When I was much younger, I was a Football Manager addict.
I had a save with Rushden & Diamonds that took up most of my life, which in hindsight, is a strange way to spend your time when you’re paying thousands for an ‘education’ at university.
Those who know the game will be aware of how players are rated. There are three different sections: Technical, Mental and Physical.
For some reason, In therms of importance, I ranked them in this order, too. Technical skills, like dribbling, finishing and passing were what I regarded as the most crucial by some distance. Then I quite liked the mental attributes of flair, vision and composure, regarding the physical properties of speed, acceleration and strength as an afterthought.
Watching Liverpool lose 3-1 to Brentford on Monday evening reminded me how stupid this was.
Perhaps I would have got Rushden & Diamonds out of the Championship had I employed a few more bruisers who could fight, run and win their 50/50s.
It is odd though that a team in Liverpool, who were once the most physically impressive football team on the planet, could be so comprehensively outfought on so many occasions in one season.
And the thing is, you knew what was going to happen when you saw the team-sheet two days ago. Harvey Elliott and Thiago either side of a 29-year old (going 39-year-old) Fabinho; up against Brentford’s five-man midfield.
People castigate Jordan Henderson but at least he can fight, shout and lead. I’d take him as my second-choice midfielder right now behind Thiago, which is not even a huge compliment to him, but a damning indictment of the rest of them.
Brenftford won every duel that mattered at the Gtech Community Stadium. (How are we getting battered at a ground with such a name, eh?) The tone was set when Virgil van Dijk, now on the sidelines for some time, was left for dead by Bryan Mbuemo in the lead-up to Brentford’s first goal. Nobody would ever outpace him in the past, but he’s been passive and much less physically imposing all season. During the game, my friend in the pub turned to me and said, ‘He’s not that fast anymore, you know,’ and then I couldn’t help but notice how slow he actually looked. Maybe it was the injury he was carrying, but he’s not the defender who once outmuscled and outpaced Adama Traore at Anfield.
Liverpool had a team in 19/20 that outran and outfought everyone, that from the front pressed defences within an inch of their lives. That was the foundation of the attacking and defensive structure. Why was that abandoned? This side now don't run, don't fight, don't press.
— Neil Docking (@NeilDocking) January 2, 2023
Fabinho is less than half the player he was at his peak. He doesn’t run. He probably cannot run. Mo Salah is still great in moments, but often he’s isolated and receives less passes into the box. Salah will still score goals, but perhaps like Cristiano Ronaldo scored goals in his 30s – as his primary objective rather than as part of an exceptional team performance. That being said, Salah is not the problem – he’s just not quite as brilliant as he was at his very, very best – but apart from Alisson, none of them are.
We miss Sadio Mane’s ruthless speed and strength. We miss Roberto Firmino’s manic press. We miss Gini Wijnaldum’s hounding and smart interceptions. We even miss the way a younger James Milner would fly into tackles and set the tone for the nastiness our opponents were about to experience.
“Liverpool play 200mph with and without the ball,” then Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho said about us after we humiliated them in 2020.
“I am still tired to look at Robertson. He makes a 100m sprint per minute! Incredible.”
Robertson has been Liverpool’s best player since the World Cup, and the manner in which he made some overlapping runs in the second-half was about our most positive moment. But we need a team of runners. A team of scrappers. Eight men to carry the piano and three to play it. Why did we sign Fabio Carvalho? Where is he going to play for us? He is too small. Too fragile. No pace. It doesn’t make sense. Technicality without physicality doesn’t work for a team whose identity was intensity. That phrase from Pep Lijnders is looking increasingly embarrassing, given Liverpool’s performances this season.
Our weakness in the middle of the park and passiveness in the backline has led Liverpool to concede 52 big chances so far this season. That is more than twice any other side ahead of us in the table. If it wasn’t for Alisson, we’d be in the bottom-half of the table.
Many fans have blamed our league position on our finishing, but Darwin Nunez’s lack of composure in front of goal is a side-note. At least the lad can run and stretch opponents. Imagine how boring we’d be without him right now.
Sam Wallace in the Telegraph has speculated that much of this is the fault of Liverpool’s assistant manager Lijnders. He writes today that the Dutchman has had a big say on transfers and has earmarked another technical player in Matheus Nunes for the midfield this summer. He also explains how Lijnders takes many training sessions and has turned down managerial job offers to have an increasing influence on the Reds.
Come off it. Klopp is no pushover. He’s not being told what to do by his much-younger counterpart. Anything that’s going on at Liverpool tactically and organisationally will be because he’s part of it.
And every assistant manager in the country takes training sessions. Harry Redknapp, for example, didn’t take one in 20-years but would wait in his office to hear from his assistant how it went….
The reality is Liverpool have let a side grow mentally and physically stagnant. Pep Guardiola explained it best to Rio Ferdinand in the summer.
“With the same guys, it’s almost impossible. You have to shake. You have to move. After defeat, or win, we change. At the beginning, players accept things, but when they win, they accept less,” he said.
Klopp is loyal to his players. Maybe too loyal. His devotion to them and the manner in which the club has gone away from the tried and tested sporting director structure, where experts would decide when to move players on and who to bring in, has led to Michael Edwards, Julian Ward and Ian Graham leaving…
Now it’s Klopp and Lijnders, without much money, against the world.
It feels like the end of an era for the club, sadly.
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— 𝗚𝗲𝗿𝗿𝗮𝗿𝗱 (@TheGerrardWay) October 2, 2022