Go Home, Football. You’re Drunk

As part of my ‘day job’ I recently had to write an article about the most common scores in football. Unsurprisingly, 7-2 wasn’t a score line that was all that high on the list of ones to look out for. It is therefore something of an odd quirk that, if you include pre-season matches, Liverpool have now been involved in three of them since the end of the last campaign. Sufficed to say that the 7-2 wins over Blackpool and Lincoln City were a lot more fun to watch than last night’s absolute horror show. Perhaps the craziest thing about it was that we were actually pretty decent going forward, as long as Roberto Firmino wasn’t involved. His brilliant ball for Mo Salah’s second aside, everything he touched resulted in our attacks dying where they stood and Aston Villa getting on the front foot as a result. Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah both played relatively well, so we could easily have gone in level with the Villans if the ball had bounced for us as it did for them.

That wasn’t to be, of course, and the manager and his players have rightly taken a shed load of criticism in the hours since the full-time whistle. In many ways, I actually saw last night’s result coming. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect it to be against Aston Villa and I wasn’t expecting it so soon after the season’s commencement, but when speaking to a Villa supporting mate of mine yesterday afternoon I said that I thought it was going to be a campaign full of mad and unexpected results. Last weekend Manchester City lost 5-2 to Leicester City, only for the Foxes to lose 3-0 to West Ham this time around. Manchester United’s 6-1 humbling at the hands of Tottenham came after the Red Devils had already lost at home to Crystal Palace. That Everton and Aston Villa are the only two teams unbeaten so far this season suggests that football is in a topsy-turvy place right now and I’m not exactly sure when it’s going to get back on its feet.

No Crowds Means No Pressure

It’s been only a few days since I published a piece on this site talking about how no supporters in the ground is actually fine from the point of view of those watching matches on television. Whilst I stand by what I wrote, it’s also fair to say that it can’t be a coincidence that the sheer number of mad games is coinciding with the lack of fans in stadiums. The chief reason, as far as I can see, is that no fans means no pressure. There are countless footballers we’ve seen over the years who were technically gifted but just couldn’t hack doing it consistently in front of supporters. Stewart Downing is one that springs to mind immediately, having arrived at Liverpool with a decent reputation after managing to perform well for, ironically, Aston Villa, only to crumble when it came to trying to do it in front of the Kop. The lack of supporters means that players that might not have had the mental strength to cope in front of crowds now don’t have those same fears.

The lack of fans in the ground also means that players can take more chances than they would have done in the past. Shots that they wouldn’t have taken on for fear of getting abuse from supporters can suddenly be attempted; passes that seemed too risky a year ago now seem like chances worth taking. There’s also the fact that players that feed off the crowd don’t have that impetus to keep them focussed. The bad news for Liverpool is that our team is one that the manager has built to feed off supporters, so the lack of them in stadiums means that he has to find a new way to inspire and motivate them. My main concern from last night is that none of the players seemed to be trying to inspire each other. If anyone doubted what Jordan Henderson offers as captain then surely those doubts must now have been all but erased. Virgil van Dijk is a better player than Hendo, but the former Sunderland man is a better captain than he’ll ever be.

Normality Is A Long Way Off

There are so many things going on in the world right now that must be buzzing through the heads of football players every time they take to the pitch. More than anything else, the ever-present threat of Covid-19 simply can’t be forgotten. If it wasn’t already in the Liverpool players’ minds then it will be after seeing a number of their colleagues come down with the virus in the past week or so. Not only will they be worried about how their fellow players are coping with getting Coronavirus, they must also be wondering if they’ll get it too. How did Sadio Mané and Thiago Alcantara catch it when they will have been following the same protocols as everyone else? Might they get it next? Could they end up taking it home to their families? Whilst these thoughts aren’t even remotely enough to excuse their performance against Aston Villa, they will be there constantly and will surely be causing them to be a couple of percent down from where they need to be.

With supporters unlikely to be back in the grounds in significant numbers for at least a year or so, normality is a long way away from returning to the Premier League. The good news is that if I’m right then there’ll be a significant number of equally weird results before the season is over and done with. The bad news is that there’s no guarantee that Liverpool won’t be on the receiving end of a few of them. The start to the season endured by Manchester City, the only team that many thought would be a genuine challenge to Liverpool’s defence of the title, might have meant that Jürgen Klopp and his charges felt that this would be another cakewalk of a season. Yesterday’s result proves that it’s going to be anything but that and if they want to be champions again at the end of the campaign then they’re going to have to up their game quite considerably. As a club, Klopp’s Liverpool has proven that it does well when things are a bit mad. This might be the season that tests that theory to its fullest.

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