbed as a future starter, an impact player, someone who can improve the team in the short term and be the answer to a problem for the long term. David Wilson was a first round pick, and that’s another reason why his first impression was so damning. The Giants felt confident enough to select him in the opening round as a replacement for Brandon Jacobs, the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing TDs.
In the modern age, YouTube has helped fans come up with first impressions without even seeing a player come on the pitch for their side yet. The problem with YouTube, however, is that the video creators can really edit any film enough to make you think that someone is a star if they have enough footage. Milan Jovanovic looked like a star on YouTube, as did Christian Poulsen—neither one lasted more than a season at Liverpool. College football fans remember all too well about Sam McGuffie’s YouTube video, which was 10 minutes of him running around and jumping over high school players like he was in a video game on cheat mode, only to discover that his athleticism didn’t transfer to the college level when he played at Michigan under Rich Rodriguez (McGuffie is currently in training camp with the Oakland Raiders, but I highly doubt he’ll make the team after the preseason is over).
While I remembered Luis Suarez making a splash onto the scene in South Africa in 2010 with his handball against Ghana, I’d honestly forgotten about him until Liverpool started chasing him six months later during the January 2011 window. I remembered watching his YouTube compilations, in addition to his not-so-endearing highlights, such as the handball in South Africa and his celebrating after Asamoah Gyan missed, his diving, and his biting of PSV player Otman Bakkal on the shoulder. I put all of the negative stuff to the side and focused on the fact that he was a good striker who could answer a problem that Liverpool needed to address, and really didn’t think too much about the fact that he was clearly a troubled player.
From this, we do find the answer to the first question: “What do we get out of a first impression as sports fans?” The answer? Whatever we’re willing to get out of it. Honestly, if you don’t try to get much out of watching something, you won’t, and if you are trying to get something out of it, you will. It’s a ridiculously simple answer, but it is true. The only real exception is when something so extraordinary happens that you can’t help but ignore it, such as when Suarez cheats on Global TV in a World Cup Quarterfinal. If you were a cynic, you’d say he was a cheat, but you could also view it as somebody willing to do whatever it takes to win. As sports fans, we’re willing and able to take any sporting moment, view it in a vacuum, and assign it to whatever agenda we’re pushing, even if it’s just a call-in to ESPN radio.
Yesterday afternoon, as I was driving on the Garden State Parkway on my way to a Mets-Phillies game, I got stuck in horrible traffic. Like the kind of traffic that makes you want to get out of the car and go for a walk—which I would’ve done, except for the heat. I later found out that the 95-degree heat caused cars to set on fire spontaneously while on the road, causing this specific delay. As I was incredibly bored, I decided to pull out my phone and check Twitter for news headlines and updates, as well as checking up on my favorite sports teams. Rumors flashed across my timeline that Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina is about to go on loan to Napoli, who currently employ former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez and goalkeeper coach Xavi Valero.
As with all stories regarding LFC, fans on my timeline decided to use this headline as a stick with which to beat Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and Brendan Rodgers, or on the other hand, praise Rodgers without question. Keep in mind that many fans said throughout last season that Reina was past his best and should be sold this summer. When rumors in May surfaced that Barcelona were interested, these same fans were happy to offload him, where he was the starting keeper as a teenager and where the long-tenured reign of Victor Valdes is expected to end when his contract expires next year. But now, fans want to keep him because he’s not going to Barcelona—there’s seemingly no excuse for sending out a three-time gold glove winning keeper on loan to another club in Europe, let alone one with two men in charge who were successful at Liverpool. Napoli isn’t Barcelona, which makes the sale inexcusable—a rather condescending thought. At the core of the divide are two sides to the LFC fan base, both of which will interpret any story to fall in line with either their pro-FSG/pro-Rodgers or anti-FSG/anti-Rodgers view.
In my mind, the loan move makes perfect sense for all parties involved. Pepe’s save percentage the last few years has dwindled, he’s currently being paid £110K a week, and we just signed Simon Mignolet from Sunderland, who’s younger and at a similar, if not higher level than Pepe Reina. If you want a reason why Sunderland didn’t go down last season, it’s not Paolo Di Canio—it’s Simon Mignolet. Sunderland were 3rd lowest in the Premier League in goals scored last season with 41—just over a solitary goal per match. They conceded 54 goals in the Premier League last season, and Mignolet had 11 clean sheets. He was the main reason that Sunderland stayed up, because his saves allowed them to stay competitive in matches and salvage points. In the first nine games of last season, Sunderland’s only goal-scorer was Steven Fletcher. They scored six goals in the first nine games, five by Fletcher with one Demba Ba own goal, but they only conceded nine goals in that same span, coming away with six draws and a win. That’s what Sunderland had to put up with throughout the season, and Simon Mignolet enabled them to stay in the top flight.
Compare that with Reina, who had a better team around him last season than Mignolet. His form has declined since Xavi Valero left LFC in 2010. Yes, he kept us in games from time to time last season and made some rather important saves, but he did have his moments that cost us last season. Remember that goal he conceded against Arsenal that resulted from a point-blank shot right at him that he was unable to hold on to? What about the goal he conceded against Norwich away, which came from a rebound off of a soft shot that he really should’ve held on to? His howler against Hearts in the Europa League Play-off qualifier, a shot right at him that he was, once again, unable to hold on to? And, to top it off, what about that ridiculous goal he conceded against City that he conceded by being so badly out of position? He must’ve had more blunders last season than he had in the previous three, and these individual errors cost LFC greatly.
Reina deserves a load of credit for sticking with Liverpool through such a difficult period and for openly criticizing Hicks and Gillett during the summer of turmoil that was the 2010 offseason. But quite frankly, Reina isn’t the keeper he used to be. If Rodgers prefers Mignolet over Reina, then I trust his decision as Liverpool’s manager. That being said, if this proves to be true, I’d rather not have a keeper making £110K a week sitting on the bench, and believe that it would be in the best interest of both Reina (with the World Cup in 2014, he’s going to need plenty of matches to make the Spanish squad) and the club if he played somewhere else in this upcoming season. Since Liverpool consider Mignolet to be the starting keeper at the moment, a loan move makes the most sense.
The move also makes sense for Napoli, as Rafa and Valero have worked with Reina before, and got the best out of him at Liverpool, with his quality having declined significantly since they left. With Reina in goal, Napoli will have a reliable keeper in net with a wealth of experience who can act as a leader both on and off of the pitch. It also gives time for their new 23 year-old Brazilian keeper Rafael, recently purchased for €5m by Napoli after 114 appearances for Santos, to settle in to life in Italy before becoming the new Napoli #1 in 2014-2015.
Despite the clear line of logic leading to a Reina departure, Liverpool fans are still angry. They see Reina as the player he once was rather than the player that he is now. They see the move as one that simply saves wages rather than one that enables Reina to play elsewhere and allows us to move on and upgrade at the position. They see it as another version of us replacing Javier Mascherano with Christian Poulsen rather than it potentially being a modern day parallel of a young Bruce Grobbelaar replacing an aging Ray Clemence. It’s not that club isn’t grateful for what he’s done and doesn’t respect him as a servant. It’s that the club wants to try and upgrade from a player that was once great, but isn’t what he used to be despite the fans still loving him. Arsene Wenger has been doing that for a decade now, and last time I checked, they were a Champions League side.
The problem with football is that no matter how much the fans love a player because of what he’s done for them in the past, the job of the manager is to get the best out of the players at his disposal and do whatever it takes to win. At times, one needs to be ruthless and throw romanticism to the side in order to accomplish that. The sacking of Kenny, while incredibly unfortunate, is a great example of that, and also epitomizes what I call “The Liverpool Dilemma.”
Liverpool Football Club has a great history that it’s very proud of. The club also has extremely passionate fans who want to return to their days of glory. When people talk about LFC, they bring up the names of great players and managers who did fantastic things and built the club into one of the biggest in the world. Names like Dalglish, Keegan, Thompson, Clemence, Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Benitez, Rush, Fowler, Gerrard, Heighway, Hughes, Fairclough, and Hunt—that list of famous names synonymous with the club is almost endless. They bring up all of those famous European Nights, fantastic away days, successful trips to Wembley, and the trophies they’ve won. The fans are proud of their history and they embrace it, which they have every right to do.
The club’s extremely successful history, however, makes it tough for the current squad and coaching staff to work under realistic expectations. LFC fans want to see the club back in the Champions League, back in the title race, and back in every Cup final. The fans today think of being patient with a new manager as three months without scrutiny. They think that we shouldn’t have to lower our expectations because of the simple fact that this is Liverpool Football Club, and to expect anything less than the best is to be accepting of mediocrity, rather than being realistic and willing to adjust standards to fit unfortunate circumstances. LFC fans, much like the fans of every other club, embrace players that are successful for them and perform very well for them. That also makes it very tough for them to let go of players when they are past their prime. They view selling a fan favorite past his prime as the club not having respect for players who were successful rather than the club trying to upgrade. Liverpool fans view their icons in a light that makes them demi-gods rather than human beings with flaws.
Kenny Dalglish being sacked caused an incredible uproar from fans, and an even bigger uproar occurred when he was replaced with Brendan Rodgers, a manager who had only been the Premier League for one season. You also can compound that with the fact that Rafa Benitez was out of work, wanted the job, and was passed over. They view these acts as a disrespect for their history and icons. Dalglish’s tenure featured two Cup finals, three trips to Wembley and a trophy, but also a horrifying league form and the PR disaster that was the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra racism row. Yet overall, the fans were happy because Dalglish was in charge and the club was making cup runs like they had in the old days. At the same time, they were unable to say that LFC was progressing because they simply weren’t. A 7th place league finish doesn’t lie. All LFC fans had a decision to make: choosing between having their favorite personality ever in charge again or the club making a clean break with the past for the sake of progression. It’s like having a man be told by his wife to choose between her and his dog: regardless of which option you choose, you’re not gonna be completely satisfied with the decision you make.
With The Liverpool Dilemma, it’s tough for fans to view moves like Reina’s loan in a logical manner. But their passion isn’t a bad thing, and neither are their opinions or high standards. Sometimes, however, fans should try to be more reasonable about the current status of the club and be more supportive. The majority of fans won’t be reasonable any time soon, but that doesn’t mean those of us in the minority should stop crusading for logic. It’s not a hopeless fight. It just seems like it.
I’ve studied LFC fans on Twitter after matches a lot the last year or two. I’m not sure why, but my guess is that I’m just fascinated with how the fanbase reacts to bad results and other things that happen around the Premiership. Seriously, with all of the shit that fans spout after matches, I could write one really big fucking book on the subject (and I probably will).
Now, I always try to remain unbiased in how I approach my opinion on a subject regarding LFC. I follow a lot of different fans and journalists in order to get as many viewpoints as possible. It’s nice when we can focus on matters that happen on the pitch, such as our use of the 4-3-3, potential transfer targets, sales, you name it. But one of the main things that always seems to come up is criticism of Brendan Rodgers and, particularly, Fenway Sports Group.
When it comes to Brendan Rodgers, all I can say is this: we’re playing better football aesthetically, have a higher points total and goal differential in the league than we did last season under Kenny, and are improving as a squad in his first season. I believe that comparisons to Hodgson are unfair, and that he does deserve more time in charge of LFC. One year is not enough to judge a manager on, and to say otherwise is absolutely foolish.
As far as the FSG criticism is concerned, it never really sat right with me. As an American Liverpool fan who’s supportive of FSG, I’ve received a lot of unfair criticism because fans are still upset about how previous American owners Hicks and Gillett ran the club, don’t like how FSG are doing things because they apparently don’t spend enough money on the club, and believe that FSG will skin LFC and run for the money like Hicks and Gillett did. But is that really fair? I don’t think so.
Look at the club’s net spend the last two seasons. Almost £80m has been spent by FSG in transfer fees alone. That’s not to mention the massive wages given to players and the pay-offs given to the likes of Milan Jovanovic, Philip Degen, Joe Cole, and Christian Poulsen. Also, FSG have made progress on renovating Anfield, thus keeping the cherished history and lifeblood of Liverpool FC intact. The new sponsorship deals have made LFC one of the most marketable clubs in the Premiership, something that Hicks and Gillett always talked about but were never truly able to accomplish. Yes, the last few seasons have had results that were less than admirable, but this was always going to be a rebuilding process.
While I cannot vouch personally for whether or not John Henry watches football as much as Ian Ayre says he does, the simple fact is this: there’s no way the investment made by FSG is truly profitable if a new stadium isn’t built or renovated, and until that happens, it’s in FSG’s best interest to stay at the club and continue investing. Aside from Champions League clubs, nobody in the Premiership comes close to the investment made in the playing squad when compared to what FSG has done the last two seasons. Blame who you want, but they’ve ponied up the cash, and they’re trying their best. As owners of the Boston Red Sox, they won two World Series titles last decade, and turned the club into the only team capable of battling the New York Yankees’ payroll in the American League. FSG knows how to succeed in the face of giants, which LFC currently face in the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. They’re smart business people, and smart sporting men. They’re alright.
But having reviewed the last two and a half years under FSG, I can honestly say that there are some fair criticisms of the ownership group’s tenure at LFC. They’ve made a number of mistakes, which we will analyze now:
This isn’t their fault, but it does factor in to why LFC fans are very vindictive of them. I honestly believe that if FSG was any other nationality, LFC fans would not be as judgmental and vindictive of them as they currently are. Hicks and Gillett didn’t help their cause, and back when the ownership was being sold, if LFC fans had a choice between Singapore’s Peter Lim and FSG, they probably would’ve taken Peter Lim. Is that fair? Absolutely not. Is it understandable? Absolutely. LFC fans have already been bitten by an American ownership group and they have every right to have reservations about the current ownership group because of that fact. What I hate is when anger about the perceived failings of the current ownership group pours over into anti-American bigotry against myself and other American LFC fans.
Some fans who are critical of FSG have some decent arguments. Others do not. Here are some examples of LFC fans tweeting abuse to John W. Henry after he tweets about a CHARITABLE ACTION in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT school shooting:
The “Being: Liverpool” Television Series
I’m sorry, but this was total garbage. There were obviously staged scenes in this, there’s no true appeal to it, and all that it basically does is glorify preseason friendly matches and a trip to Belarus while making other things seem more dramatic than they truly are. I only watched the first two episodes, and quite honestly, I wish I could have those two hours of my life back. I really wish I had never seen those awkward scenes in Rodgers’ home, or when Liverpool players met Red Sox players. That’s completely neglecting the envelopes and everything else in that series that made me cringe. Honestly, there is no defending how awful that was, and I highly doubt that it was worth whatever money the club made from it. A poor job done all around that made a mockery of the club more than anything else.
Giving Kenny Dalglish the Permanent Manager Tag
Before you all start calling for me to be chopped off, hear me out. Look, I love Kenny Dalglish. I didn’t want him to be sacked, and I’m extremely grateful for everything he’s done for the club. However, his success at the latter end of 2010/11 was probably one of the worst things to happen for Liverpool FC in the long-term. He was brought in to replace Roy Hodgson as a caretaker, and the main goal of the appointment was to appease the fans and unify the fanbase. It was the right move to bring him in as a caretaker. That being said, we overachieved during his time in charge, and that created unrealistic expectations. We almost qualified for Europe because of our form during the second half of the season alone. Despite all of that, Kenny Dalglish was not FSG’s man for the long-term future of LFC. By giving Kenny the three-year contract and holding off on hiring a manager for the long-term, FSG set the club back a bit. They gave King Kenny and Damien Comolli £100m to spend (approximately £35m net) and let them sign who they wanted. The result? Overpaying for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, plus bringing in Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique. Everyone at LFC expected a quick return to prominence under Dalglish, when it was never going to be that simple, easy, or fast.
FSG released a statement at the close of the 2011 summer window saying that they expected a Top Four finish. Nothing about cup success or anything else, but only a Top Four finish. The squad played well the first half of the season, but then Lucas went down, Suarez was suspended for nine games, and Kenny was up shit’s creek without a paddle. He had no Plan B. Yes, we won the League Cup and went to the Final of The FA Cup, but we finished 8th with 52 points after spending £100m. I’m sorry, but that is just not good enough. Cup competitions are a crapshoot—hell, Wigan could win the FA Cup this year and still get relegated. It’s best to judge overall team performance on whatever competition yields the strongest XIs, the best teams, and the largest sample size. LFC’s 8th place finish in the league happens to be just that. If FSG were only going to give him one season, then it must be asked: why did they keep him on as permanent manager at all? His spending and lost 8th place season only set the club back another year when it could ill afford to do so.
The Luis Suarez Racism Affair
What else needs to be said that hasn’t already been said? Look, Suarez used racist words. By The FA’s guidelines, he broke the rules. Now, while I have a lot of problems with the written reasons, the evidence, the burden of proof, and a lot of other things regarding that case, the one thing that I am certain of is that LFC had a PR nightmare with this and handled it absolutely incorrectly. The club released statements that were very emotional at the time and not thought through, which made a very bad situation even worse. Liverpool was the only party that used the term “racist” in the aftermath of the verdict. The FA said that he wasn’t a racist and Patrice Evra said he wasn’t a racist. Liverpool tried to argue that the linguistics of the language made use of the word acceptable, which is completely besides the point. The club completely botched the situation, the media jumped all over us, and the club has really been unable to bounce back since this episode took place. When a situation of this magnitude gets fucked up, the blame falls upon everyone at the club, especially the owners.
The Insistence on a Director of Football and their Managerial Search
After the sacking of Kenny Dalglish, FSG insisted that whatever manager they hired would have to work with a Director of Football. This makes sense to Americans like myself, who are used to seeing this system used in American professional sports, as teams have a “General Manager” who makes the personnel decisions, and a Manager who fills out the lineups and works with the team on the field. This is a huge mistake that FSG made, as it cut into the pool of potential suitors for the position. FSG interviewed the likes of Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Martinez, both of whom told FSG that they would not work with a Director of Football. Many believe that Steve Clarke was also interviewed by FSG, which would’ve been an understandable appointment given his background. By that point, they accepted defeat on the issue, realizing how divisive it was, and decided to appoint Brendan Rodgers without a Director of Football. Rodgers replacing The King was not taken well by the majority of fans, with this arguably being one of the two watershed moments for FSG (the other we’ll get to later).
It also did not help that FSG, in the eyes of the fans, was not looking at premier candidates. The big name on everyone’s lips after Kenny’s sacking: Rafa Benitez. Still a hero to many on Merseyside, Rafa was unemployed at the time of Kenny’s sacking, residing in his Wirral home, claiming that he was waiting for a phone call from the LFC Board. Despite being a very controversial figure amongst the LFC fanbase, his supporters were very vocal about wanting him to return. When Ian Ayre was at Aintree, fans at the racetrack chanted Rafa’s name like it was March 2009. The message from those fans was clear: bring back Rafa. Other big name managerial candidates were being brought up as well. Fabio Capello, five-time Serie A winner, two-time La Liga winner and one-time Champions League winner as a manager was unemployed at the time, and had experience in England as the National Team’s most recent managerial failure. Dutch Legend Johan Cruyff claims to have called Liverpool with a plan to get the club back to the top, with FSG not returning his phone call. Ex-Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard was another name floated around. Yet FSG decided to choose Swansea Manager Brendan Rodgers over all of them after a two-week search. LFC fans didn’t like this, and understandably so. That being said, I think that they handled the managerial search relatively well. Could it have been done better? Yes. But they made a appointment who deserves another season to prove himself, as his long-term vision and undeniable progress made seem to be worthwhile.
Deadline Day of the 2012 Summer Window: Andy Carroll, Ian Ayre, Clint Dempsey, and Daniel Sturridge
Even to this day, I’m baffled by what happened in the last 48 hours of the 2012 Summer Transfer Window. I’m not entirely sure who to blame for it either. Everyone knew going into the window that we were targeting strikers. Everyone also knew that Andy Carroll wasn’t favored by Brendan Rodgers, meaning we’d have to sign at least two strikers by the end of the summer. In the last 48 hours of the window, it all went to hell in a hand-basket. Andy Carroll was loaned to West Ham, giving the club 24 hours to sign a replacement. We needed a goal-scorer, and everyone thought Dempsey would be locked up by then. We’d all heard the rumors, and knew that the club was interested after the NESN slip-up in July. Fulham, however, were pissed, and accused the club of tapping him up. When we tried to close the deal, offering Jordan Henderson plus £4m amongst other offers, it became clear that Fulham were not gonna give us a fair deal compared to Tottenham or Aston Villa, and Ian Ayre, fed up, refused to close the deal. We were also going after Daniel Sturridge, but Chelsea wanted £20m for him and we balked. Not having any other targets lined up for some reason, LFC’s window ended with only two first team strikers on the books in Fabio Borini and Luis Suarez, infuriating fans, many of whom saw this as LFC waving the white flag for this season. We eventually got Sturridge for £12m in the winter, but by then it was far too late for us to make a serious push for anything, and the season was effectively over before it even began.
Many still are furious with Ian Ayre over this, claiming that he shouldn’t be involved in transfer dealings at all. I cannot help but agree with this, to some extent. But that £8m we saved by not getting Sturridge in the summer and waiting until the winter could easily be viewed as what enabled us to get Philippe Coutinho. You could easily see that as justification of what happened and there being a method to the madness. But what seemed to be a one-off case of fiscal prudence and poor negotiation from FSG ended up sabotaging the 2012/13 season.
You could argue that FSG have made some mistakes. But they have also financed this club much more than Hicks and Gillett ever did. I do believe that they are trying to make Liverpool competitive for the long-term, and that they are learning from the mistakes they’ve made in the past. I know that isn’t much consolation to those out there who want to win trophies now, but I believe that we will be competitive again soon. Patience is a virtue, and both FSG and Brendan Rodgers should be given time to prove themselves. They’ve done more good than harm thus far (although many fans only see an exaggerated picture of harm), and should continue to bring Liverpool back to the top.
“They hate what they don’t understand.”—Sean “Diddy” Combs
I’ve never been good at math. Or at least that’s the attitude I’ve carried with me since 1st grade. In elementary school, my parents sent me to a tutoring center two times a week. I’d do endless sheets of arithmetic problems for an hour, and then go home and do more. My mental math was on point, but it always took me longer than the rest of the class to “get it.” I needed individual attention, but was often times too ashamed to ask for it. To this day, I still can’t do long division problems.
When you grow up with an affliction towards numbers, you get nervous whenever they’re presented in a decision-making situation. Adding up the change in your pocket at the deli counter isn’t easy. Simple accounting problems are stressful when they shouldn’t be. Deciding whether Mike Trout deserves to be MVP based on something called WAR, or choosing between Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie by comparing Chance Conversion rates equates to rocket science.
Although I’m never excited to do a math problem, I enjoy analyzing sports statistics. In 6th grade I started carrying a Baseball Prospectus in my backpack. I would pour over the annual additions of the mammoth book in my spare time—the book felt as close to the truth about baseball as any analysis could be. Full of advanced baseball statistics and player projections, it felt like the end all be all of the upcoming baseball season. Why even bother with watching games? Basebsall Prospectus already projected them. In my thirst for the truth about baseball, the “outsider’s” knowledge and perspective found in the Baseball Prospectus books felt indisputable, and it was all coming from guys who had never been on a scouting trip.
I believe there are plenty of sports fans and writers out there who take their “I’m bad at math” attitude and flip it into a dismissal of baseball’s sabermetrics, and soccer’s opta statistics. People are just afraid of the numbers.
Sabermetrics, which is a term derived from SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), have endured a decade-long battle for acceptance in baseball’s mainstream consciousness, starting with their grand introduction through Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball. (Not forgetting the two decades of work Bill James did before Moneyball was even drafted though.) Over the years, more telling statistics rooted in sabermetrics such as On Base Percentage (OBP) and On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) made their way into box scores and programs. These statistics are easy for any fan to understand and calculate, but still give more insight into a player’s performance than just batting average and home runs. More complicated sabermetrics were left for Baseball Prospectus books and blogs.
The crossing over of sabermetrics into the sporting mainstream peaked with a movie adaptation of Moneyball, and finally hit SportsCenter through the debate over the 2012 American League MVP award.
The 2012 AL MVP came down to two candidates: Los Angeles Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout, and Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Through no fault of their own, each player symbolically represented two different schools of thought in baseball—two schools which were infamously pitted against each other in Lewis’ Moneyball.
In one corner were “old school” baseball traditionalists. These writers and fans believed that Cabrera was the natural choice for MVP, because in 2012, he was the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs. That made him the first Triple Crown winner in over four decades, and in old school circles, a deserving MVP. He was the best player on a playoff team (Trout’s Angels failed to make the playoffs, despite only winning one game less than Cabrera’s Tigers), and achieved a season of historical proportions.
Across the debate were the nerds. Baseball’s statistical revolution, popularized by Moneyball, had revealed a bevy of telling metrics to analyze players with. The statistic at the center of the argument for Trout was Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a calculation for how many more wins a player contributed to his team than a “replacement level” player would’ve. According to FanGraphs, Trout posted a 10 WAR (the highest WAR by a center fielder since Willie Mays in 1964), meaning he was worth 10 more wins to the Angels than say, the Baltimore Orioles’ Mark Reynolds, who posted a WAR close to zero. Cabrera’s 6.9 WAR lagged behind both Trout and New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who’s 7.8 WAR was good for second. Much was made of Trout’s more complete impact compared to Cabrera. Trout stole 45 bases while Cabrera stole 4, and Trout’s fielding was regarded by observers and statisticians to be far superior to Cabrera’s. Cabrera may have been a better pure hitter in 2012, but Trout’s base running and fielding put him over the top.
Through a rounded statistical argument, it’s clear that Trout was a player overall player than Cabrera in 2012. But for many writers and fans, the debate started and ended with Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown win. The Triple Crown has been a distinction that’s become shrouded in mysticism and improbability. The likes of Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr.—the preeminent hitters of my generation—have all failed to win the Triple Crown. Although there’s no physical trophy for the Triple Crown, it’s an “award” based on three statistics that mean less in a world of sabermetrics, and it’s still guarded in tradition, nostalgia, and Cracker Jack boxes. Much of American baseball’s popularity and interest comes from its history, record books, and old-time lore. The Triple Crown is a part of that, and for it—for baseball’s past—to be defended as a significant part of today’s game, Cabrera had to win the MVP. He ended up garnering 22 of the 28 first-place votes from the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. Trout got the remaining six.
“Call me old-fashioned but, if you win the Triple Crown and lead your team to the playoffs, you’re probably going to get my MVP vote.” —USA Today writer Jorge L. Ortiz
Besides, who the hell knows how to calculate WAR anyway? FanGraphs gives a fairly simple explanation of the statistic and how it’s calculated, but still—anytime you wander into unfamiliar and potentially complicated territory populated by guys like Nate Silver (the statistician who perfectly predicted the 2012 Presidential Election state-by-state) you’re going to be intimidated and hesitant to accept something new and different.
When the traditional box score statistics of batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs, and stolen bases are being challenged, marginalized, and perhaps overtaken by something so superficially convoluted as WAR and a whole host of other advanced metrics, writers and fans who didn’t grow up with these new statistics are going be resistant to adaptation. They’re scared of the numbers because they don’t fully understand them, and as seedy old writers, they can’t be bothered to change. These are writers who are covering a sport that didn’t implement instant replay for umpires until 2008, despite the NFL using it since 1986, and the technology for it existing since the 1960s. The league and its media are the furthest thing from progressive. Yet the is future covered in data, which can be difficult to sort through if you’re not inclined to embrace something you don’t fully understand.
The same reluctance to fully embrace advance statistics in baseball is currently being played out in professional soccer. Up until a few years ago, there were exactly five ways to quantify a player’s performance on the pitch. Goalies were judged by their saves and clean sheets, defenders by their tackles and clean sheets, and midfielders and forwards by their goals and assists. With only so many goals, assists, and tackles happening per match, it was difficult to gauge a player’s value. How could a player like Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso, who plays in a deep-lying midfield role and doesn’t make many tackles, goals, or assists, have his impact quantified? There was no statistic for controlling the tempo of the midfield.
In the past five years, that’s changed. Opta, a sports data company founded in 1996, has seen its visibility skyrocket as access to their information has become more public. They track every movement in a match to sort out dozens of different statistics for players. They have an iPhone app so fans can observe Opta’s data, a website so fans can dig deeper into the data, and a Twitter account so fans can see the most preeminent data from match-day.
Now, stats like saves, tackles, clean sheets, goals, and assists no longer make up the entire profile of a player or club—they’re just parts of a bigger, more contextualized picture. EPLIndex.com gives subscribers access to 11 different types of statistics with further statistics within those types. For example, the statistics under the “Attacking” category are much more than goals and assists. Assists are cute, but they’re the RBI of soccer—it’s a statistic that’s dependent upon another player. They’re not an independent reflection of an individual player’s performance. A good pass into the right area must be made for an assist to be possible, but that pass is still dependent on another player to finish the movement and score the goal, and for the passer to get the assist. Why bother with assists when Attacking statistics like Chances Created and Clear Cut Chances Created truly measure the creativity of a player? Those two metrics give credit to the attacker for creating the chance even if the player on the other end of the pass doesn’t convert for a goal.
And is it enough to simply say that the Golden Boot winner is the best striker? What if it takes that striker takes an inefficient number of shots to score? According to EPLIndex’s database on April 12th, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez leads the English Premier League with 22 goals this season. It took him a league-leading 130 shots to get there, putting his Chance Conversion rate at 17% and Shot Accuracy at 48%. Meanwhile, Manchester United’s Robin van Persie has scored 20 goals, but only on 94 shots for a Chance Conversion rate of 20% and Shot Accuracy of 54%. While the goal count implies that Luis Suarez is the better striker, a more in-depth look at the opta statistics shows that van Persie’s is a more efficient, clinical striker.
When I first read Moneyball, it wasn’t the characters, stories, business methods, or introduction of sabermetrics that grabbed my attention. It was the notion of objective vs. subjective thinking in situations where it was possible to think objectively. There’s no objective way to discuss how good a hip-hop album is—your ears either like it or they don’t. It’s personal taste. But when it comes to sports, observing a player isn’t enough when objective statistics exist.
Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen may not win plaudits for his aesthetic play. Critics say he’s too small to be useful defensively, and he doesn’t to pass the ball forward enough to contribute to the attack. During any one of his matches this past season, it’d be easy to say that he had a bad game, because he doesn’t make the unlocking passes or the grinding tackles. He doesn’t catch the eye. But his statistics show that he’s 3rd in the EPL in Minutes Per Possessions Won, while boasting a 90% Pass Accuracy with 30% of his passes going forward. The eye doesn’t tell the whole story.
Much of the aversion to opta statistics by soccer fans and writers is due to an incorrect notion of the phrase “Moneyball” and what it means. Real Moneyball is when players within a market find inefficiencies in that market and exploit them for gain. In the book Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics, led by General Manager Billy Beane, saw that college prospects and fringe players who had good OBPs weren’t being valued as highly, so they exploited those two areas (among many others) to field a winning ball club.
When Liverpool were taken over by Fenway Sports Group (FSG), they were labeled by the media as soccer’s new Moneyball club. After all, FSG also owns the Boston Red Sox, who had won two World Series titles during General Manager Theo Epstein’s tenure. Epstein, a Yale University graduate, was known in baseball circles as someone in tune with sabermetrics and the ideals of Moneyball. FSG were seen as the owners to bring a Moneyball philosophy to Liverpool.
Shortly after buying the club in fall 2010, FSG appointed Damien Comolli as their Director of Football Strategy. In 2011, he signed Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson, and Stewart Downing for over £100 million in transfer fees. Except for Adam and Downing, all of Comolli’s signings were under 23 years old—such a tremendous outlay of cash for young players raised a few eyebrows, especially the respective £35 million and £20 million fees for Carroll and Henderson (Carroll’s was the largest figure ever paid for a British player).
Comolli’s new class of signings intensified Liverpool’s Moneyball label. There were two strands of logic behind the signings that connected them to Moneyball, albeit incorrectly. The first was the signing of young players for high fees in the hope that over the long-term, the lower wages and high performance of the players as they entered their prime would justify the price tag. Comolli signed Carroll, Suarez, and Henderson to be at the club (hopefully) for the next decade, and over a period of time thanks to debt amortization, those transfer fees would be seen as appropriate. Comolli was paying the price for future performance. He was treating his signings like a stock, buying early for a big payout down the road.
The second idea was the implementation of opta statistics to determine ideal transfer targets. In previous years, Liverpool had struggled to create goal-scoring opportunities. The signings of Henderson, Adam, and Downing were supposed to rectify Liverpool’s offensive woes. All three midfielders were in the Top 12 of the EPL’s Chance Creators from the previous season, and were all viewed as excellent passers and crossers of the ball. Their crossing, combined with Carroll’s outstanding heading ability (46% of his goals were headers—the second highest proportion in the EPL that year), and Luis Suarez’s dual threat as a creator and goal scorer should’ve made for an attacking juggernaut.
Although Comolli was exploiting exactly zero inefficiencies in the transfer market (promising young players and creative midfielders are always in consistently high demand. I’m not sure they’ve ever been out of favor), it was seen as a Moneyball approach, because he used financial techniques and opta statistics to decide on his signings. Writer Joe Hall for the popular website Sabotage Times wrote an article in April 2012 titled “Damien Comolli: Here’s Why The Moneyball Philosophy Was Never Going To Work At Liverpool.” It’s perhaps the finest example of the misunderstanding of Moneyball. He speaks on the film more than the book, and writes, “Football, however, is a vastly different sport to baseball and the sport is still some distance away from fully embracing the “moneyball method…to what extent can this model, of recruiting and deploying players based solely on statistical data, be applied to football?” (At that point in the article, I lit myself on fire.)
Through a misinterpretation of Moneyball‘s ideals, Moneyball suddenly meant using statistics to build a team—a gross oversimplification to say the least. In the case of the Oakland A’s, an undervaluation of certain statistical categories was the market inefficiency they observed. Because of that, statistics and Moneyball were lumped together. In a Bizarro Baseball World, that inefficiency could be quality scouting in a market dominated by only statistical analysis, but the principles of Moneyball would be the same. They’d still be exploiting an undervalued area for their benefit. Comolli did no such thing.
The Moneyball headline was further perpetuated when none other than Billy Beane sang his praises for Comolli’s work at Liverpool. In an interview with The Daily Mirror, Beane spoke about his friendship with Comolli, and defended the signings of Carroll, Henderson, and Co. With Mr. Moneyball himself publicly siding with Comolli, Liverpool was forever stamped as the Moneyball Club—a team built on statistics and clever accounting.
Comolli was fired seven months after the Beane interview. The season following his £100 million spending spree, Liverpool continued to struggle in front of goal, and languished to an 8th place finish. Comolli was lambasted for spending so drunkenly and failing to improve the squad, and soccer fans the world over instantly become skeptical of opta statistics. As it turns out, Carroll, Henderson, Downing, Adam, and Suarez, despite all of their previous metrics pointing to a new team full of creativity and goal-scoring ability, didn’t fit together tactically. The Chances Created statistic is useful, but unless the players are put in proper position tactically, they won’t be able to create. The supposed Moneyball Club built on numbers was undressed by tactical naiveté. The eye actually told more of the story than Liverpool paid attention to.
“You want to make sure you are getting more value than you are paying.”—Billy Beane on Comolli’s signings for Liverpool
Those who were initially skeptical of Comolli’s methods were vindicated. Don’t leave a number cruncher to do a football man’s job. Those who had admired Comolli (myself included) were left without a good answer—only tactical excuses. As was the case in baseball, soccer is now struggling to bring credibility to their own statistical revolution, because of the one-off failure of Liverpool’s falsely identified Moneyball Experiment.
In actuality, every EPL club uses some form of opta statistics and advanced data tracking to assess themselves and their transfer targets. They all employ statisticians and data analysts, but those departments are less visible than the one Comolli ran at Liverpool. Last summer, defending EPL Champions Manchester City open sourced all of their opta data from the previous season. Liverpool weren’t the only club to use opta statistics to build their squad—the title-winners were too, along with the other 18 clubs. On Opta’s website, they list the 122 soccer and rugby clubs they work with, including Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, the MLS, the Italian and Dutch soccer federations, and all of the United Kingdom leagues.
In the media and in our own conversations, there’s been extreme deference to statistics in both baseball and soccer. Both are old games tied to the cultures and histories of the United States and Europe. Both have been analyzed using only a handful of statistics and subjective observation. Both are two decades too late in their current implementation of instant replay. Both are controlled by an old guard—soccer by FIFA’s fossils in Zurich, and baseball by the Writer’s Association’s nostalgic hacks.
Many of the fans of each sport grew up looking at the same statistics: goals and assists, home runs and RBIs. Progressive thinking and new ways to evaluate players were always going to be held back in two old timer’s games, but a breakthrough is inevitable. The 2012 AL MVP discussion brought attention to WAR and the logic behind it—soon enough, we’ll be seeing WAR on baseball cards and in programs. Although Comolli’s Liverpool failed, the negative perception it gave opta statistics can only last for so long, especially as successful clubs like Manchester City develop their public databases, and websites like EPLIndex and WhoScored? rise in viewership.
Nobody ever won an argument in a bar by opening up EPLIndex’s database and running through Joe Allen’s possession stats. It’s easier to yell “he’s crap” and move on. Listing the WAR and UZR of baseball players never decided a water cooler debate at work. Triple Crown numbers are more familiar. I prefer to let the WAR and opta discussion play out in the one place they actually matter: the field. It’s harder to fear the numbers when they mean wins and losses.
After the Liverpool loss to Manchester United on Sunday, I was in a bit of a mood. I didn’t want to get up from my bar stool. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to do anything. I was upset. A loss always hurts, but when you lose to United, it’s much, much worse. As I watched Arsenal lose to City, I started to reflect on the last few months, and I couldn’t help but feel conflicted when evaluating where we are right now compared to where we were on 1 September 2012.
This was always going to be a rebuilding year for LFC. The majority of us accepted that after the massive Deadline Day fuck-up on 31 August, when Andy Carroll left and no new striker came in, leaving LFC very, very barren at the striker position for the next four months. Brendan Rodgers had been preaching for patience with him for months beforehand, but after Deadline Day, the certainty of a rough season was etched into stone.
What hurt was the fact that every Liverpool fan knew that they needed to add a striker in this window, and it was really the worst-kept secret in the Premiership that Brendan Rodgers didn’t wanna keep Andy Carroll, so two strikers would need to come in for the club to stand a chance. It didn’t really matter to me that LFC had signed Joe Allen, Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi, and Samed Yesil. It didn’t really matter that Nuri Sahin, a year removed from being Bundesliga Player of the Season in 2010-11, was coming in for a season on loan. As far as I was concerned, the club had just taken this season and flushed it down the drain.
Now, over four months have passed since the deadline day fuck-up. This season has been, for lack of a better term, a disappointment by Liverpool standards. As things stand right now, LFC is in 8th place, which is where they finished last season in spite of having a net spend of £20m during the summer. LFC have yet to beat a team in the top half of the table (however, it should be noted that Suarez’s Merseyside Derby winner wrongly disallowed at Goodison Park). LFC are out of the League Cup after losing to Swansea City at Anfield. They advanced to the knockout stages of the Europa League, but if Di Natale converts that last chance in Italy, they been knocked out in the group stage. To top it all off, LFC lost to Aston Villa 3-1 at home, a young side that has been getting demolished by clubs since our encounter with them.
Almost all signs on the pitch have pointed to this being a season of everlasting disappointment. And yet, I’m still optimistic. Why, you ask, would I still be optimistic about this club in spite of everything that has gone wrong? It’s because I believe that this squad is finally starting to come together as a unit, and we’re seeing improvement.
Suarez has had a tremendous campaign so far this season. He carried the load after Carroll had left and Borini went down. Keeping that in mind, Daniel Sturridge has come in from Chelsea for £12m. He’s looked solid in his first couple of appearances, scoring two goals. Borini has come back as well. Brendan Rodgers now have multiple attacking options up front to play with for the last half of the season. Imagine what’ll happen if Suarez can finally have a rest at some point this season!
In addition, the youth players that have come into the team are doing well, getting first team experience, and showing improvement. The likes of Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, and Suso have all stepped in and done well for LFC in the last four and a half months. All are under the age of 21, part of the LFC Academy, and have contributed for the first team during the season. Because of the fact that these players have gotten games this season, the club will benefit in the long-term. Yes, this LFC side does need experience, and from an outsider’s perspective, have put a very large emphasis on buying young players, but the fact that LFC is putting in a foundation for the future is something that should be admired and not derided by the fans.
To top it all off, the wage bill can still be thinned out, and when the last stage of wage bill slimming occurs, it will enable this club to make major moves in the transfer window and help us move forward. Before you all start on how John Henry, Tom Werner, and FSG are a bunch of cheap, useless piece-of-shit owners who don’t care about the club or its fans, I want you to keep an open mind when I lay out these facts:
In the last two seasons, Liverpool have averaged a net spend in transfer fees of £33,825,000. This season hasn’t even ended, and LFC can still increase that average.
Compare that to other clubs that aren’t in the Champions League: Tottenham have averaged a net profit of £13,500,000 in transfer dealings the last couple of seasons, Newcastle £5,000,000; etc. Nobody outside the Champions League Top Four comes close to LFC the last two seasons. The club’s current position suggest that it hasn’t been money well spent, but that’s not ownership’s fault.
The only Premier League clubs that have spent more than LFC in transfer fees the last couple of seasons are in the Champions League.
Yes, the wage bill slimming is a valid point when it comes to the finances of the club’s fees being offset by the big transfer fees. Yes, the bad buys under Dalglish and Comolli also have to be factored in. But the fact of the matter is that there’s no non-Champions League club in England that comes close to LFC’s spending on players in the last two seasons, and that still doesn’t include the new contracts handed out to Suarez, Agger, Skrtel, Suso, and Sterling, all done to keep the poachers further up the table from snatching the club’s brightest talent. LFC are not a selling club anymore, and they’re not afraid to be ambitious in the transfer market when the right targets are in line.
As far as the wage bill right now is concerned, things can still be improved. Joe Cole was sold to West Ham, offloading approximately £45,000 per week from the wage bill after his £3m pay-off. Sahin’s loan move was terminated on Friday, freeing up £60,000 per week for the next six months, which is reported to be exactly the wages that Daniel Sturridge is on.
Keep in mind that there are still moves that can be made to thin the wage bill. Carragher may retire at season’s end, and his £50,000 per week wages could go off the wage bill. Doni’s contract also expires at the end of this season, and he reportedly makes €4 million per season in wages. Coates is reportedly being allowed to leave by Brendan Rodgers, and Danny Wilson, who has gone missing since being signed from Rangers in the summer 0f 2010, is probably going to leave pretty soon as well. Dani Pacheco is also reportedly being allowed to leave. Downing could leave if LFC get a bid of £8million for him, which will also offload £80,000 per week (or probably £60,000 cause LFC have to give him a pay-off). Last but not least, West Ham are obligated to buy Andy Carroll for £17 million if they stay up, which seems very likely right now. Whether or not they try to decrease the fee is a different matter, but bottom line is that he probably will not return.
All of these moves would free up funds for Liverpool FC to use next summer, some moves more than others. With all of this in mind, should these moves occur and Rodgers is given the usual £30,000,000-plus to spend next season, the club will be a lot more flexible with who it can buy than it was in the last few seasons. This is rather exceptional when you consider the fact that LFC is a club currently in its third year without Champions League football, going on a fourth (but hey, there’s got a shot at that, right? No? Okay then).
If Rodgers uses the funds that he is given wisely, injecting the necessary experience into the squad that would go in conjunction with the young core he currently has in place, LFC can make a serious push at 4th place next season. But he needs to improve the squad next summer, and he has to start getting results on the pitch. If he doesn’t use the money wisely and signs the wrong players, then Liverpool FC is going to be resigned to mid-table mediocrity for the next five years.
As much as I love Suarez and truly believe that he loves Liverpool, he is a ticking time-bomb, much like Torres was. He will probably leave after next season if improvement isn’t clearly visible. While we’ll get a huge sum for him as a result of that transfer, his presence is something that LFC won’t be able to replace. There are more who can and will leave after next season as well. Pepe Reina could also leave if things don’t improve, and if he doesn’t, he’ll still be going on 32 years old at the end of next season.
All of the aforementioned moves are based around the fact that Liverpool FC, a club that prides itself on and sells itself to players and fans around the world as being one of the biggest and most successful clubs in Europe, has been out of Europe’s top competition for the last three seasons, going on four. If LFC fail to make the Champions League in 2013-14, it will mean half a decade out of the Champions League. It doesn’t matter how big a club you are, how many trophies you’ve won or how big a stadium you aspire to have: if you’re out of the Champions League for five seasons, it is something that very, very few clubs can successfully recover from.
That is why the summer of 2013 is so important. LFC need to build this squad up and start showing improvement when it comes to results in the Premier League. If LFC fail to do that next season, when the wage bill will be at a very low point and the club will be incredibly flexible with how much it can spend on players, they’ll will be set back irreparably as a result. Liverpool FC is not in as terrible a shape right now as some fans will lead you to believe. But results have to start coming next season, or LFC is gonna feel the consequences of it for years to come.
It’s been five years since Lucas Leiva signed for Liverpool from Brazilian club Grêmio. He’s lasted longer at Anfield than most of Liverpool’s current squad, three managers, and an entire ownership group. Brendan Rodgers will be Lucas’s fourth manager in as many years, but through all four of them, he’s been a first-choice option through and through. From Rafa to Rodgers, he’s been one of Liverpool’s most frequent members of the starting XI. He’s won the hearts of Liverpool’s endearing supporters (fans voted him as the Player of the Year in 2011), the trust of management, and the recognition of his country. Lucas is arguably Liverpool’s most important player, if not their most consistent.
It hasn’t always been this way though. Only three years ago, if you asked most of the Liverpool fan base whether the words “Lucas” and “Player of the Year” would ever combine in a sentence, they’d laugh you across the English Channel. Before his breakout 2010 season, Lucas was vilified. In a 2009-2010 season which saw Liverpool—a side that had nearly edged out Manchester United for the Premier League title the year before—crash out of the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Carling Cup, and out of the Top 4, Lucas was consistently blamed for the team’s poor performances. Rafa got the boot at the end of that season, and there would’ve been cheers across Merseyside if Lucas had too.
I participated in the public bashing of Lucas. On my YouTube channel, I blamed Lucas for everything that had gone wrong tactically. 2009 was the year Xabi Alonso departed for Real Madrid, leaving a gapping hole in midfield. Lucas was inserted to pair with defensive destroyer Javier Mascherano, and Liverpool struggled to score goals. In Rafa’s 4-2-3-1, Lucas and Mascherano were charged with holding down the fort defensively, allowing Steven Gerrard to link up with Fernando Torres up front. I only saw Lucas’s faults. Gerrard was leaving Torres isolated, seemingly to make up for Lucas’s inabilities in midfield. Any time Lucas received the ball, the pass was always either side-to-side, or back to the center back. He seemed nervous on the ball—an unsure dribbler. Or at least that’s all I remember of him—memories that are probably flawed. The Lucas-Mascherano axis proved to lack any eye in the attack, but instead of questioning the tactics of the partnership, I, along with many Liverpool fans, lay the blame at Lucas’s boots. It didn’t matter that he was in the starting XI every match as a 22 year old—fans had already passed judgement on a player before his time.
Alonso was gone, Lucas was in his place, and Lucas wasn’t Alonso. Fans joked that he was the “only Brazilian who couldn’t pass the ball.” Lucas had been signed in 2007 as an attacking, box-to-box midfielder. When the words “attacking,” “midfielder,” and “Brazilian” come to mind, people instantly think of Kaka—the best Brazilian midfielder the past decade. Lucas was no Kaka, no Alonso, and offered nothing going forward. So what was he?
It took Mascherano’s sale the next summer for Lucas to blossom. Although he featured in midfield with a rotating cast of either Raul Meireles, Jay Spearing, Christian Poulsen, or Steven Gerrard—whoever didn’t happen to be injured or ineffective at the time—Lucas was a beacon of light during Hodgson’s pitiful reign, and a straight-up superstar during Dalglish’s return. Lucas certainly got better from the previous season, but he wasn’t playing much differently. Lucas took Mascherano’s role in defensive midfield and made it a position of strength in his departure. Without Mascherano flying all over the park to foil the opposing offense, Lucas filled in, and did the same job with less recklessness and less yellow cards. He lacked Mascherano’s insane desire to fire at least one shot from 30 yards every game, while also possessing an intelligence in the passing game. He would single-handedly steal the ball, hold it, and spray it accurately to a more creative player all on his own. Last November, against an unbeaten Manchester City side, Lucas man-marked David Silva (the league’s most unstoppable creative threat) better than anyone had that season in a 1-1 draw that should’ve gone Liverpool’s way.
In 2009, people didn’t realize that Liverpool was playing with two defensive midfielders, neither of which had the passing ability to make up for Alonso’s loss. Instead of allowing Lucas to play his game, he was bemoaned for not playing Alonso’s. Our need for a scapegoat in a very trying season was filled by Lucas, who was unfairly casted as something he wasn’t. The blame cannot be placed on Rafa, who was simply making due with what he had given Liverpool’s dire financial times, and it cannot be placed on Lucas. Blame for that season can be placed upon Hicks and Gillett for running the club into the ground economically, but blame for the nasty, unwarranted scathing of Lucas lays at my feet, and the feet of many other fans. We unfairly judged Lucas, and all he’s done is go out and become a world-class player and a popular choice for the captain’s armband whenever Gerrard is injured. The mettle and drive of Lucas to prove fans wrong is admirable to say the least, and he’s been rewarded with love.
Fans would do well to learn from Lucas. Liverpool players like Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson have received the bulk of the criticism after their expensive fees netted an 8th place finish last season. Downing didn’t have the gaudy goal or assist numbers one expects of a £20 million player (he finished with an ugly zero in both categories), but he did finish top 5 among all Premiership wingers in “clear cut chances created” and top 3 at Liverpool (among remaining players) in “chances created.” As a team, Liverpool had a very poor chance conversion rate and finished with less goals than Norwich, Blackburn, Fulham, and Everton. Scoring was a team-wide problem, not just a Downing problem. Henderson was shunned out to the right side of midfield where he struggled for most of the season, eventually coming on strong once Lucas and Gerrard got injured, taking a spot centrally—his strongest area. There, he thrived in his role as a poised pivot player and a fine recycler into the attack, never really having the creative freedom he had at Sunderland.
In the case of Downing and Henderson, both have been scapegoated because fans weren’t satisfied on the surface. Eyes can be deceiving. They saw Downing’s lack of goals, assists, and man-beating pace as a “lack of confidence.” The same was said about Henderson’s lack of creativity in midfield, even though he was never tipped tactically to get forward. A “confidence” issue for a young player. (How “young” can Henderson be? He has the most starts of any 22 year old in the Premiership.)
Liverpool fans should learn from their mistakes in the handling of Lucas, and support Downing, Henderson, and the rest of the squad. It just takes a little bit of perspective to turn a “Lucas” into a “Leiva“—into “there’s only one Lucas.” To turn a scapegoat into a GOAT. From jeers to cheers. It’s easy to misjudge players when they’re misplayed, but it’s the Liverpool Way to dig deeper and encourage greatness in whoever wears the Red shirt. The same can be applied to any fan in any sport.
It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but every indication (websites are accidentally leaking links to purchase his jersey, NESN.com accidentally ran a story on the signing; etc) is telling us that he’s signed. Liverpool is probably waiting to unveil Dempsey in conjunction with the start of their US Tour this weekend. A shrewd piece of marketing there. Having his shirts available at the Liverpool-Roma game in Boston will be a big merchandising move for the American striker, and Liverpool. I’ll be at that game, and if Dempsey shirts aren’t available, then I’m gonna flip a shit.
Liverpool FC owner John Henry let the Borini out of the bag last night to a fan in America via LFC Boston. It’s not your usual source, but an LFC supporters group wouldn’t lie about this kind of information just for page views and followers. My thoughts below:
The Europa League began this week, so Greg hashed out the blessings and curses of the competition and England’s League Cup.
As a Liverpool FC fan, I can honestly say that I enjoyed watching the 2011-2012 Carling Cup (which will properly be referred to as “The League Cup” for the rest of this article because of the impending name change). Needless to say that us winning the competition played a huge part in my enjoyment, but even if we had lost in the Semi-Final or Final of the competition, I could honestly say that I enjoyed every single minute of it. From pummeling Exeter City handily in the second round to winning a phenomenal Final on penalties against Cardiff City, the entire cup run was, far and away, one of my favorite parts of the season.
However, The League Cup isn’t universally considered to be a major trophy by a significant amount of English Football. This is partially because of the competition’s relatively low Prize Fund; losing semi-finalists receive £25,000 apiece, the runner-up £50,000, and the winner £100,000. To put that in perspective, the FA Cup Prize Fund rewards £900,000 to the runner-up & £1.8m to the winners. In other words, Liverpool made nine times more losing to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final than they did for defeating Cardiff City in the League Cup Final.
Because of the competition being seen as a “Mickey Mouse Cup” by fans, managers, and clubs as a whole, some managers use it as an excuse to play a weakened side or give young players a chance to get first team experience. One Premier League manager who preferred for many years to play weakened sides in the League Cup is Arsenal Manager Arsène Wenger, who described it as a “non-trophy” in early 2010. His preference to play young players in the League Cup has been mirrored by other top-flight managers.
Another big issue with the League Cup is a relatively new perception by many that focusing on the competition has had a tendency to negatively affect results at the end of the season. This has been exemplified of late by Liverpool’s fall from grace after winning the Cup this season, in addition to Birmingham City getting relegated after winning it in 2011 coinciding with Finalists Arsenal going from title contenders to fourth place in the aftermath.
This belief that success in the League Cup has a negative effect on league form is very similar to another theory: that being in the Europa League has an adverse effect on clubs while in the competition.
The Europa League, known as the UEFA Cup until the 2009/10 season, is Europe’s second-tier cup competition. Founded in 1971, the format for this competition has changed constantly & drastically over the years, as UEFA has merged the “Cup Winners’ Cup” & Intertoto Cup into the competition, expanded the number of teams that qualify, the number of rounds, etc. for a number of different reasons. The Europa League’s current format consists of four qualifying rounds, a 48-team “Group Stage” (from which the top two teams in each group advance), and is closed out by four two-legged knockout rounds, the first of which contains the 24 teams that advanced from its Group Stage in addition to the eight third-place finishers in the Champions League. The last two teams remaining play in a 90-minute Final held at a pre-arranged “neutral” venue. The winner of the tournament automatically qualifies for the group stage of the tournament the following season.
Since being rebranded and re-formatted in 2009, the Europa League has, for the most part, been an entertaining competition. Teams such as Athletic Bilbao, Fulham, and S.C. Braga have made entertaining runs and reached the Final of the competition, defeating the likes of Manchester United, Juventus, and Liverpool on their cinderella runs. It’s a competition that produces entertaining football and gives the fans some enjoyable moments along the way.
However, the Europa League, much like the League Cup, has its problems. While most of Europe enjoys the competition and treats it seriously, clubs, pundits, fans, and managers in the UK view it in a very negative light, and consider the competition to be more of a burden than anything else. Playing on Thursday nights, half the time with kickoff being at 6 PM, isn’t exactly the most entertaining thought for clubs that consider themselves to be a part of the most competitive league in the world. The competition is shown on Channel 5, the UK’s least appealing basic network, a fact which was subject of a chant from United fans as a way of ridiculing LFC for the better part of the two seasons they were in the Europa League (“Thursday night, Channel Five!” repeated at nauseum). For the most part, the competition isn’t even shown on live television outside of Europe, with most hardcore foreign fans watching via internet streams on very sketchy websites, making the appeal even bleaker.
Playing on Thursday nights means having to play the majority of your league matches on Sunday, giving your side just Friday and Saturday to rest prior to a match against a league opponent. When you consider the fact that you might have to fly back from Lichtenstein for a Europa League game on a Thursday night prior to playing at Old Trafford in a league match on Sunday afternoon, it’s understandable why teams might not take the competition as seriously as UEFA would like.
The big problem with playing in the Europa League is the adverse affect it supposedly has on a team’s League form. By only having two days’ rest and enduring some long travels prior to returning home, teams supposedly suffer as a result of being in the Europa League. This is especially bad for clubs that are aspiring to get into the Champions League (such as Liverpool and Tottenham), as Champions League qualification in England is based almost solely on finishing in the Top Four. If you’re stuck in the Europa League and have a faltering League form, you’re stuck in this zone of mediocrity. It’s a ridiculous catch-22 in some people’s minds: By losing in the Europa League, you feel ashamed about getting eliminated from Europe’s second-tier competition, which could have an adverse effect on morale and an already mixed League form. But if you win, you have to keep playing in this second-tier European competition and risk fixture congestion and continuously faltering league form at the sake of winning a European competition which has a winners payout that’s equivalent of a Champions League Quarterfinalist that had to play 5 less matches to earn the same amount of money.
That’s the big problem with the Europa League today: the supposed “big clubs” have no incentive to go out and win it. The luster of the competition is not what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. It doesn’t pay as much as the Champions League does, and if you win, you seal a spot in next year’s competition, which is where you’ll probably play because your league form wasn’t good enough to qualify for the Champions League. With that, your cycle of mediocrity continues, and goes on and on and on until either you get lucky and somehow get back into the Champions League or fall out completely, which is even more humiliating and degrading than being in the Europa League.
So, all of the above in mind, the question must be asked: are the League Cup and Europa League competitions worth focusing on at the sake of sacrificing a club’s League form? Is either competition, in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, “A pot worth winning”?
The first answer to this, at least in my opinion, is that it’s relative to each club. If you are a club that has an ambition of getting into the Champions League, you play your reserves in those competitions and focus on winning in your domestic league. If you advance, then great, it’s a bonus. If you get eliminated, who gives a fuck? That’s the beauty of the League Cup in some ways: if you lose, some fans really don’t care, and if you win, at least you can say that you won one more trophy than the majority of teams that season (yes, Arsenal, I’m looking at you.).
In spite of the relevence of a competition to a club’s goals for the season being a major factor in determining whether or not a trophy is “a pot worth winning,” there is another spectrum to the argument that I can’t ignore, and that’s playing a weakened side just because you don’t give a fuck. Why in God’s name would any club play a weakened side and then have the nerve to charge fans for the right to come in and see the reserves play in a competition that you don’t care about? It’s horrifying. Obviously, exceptions to this rule do exist (e.g. Man United not charging season ticket holders for Europa League tickets as a part of their auto-cup scheme), but numerous clubs have made this such a regular practice in the Europa League and League Cup that bigger headlines are made when a club doesn’t charge for a match than when they jack ’em up, a fact which, as a sports fan, sickens me to my core.
Another factor that hurts is the lack of pride that a club portrays in playing a weakened side. It literally says to the opposition and the fans: “We’re sorry, we don’t care about this match, so we’re gonna send out the reserves to play this game, and if you don’t like it, then screw off. Also, if you’d like to buy a ticket for a match we actually give a fuck about, please go down to the box office after the game.” On top of that, if you get eliminated, it’s even more humiliating and degrading, because not only did you lose to a lower league side, but you didn’t even bother to send out a half-decent side. You didn’t even go for it.
That’s what hurt most for me when LFC lost to Northampton Town in the League Cup in 2010. Gerrard and Torres were both on the bench, and youngster Nathan Eccleston was handed his 2nd club cap (He has yet to appear in a League match and hasn’t been seen in the LFC first team since). Roy Hodgson put out such a poor side that he was essentially saying to the fans in attendance “We’re not even gonna bother advancing in this tournament. Thanks for your money, but we’re not sorry for being piss poor today against a League Two side at home.” What pride is there in that? That’s right: There’s none.
Look, I’d love to see Liverpool make it back into the Champions League next season, but I’m of the belief that every match, regardless of the competition, is one worthy of a full-strength side. We should be going into this season with the intention of winning every competition we’re in. Playing a few reserves in a match isn’t a bad idea every once in a while, and sometimes it’s necessary with injuries, suspensions, and matters that are out of a Manager’s control. But if I was told before last season started that I’d get to choose between seeing Liverpool finish Top Four or have a shot at a Cup Double, with no gray area in between, I would’ve honestly chosen the Cup Double. Because that means that the fans would get the chance to go to Wembley three times and have some fun along the way. It also would’ve meant two shots at winning our first trophy in six years compared to a single year in the Champions League.
The last season, while incredibly frustrating, was a lot of fun and gave me some memories I’ll never forget. A cup run, regardless of what competition it is, can be just as exciting, if not more exciting than finishing fourth. From Bellamy’s goal against Man City to Kuyt’s winner against Man United to Carroll’s winner against Everton, all three were cup moments from this season that put me and other Liverpool fans on Cloud Nine. We celebrated each goal like it was a goal that had won us the Premier League. Each moment made the fans happy. That’s why any trophy is “a pot worth winning” in my book, because at the end of the day, professional football would not exist without the fans themselves. When you win a competition, you win it for those people in the stands, not owners or sponsors or anybody else. I know that’s a minority opinion, and it’s old fashioned, but I stand by it 100%.