Within a single week, Liverpool seem to have have plunged into and then emerged from crisis. The uncertain performance against West Ham on Monday night was quickly corrected with a decisive, stylish win over Bournemouth and, suddenly, all is well again.
But why does this happen? In recent months, even the slightest missteps from these challenging teams have provoked furious over-reactions and, inevitably, prompted accusations about wavering mental fortitude
In the Premier League’s history, the Devon Lochs are actually very few and far between. Roy Evans’ Liverpool side probably should have won something substantial, but were denied by a host of imperfections, and Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa probably over-achieved in their pursuit of Manchester United in the early 1990s; they succumbed to a more talented team, rather than surrendering to an equal or inferior. The same could probably be said of United themselves, when they gave away a substantial advantage to Arsenal in 1998. Even then, though, with the knowledge of what Arsene Wenger’s side would become, could that really be described as an implosion?
Which leaves only Newcastle and the sequence of events which left Kevin Keegan ranting in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
The trend is clear. Previously, something would actually have to be lost to acquire that kind of reputation. Now, even a draw is enough for the chatter to begin: Liverpool have experienced that, Tottenham have too, and Manchester City’s loss to Newcastle was treated in much the same way.
Perhaps this reflects something deeper? Clearly it draws some of its energy from a desire to be provocative on social media, but it’s a trend which has also developed at a time when the distance between the Premier League’s elite and the rest has never been wider. It’s possible, for instance, that the current top-three will all finish with more than 85 points which, in many previous seasons, would have been enough to win the league outright. Given that Manchester City passed the 100-point threshold a year ago, that’s clearly no longer the case and, increasingly, even away from home the elite are expected to canter to victory against anyone other than themselves.
The implication, of course, being that any other result is a gross under-performance. Given the talent gap between these sides, it’s far too tempting to see intangible deficiencies within those results – to be unable to process them in a logical, sporting way and to reason instead that something incalculable lies at their root.
But there’s a caveat. The distance between these clubs, between the top-six and the rest, is always illusory. Yes, in relative terms, there are some measurable and substantial differences, but in terms of what’s required to author a winning performance, the margins are actually extremely slender. Ultimately, if the distance between these clubs was as advertised and football always rewarded literal superiority in the way it’s assumed to, then there would be little point in actually playing.
Bravery and resilience should never be dismissed as instructive attributes – of course not – but their importance must always be blended with a broad range of other factors. Conditioning and form, focus and personal circumstances, match-preparation and inter-squad relationships; no team has ever lost any game because of a single, collectively shared imperfection.
To believe otherwise is to be reductive and, in this instance, to misunderstand the complexity of winning and losing.