I remember being sat on the sofa, December 19 2020, and texting my pal in the fourth minute after Taki Minamino opened the scoring at Selhurst Park.
He thinks Taki is awful and we have a running joke regarding his performances – so I found his early goal hilarious and let him know on WhatsApp. I’d previously offered him a £20 bet after the Lincoln game in which Minamino scored twice that he’d reach eight for the season – and he turned it down, worried the Japanese would hit that target from the bench. He’d regretted not taking the bet after the barren run Minamino went on from that point, so we had some craic regarding our latest predictions for Taki’s overall tally in 2020/21.
I didn’t so much as celebrate the goal, but laugh it off. Then, with one eye on the phone, chuckled as the second went in. Then the third, the fourth, the fifth. By the sixth and the seventh, half my attention was on other things.
What a spoilt arsehole, eh? How I regret not celebrating our beautifully worked goals with the passion their excellence deserved. What I would do to watch Liverpool cut through a defence at will right now… To see Bobby Firmino delicately chipping an onrushing keeper, Mo Salah finding the top corner with his left-peg – or Sadio Mane swivelling and thundering one in.
Against Palace, it looked easy, because it was easy. The players were in the zone. The zone is an abstract context but it absolutely exists in sport at all levels. It explains the situation where athletes can achieve their goals without thought or perceived effort. They’re so confident, practised and focussed that it simply, happens.
I used to play tennis to a half-decent level and the feeling of being in the zone is unrivalled. You know what’s going to happen before it’s happening and winning is just an outcome of all the fun you’re having. But when it vanishes, and you never know why it vanishes – it can feel impossible to find again. In fact, the harder you look for it, the further away it becomes.
On that day in South East London, Liverpool’s players were not burdened with heaps of tactical instruction about the perfect way to score goals in Situation A, or Situation B – they just knew it. They’d lined up in the shape so many times before and were enjoying themselves so much, it just happened.
In many ways, their performance mirrored mine as a fan. I was relaxed. Confident. Enjoying it without turning into a life or death situation – as I was last night v Burnley – as I paced the living room shouting manically at the TV from 25 minutes onwards – bemoaning every time a player controlled the football instead of passing it first time. No wonder the other half went upstairs to watch something else with her eyebrows raised…
Liverpool have hit a mental block that the statistics don’t fully explain. Since we scored v West Brom on December 27 (I’m ashamed to say I took that one for granted, too), Jurgen Klopp’s team have had 85 attempts on goal, that judging by the now common Expected Goals metric, should have warranted 7.76 goals.
Liverpool have accumulated 7.76(xG) since their last Premier League goal.
— The xG Philosophy (@xGPhilosophy) January 21, 2021
Another stats expert claims that according to probability, the chances of us not scoring in any of our past four matches is just 0.16%. This doesn’t count the dominance after Mane’s goal v West Brom without adding another, either.
— Grace Robertson 🏳️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) January 22, 2021
This suggests that football wise, meaning everything up until putting the ball into the back of the net, we’re doing our job…
Situations in which Liverpool have men in promising situations are being created, undeniably, but when you consider Newcastle, Southampton, United and Burnley, you can count the number of good saves the opposition keepers made on half a hand.
It’s a tired cliche that the hardest thing in football is the scoring bit, but when Liverpool were walking the ball into the net at Selhurst Park, or v Wolves the week previous, this didn’t seem to be the case. It felt like simply a result of football dominance. Keep the ball, get players in decent areas, goals will come – like a chain of energy. Cause and effect.
But since Mane’s Anfield effort against the Baggies, we’ve drawn blank – as I won’t count the FA Cup goals v Aston Villa’s youth team that even our players refused to celebrate.
Why? There’s been cries on social media for a tactical revamp – and even a transfer overhaul in the final ten days of this window. I agree we need a bloody centre-back, and I also want a centre-forward who can put his foot through a football, but this isn’t really our issue right now.
It’s in their heads. They’re bereft of confidence and the not scoring a goal thing has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are playing with a fear of failure. They are visibly worried from minute five onwards about the fact they have’t scored yet.
In a parallel universe in which Firmino’s late header v West Brom goes in and we win 2-1, maybe none of this happens. The confidence that this will have instilled gets us past Newcastle United and probably Southampton. We draw at United and stuff Burnley. The stats show this should have happened, but it didn’t, because the overthinking and anxiety around the penalty area has engulfed every player – and also Jurgen Klopp – to a man.
When Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side had a famously rough patch, he took them all out on a piss-up. The story goes that the players were baffled by the fact they were being rewarded for drab results, but Klopp told them he simply wanted them smiling again. They were not enjoying their football, and Klopp’s football is defined by fun.
(Right now, it looks more like the Arsene Wenger possession-ball from 2010 onwards that sent their own supporters into a frenzy from which I’m not sure they’ve yet recovered, based on their behaviour on the internet.)
The chances of a night out are obviously different at Liverpool, firstly due to the bastard-pandemic, but also because the squad consists of many teetotallers – but the point stands. They need to relax – they need to untense the shoulders and actually start playing football again like it isn’t a matter of life and death. The idea that Liverpool are not trying or giving their all is nonsense. They want it so, so bad. It’s just not happening and they can’t work out why – but it’s this desperation to score and the stress that not doing so creates a feeling of negative inevitability. A triangle of apprehension, angry analysis and a bad result.
When our tails were up and confidence was soaring at various points in the past two years, we’d have won last night, even after Burnley scored. They’d have known it was coming, we’d have known it was coming – and it would have came. We were in the zone. It’s how football, especially Liverpool football, worked.
Systematically, there isn’t too much wrong, which I know people will disagree with. Often, confidence and a vibe and a feeling can swing on a moment. It’s another tired cliche, but if one goes in off Salah’s backside, the cloud will lift.
Then, a loose-ball will fall to Mane who’ll scuff it into the corner, and it’ll lift further. Then, Trent will put the ball into that dangerous area between goalkeeper and defensive backline and Bobby will nod it in with a glancing header.
It feels like it, but this isn’t a million miles away. The title may be gone due to the results, but this team is not finished. Not by a long shot. They need a burst of luck, of belief and faith in their own brilliance. It’s a crying shame the fans can’t be there to give it to them, but such is the rubbishness of 2021.
Maybe our job is to ease our own tension, stress – and relax a little too. What will be will be, eh? They’ve given us some of the greatest nights of our lives, and they’ll come good again. It’s been horrible to watch, but I bet it’s been worse to play in.
And it might be fun to win the FA Cup instead, anyway.