August 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm

No One Rates Us, We Don’t Care

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Liverpool v Manchester City - Anfield

Another season, another set of cliched soundbites in place of nuanced analysis explaining why Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers won’t be good enough. Last year it was the dearth of a Plan B, Rodgers’ idealistic naivety or the side’s inability to beat the top teams. This time around we have “won’t replace Suarez’s 31 goals with a marquee signing”, “only did well because they weren’t in Europe” and “doing a Spurs” as the go-to opinions for people who don’t really understand much about the game.

None of these doubts, either last year or this, say anything detailed or enlightening about what actually happens on the pitch. They are the anecdotal received wisdoms of fans spoon-fed things to think by vapid TV pundits. None of these ‘experts’ saw Liverpool coming last season. None foresaw Raheem Sterling blossoming into the outstanding talent everyone can now see he is, and not one of them said “maybe I just don’t know much” when Brendan Rodgers forced their predictions back down their throats. Instead we got attempts at revisionism: Rodgers changed his approach, and the lack of confidence was based on his prior methods.

Of this summer’s question-marks, two can be easily dismissed. The first is the idea that Liverpool’s success last season was simply down to a lack of involvement in Europe, and that the club’s participation in this season’s Champions League will expose the team’s true level. An obvious problem with this is that we don’t often see teams not in Europe using this to their advantage to fly up the league table. On the contrary, the rule tends to be that unless you are in the Champions League and enjoying the money and players involvement in the competition provides, 5th is the realistic limit of your ambitions. Of course, Liverpool were able to compete in the league with a smaller squad than they would have needed to compete in Europe as well, but the handicap of extra games this year is negated by the expansion of the squad. Which brings us to the second reason Liverpool will come a cropper this year.

‘Doing a Spurs’ might be more relevant if it were not for the fact that Spurs managed to record just three points less last season than they had the season before despite losing their best player. Three points less for Liverpool this season would see us finish on 81 points and almost certainly in the Champions League places again. On top of that, Liverpool brought in eight players including loans last summer, and have made only seven signings so far this window, with Alberto Moreno likely to join them. So if the influx of new players is the problem, then it’s a problem that didn’t do us any harm last year.

The loss of Suarez, however, deserves a little more consideration. The idea that ‘marquee’ signings are at all desirable is an ill-conceived notion that I’ve debunked in depth before, so for now I’ll just assume that we agree that what matters is a player’s quality and suitability to the team, not his price tag or poster-boy status. Neither Suarez nor Torres were certified ‘marquee’ signings when we bought them: if Suarez were we wouldn’t have been able to get him from outside the Champions League, and Torres was yet to score 20 league goals in a season and had only 4 international strikes to his name. Liverpool have never bought stars, (nor, really, have Manchester United or Arsenal) instead we have always made our own.

Of course any team will miss a player of Suarez’s individual quality; that can not be denied. But football is a team game and there are countless examples of sides losing star players only to carry on unhindered or even go up a level, sometimes unearthing a new star as they do. Ronaldinho was once considered the best player in the world, but just as he should have been hitting his peak he left Barcelona for Milan. Lionel Messi was already seen as an outstanding talent, but he was still a couple of seasons away from emerging as the world beater we know now. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Messi found another level in the absence of Ronaldinho.

While Arsenal’s inability to hold onto their best players has no doubt robbed them of greater success, Wenger’s side have repeatedly grown new heads to replace the ones shipped off to Manchester and Spain, with players who were previously only wing-men stepping up to take centre stage. While The Ewing Theory is not an exact science by any means, it exists because of the sheer number of examples of teams going on to do better having lost a star player, from Liverpool selling Keegan in 77, to Inter winning the treble in 2010 after the departure of Ibrahimovic, or most recently Atletico winning La Liga and getting to the Champions League final having sold Falcao the previous season.

What matters is how the team compensates and the psychology of the players asked to step into the void. If it goes wrong, the pressure of ‘replacing’ a departed phenomenon can crush a player, but this is more likely when one player is bought as a direct replacement for another. In not signing an obvious ‘marquee’ to fill the Suarez vacuum Liverpool may have been very clever. Adam Lallana was a target long before Suarez was sold and Lazar Markovic is obviously a player signed with the future in mind. Both will be expected to provide some of the movement and creativity Suarez has taken with him, but they will be competing for places with Raheem Sterling and Philipe Coutinho who are already in their strides. Both Sterling and Coutinho have been mooted by fans as Suarez’s natural successor and the sharing of that hype between the two of them spares either from the extremes of stifling expectation.

Liverpool will of course need another striker good enough to start big games if only because of Daniel Sturridge’s tendency to pick up injuries, but he only really needs to be able to put the ball into the net. In Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana, Markovic and Henderson (not to mention the youthful back-ups Suso and Ibe) Rodgers has an array of creative, technical attacking players whose movement will cause havoc in opposition defences.

It’s relatively easy to look at a player like Luis Suarez and see his world class talent (although this time last year stats ‘experts’ were arguing that Liverpool should take £40m for the Uruguayan for purely football reasons) but it’s far harder to gauge a manager’s ability to improve and adapt players, moulding them into a fluid system. Sterling’s brilliance is clear to all now, but just a year ago even many Liverpool fans were writing him off or calling for him to be loaned out. He’s improved a lot since then, but a brilliant manager or insightful fan can foresee and expect that improvement to come.

When you score 101 league goals you can afford to lose a 30-goal striker, especially if your squad is so young that individuals are likely to improve on their personal totals. Liverpool’s real issue lies in the defence, and failure or success will depend on the ability of Lovren, Manquillo the incoming Moreno and Emre Can in front of them to provide a more stable foundation than last year for the attackers to play from. Question marks remain as to whether Rodgers can coach a defensive block to the same breathtakingly high standards he has imposed in Liverpool’s attacking play, but none should be asked of his team’s ability to score goals, and with or without Suarez, creating chances will never be a problem for a side managed by Brendan Rodgers.

While pundits and stattos regurgitate the same basic and obvious opinions based on abstract numbers and names on paper, smart Liverpool fans increasingly believe in the fluid, intricate football philosophy of Brendan Rodgers and his ability to defy popular expectation. A year ago, going from 7th to within a whisker of winning the league was deemed impossible by the football establishment. Now those same people can’t conceive of a Liverpool minus Suarez doing the same again. Most don’t even think we will make the top four.

That should be enough to make all Liverpool fans confident.

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