Fandom is a funny thing. It’s hard to tell what team or sport or film or actor or book or writer of which you may become a devotee. It’s also hard to tell what level of enthusiasm you’ll reach and if you’ll be able to maintain it. Everything changes over the years and interests and devotions tend to change, as well. It’s rare that you’ll be as fired up about any one thing from the day you start being a fan to the day you die. I’ve known people that claim to be consistent and I once felt that I’d be consistent, but life makes things difficult, at times.
For example, I was once a hardcore Michigan football fan. I knew every player on the squad, the incoming recruits, and could cite particular plays for almost every game I’d ever seen or heard. I was a fanatic. But the hypocrisy of the NCAA and the last couple decades of the team have made it much more difficult, to the point where I don’t find myself particularly interested anymore. The game has lost its magic because it’s developed past the current head coach’s comfort level and it’s rooted in a system that’s economically unjust. I’m effectively no longer a fan, of either Michigan or American football, in general.
Liverpool is different in that the game is still very interesting to me, I know that the players are being very well compensated for their talent, and I know that ownership is abreast of the latest developments in the game and wants to embrace them en route to winning trophies of all kinds. On top of that, LFC has always been an institution that speaks to my ethical perspective on society; thinking in particular of Bill Shankly’s assertion that Liverpool was a “socialist” club, because it was a club “of the people.” Now, those that have been priced out of regular attendance at Anfield would probably argue otherwise, but I think what he was referring to was the bond between the fans and the club, in general. There’s a passion there that isn’t always present at other clubs and I think it forms a large part of the Reds’ identity; an element of which I’m both proud and grateful for.
But, even then, it becomes difficult to keep pouring one’s soul into all things Liverpool, at times. I watched Make Us Dream tonight and found it really painful to think back on the events of four years ago and, even worse, to think about the enormous pressure that one of the club’s greatest ever players was under; not only from what he placed on his own shoulders, but from every supporter of the club that demands or expects victory every time the team walks on a pitch. This is what puts the lie to hoary old expressions about how one team won because they “wanted it more.” Very few professional athletes have ever made it to that level without having a certain passion for what they’re doing. Everyone at that level wants to and expects to win. In turn, everyone who is a Liverpool supporter wants to and expects to win.
So, when we go through stretches like the last couple weeks where we lose the chance to keep pace with City at Arsenal and then faceplant against Belgrade and execute what can only be described as a desultory win over Fulham, you start to wonder if all of the enormous expectations that everyone has will have a chance of being fulfilled and whether it’s worth staying engaged only to be disappointed again. This is the best squad we’ve had in a decade. Maybe the best since the late 70s. Maybe the best ever. And yet I feel fairly comfortable in declaring that Liverpool will not win the Premier League this season because even this best squad ever can’t compare to the consistency of Man City’s illegally-assembled cornucopia of talent. That means we’re now relying on the crapshoot of two cup competitions, FA and CL, to bring home some level of satisfaction in May.
That’s not to say that last season wasn’t exciting or worthwhile. The ride to the CL final was great and no one will ever forget Mo’s record-setting season. It was fun. But there’s still nothing sitting in the trophy case that says: “This is what we accomplished in 2017-18.” And it’s only more frustrating to have improved the squad by such marked degrees (Van Dijk, Alisson, Keita, Fabinho) and still be looking up at City and thinking that we just can’t match them over the long haul. So, if the majority of seasons end up in disappointment, why do we become fans? I think something my friend, Jon, sent to me a couple weeks ago speaks to it:
A Michigan Gaffer in King Arthur’s Court
I came to soccer late in life. At my inner city Catholic school, there weren’t soccer fields. There weren’t any fields. We bussed through two miles of concrete and asphalt to our practice football field. If we had a soccer ball, we played volleyball with it.
My friends and I loved sports. Hell, we were sports-obsessed. Baseball, basketball, football; we played and watched them all– a lot. You know, the “American sports.” Soccer was for South Americans with one name. It was a game that could end zero to zero. That scoring line did not make sense to us.
My soccer indifference held for sixty years. Then, I heard soccer’s call. I didn’t hear the voice of Sir Alex Ferguson or God or anything dramatic like that. I heard the voice while lounging in my lazy boy on early Saturday mornings. Many Saturdays, I’d flip on the NBCSN English Premier League feed to kill time before the “real” sports came on. And I heard it. What I heard was sport announcing unlike any other. The Premier League announcers were incredible. Brent Musburger couldn’t be a coffee boy there. Comments like “an equalizer from the meaty French forehead of Olivier Giroud” delighted me. I started to pay close attention and I fell in love with soccer’s continuous flow of play, the lack of TV timeouts, and the psychological build up of close games.
I embraced the EPL. I was like a kid with a new toy; albeit, an American orphan kid. Which team should I join? Any kid will tell you that you pick the team with the coolest stuff. The answer was simple: Tottenham. The Hotspurs. Nothing sounded more English than Tottenham. Hell, the name Tottenham is in My Fair Lady. Tottenham’s pitch is called White Hart Lane. Their patron Harry Hotspur drove his horse into battle by digging his spurs into the poor animal. Harry is in Shakespeare.
That was four years ago. Like my other favorite team, Michigan, the Spurs are good, but not quite good enough. It is my fate. Recently, I adopted Liverpool as my second team. The author of this blog, my EPL mentor, influenced me here. Reds are subversive. I don’t think Marc is a KGB agent, though he looks a little like Lenin. Still, it’s great fun to watch the Liverpool Football Club at a Detroit pub with Ozz, Marc, and other friends. We sing Liverpool songs and You’ll Never Walk Alone is a lifelong favorite.
I’ll end with the Tottenham motto: To dare is to do. I have no idea what it means. It sure sounds very profound and very English. As noted EPL commentator Arlo White said, “This is all scarcely believable”, but as for me, Marc and our friend, Ozz, we believe.
And that last bit is the key: to believe. When Klopp first arrived, that was what he stressed: that Liverpool fans had to become believers again. We had to believe that the team was capable of winning trophies and doing great things on a football pitch. We had to believe that success was there to be taken and not just that we were waiting for the other shoe to drop; another transfer of one of our star players, another mistake that knocks us out of a cup competition, another pile of money spent on a player who adds up to very little. The truth is, of course, that all of those things happen to all clubs at one time or another. We just focus on our foibles because Liverpool is our club. It’s the people’s club and we’re the people.
I think Jurgen Klopp is the best thing to happen to LFC since the run of dominance in the 80s. He’s emphasized everything that being a fan should genuinely be about. He doesn’t criticize his players. He overtly supports them, even when things go awry. He doesn’t lack passion (obvsly) to win the games but recognizes that not all games can be won. And, perhaps most importantly, he exudes a joy for life that is at the root of all games, all sports, and all human interaction. One of my favorite moments of this or any season was an interview with Maurizio Sarri after the league game against Chelsea this year, when he mentioned that, even when the Reds were down, 1-0, Klopp was on the sideline grinning as he shouted directions. When Sarri asked him why he seemed so elated, even when he was losing, Klopp said: “Aren’t you having fun?”
This is fandom. This is belief. This is why we’re here.
Two international breaks back (I think?), I was musing about the shift in formation that better suited Fabinho in the 4-2-3-1. It’s what he played at Monaco and it’s also what Klopp used at Dortmund, once he had all the pieces in place. I think bringing on the person that’s going to be one of our better midfielders is an advantage. That formation also allows us to use Shaqiri in a very forward, attacking role, which is his raison d’etre. Indeed, many of the highlights of play yesterday involved Shaqiri picking up the ball just inside the last third and dropping laser-targeted crosses into the box for Salah and others. More Cube is a good thing. However, I think the formation detracts from our production in a couple ways. Firmino as a false 9 was one of the keys to last year’s success. His role as the center mid behind Salah doesn’t really change the amount of ground he has to cover, but it does mean that Salah is often in the spots that Firmino would have typically run into. It’s also hard to argue that Salah looks better hanging out in the middle than he does running in from the right, getting that ball on his favored left foot, and arcing it into the net. Salah is more of a creator than a finisher and hovering up top, waiting for the ball to be delivered isn’t as much of a threat as it would be if that role were filled by someone like Sturridge.
OTOH, this may have been a more frustrating experience with that formation mostly because of the double pivot. I think Gini is OK in that role. I don’t think Henderson is. I think Henderson is still an excellent 6 in a 4-3-3, but getting out wide and coordinating with another distributor like Gini (or Fabinho or Milner) doesn’t (yet) come naturally to him. You could see the frustration building up before he was almost inevitably sent off. I think that had something to do with trying to neutralize Deeney all day (which he did very well) and the tactics that Watford were using in the middle, but I think it was also him trying to adapt to a situation that doesn’t really emphasize his skills. You could see that when Cube came off for Milner after the first goal and we shifted back to the 4-3-3, with Hendo as the pivot and Gini and Robot Warrior on the flanks. The flow through the middle changed significantly. You would be forgiven for arching an eyebrow at Klopp taking an offensive player like Shaqiri off for more of a holding player like Milner (I know; Robot Warrior is Robot Warrior and can do it all, really) when we’re only up 1-0, but it actually led to an improvement to the attack in some ways. I don’t think Watford was really prepared for the shift, which included the front line going back to the usual trio, and also both midfield and front line shifted back to the roles that they’d used in all of the previous season. So, it’s an ongoing process and the gradual development of Fabinho and Keita into the system will probably continue well into the new year.
One other note is the role of Mané. When he claimed the #10 shirt this year, he also claimed some of that role’s typical responsibilities in both formations. He’s dropping much deeper than he did last year and, in the 4-2-3-1, functioning as more of a midfielder when the Cube bombs forward. It’s been interesting to watch him in a role that requires more of his ball handling and retention skills, rather than just how quickly he can get forward to score. Klopp’s famous gegenpress has always relied on retrieving the ball as quickly as possible and Mané has never been particularly adept at that. He’s much improved and it provides other options for controlling the channels. The only “drawback” is that Mané always plays on the left in front of the fullback (Robbo) who needs less cover. Trent is still a little wobbly, at times, although he’ll only get better as he gets more experience.
City of Lightweights
Wednesday could be the crux point of the CL campaign. Although we were saved from the debacle in Belgrade by Napoli and PSG playing to a draw in the last round, it would really be nice to secure our passage to the knockout rounds by (snicker) possibly knocking PSG out of the competition altogether. I can easily imagine the caterwauling that would emerge from the ultras after seeing the Quarter Billion Dollar Man and his cohort dismissed to the Europa League. Like Juventus, PSG has been built to win the Champions League, since winning Ligue Un (or Serie A, for that matter) is kind of an afterthought at this stage. But it’s a tall order to make of the Reds, even with the likelihood of Neymar and/or Mbappe being unavailable for the game. Thankfully, we have a bit of a backup in the form of inviting Napoli to Anfield for the last game of the group stage. Solve our problems this week and Klopp can exercise whatever roster changes he wants to make against the Azurri.
Money, money, money, money…
As for the aforementioned Der Spiegel reports… how to say this? This is what the game is now. It’s about money, more than it ever has been before. The fact that the corruption reached to the top of UEFA is no different from it reaching the top of FIFA. A few massive clubs and their billionaire owners are willing to flout the rules to the point where the leader of UEFA protects them because he knows that a protracted legal battle won’t be practical. It’s the slow Americanization of the organizational rules. That’s absolutely what the so-called “Super League” (not those Super Leagues) would have been: the end of promotion-relegation for any club big enough to claim the status. One of the worst things about most American sports leagues is that there’s essentially no risk for the ridiculously wealthy owners. They can put forth a product that’s simply awful and know that there can be precious little in the way of repercussions because the revenue sharing in their respective leagues will keep their teams afloat. Oddly enough, despite FSG’s clear interest in that kind of arrangement (Liverpool was cited among the group of EPL teams that communicated about the international super league), it was that kind of incipient socialism that they just led a revolt against, when they convinced the EPL to reduce the amount of money that had to be shared by participants in the Champions League and Europa League with those who didn’t make it.
I think pro-rel is part of what makes Euro football interesting, even as a fan of a club that hasn’t been relegated since the 50s and likely never will be again. I think it would be an absolute boon to many American sports leagues (the Detroit Lions would long ago have been relegated to the third tier of American football, if such a thing existed.) So I don’t have any particular interest in this Super League concept. OTOH, I do have a decided interest in the financial shenanigans that both City and PSG engaged in to rise to the top of their respective leagues. As much as FFP rules can be seen as a way to keep the established order in place, such that a Man City or a Chelsea would never have been able to rise to their current positions under the “traditional” financing model, I do think there’s some merit to not creating a competitive model that is solely defined by money, in which a miracle story like Leceister City could never take place because there are too many billionaires crowding the top spots.
Anyway, more on that later.