Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

There’s a classic psychology experiment where a person is told that they’ll be given a hundred pounds (or dollars, or euros, or other currency) at the end of next week. The individual then starts thinking about how they are going to spend this unexpected bonus, and naturally they will feel good thinking that they will soon have enough money for a nice meal out at a favourite restaurant, or to buy some new clothes, or whatever it is that they have their mind set on. But, just a couple of days before the expected payment, the experimenter says, ‘œI’m sorry, but you won’t be getting that bonus.’ Of course that is terrible news, and the person feels cheated and may very well say so. ‘œBut what are you complaining about?’ asks the experimenter, ‘œYou’re no worse off than you were before so there’s no loss to you.’ The result of the experiment is that the subject feels really disappointed to have missed out, almost as much as if they had actually lost the same amount themselves. It’s the build-up of expectation followed by the let down-of the reversal that makes it so hard to take; and the bigger the build-up, the worse the disappointment and sense of being cheated. If only we didn’t have to face the same kind of situation ourselves right now.

When Rafa Benitez became the new Liverpool manager in the summer of 2004, many of us could be excused for wondering if he was the right man for the job. Could this man, who barely spoke English, come in from the Spanish League and somehow bring success to us in the Premier League considering that he had no experience and plenty of others had failed before him? I was one of many who were sceptical of his abilities, and I wondered why we hadn’t just handed the job over to Phil Thompson. Or, if it was decided that there had to be a whole new regime, then surely there was someone (such as Martin O’Neil) who would be a more obvious choice. However, I’m always willing to give the benefit of the doubt and if the board had decided that Rafa was the man for the job then who was I to disagree? What we wanted more than anything at that stage was to win the League ‘“ something we hadn’t done for fourteen years.

That first season started with a 1-1 draw, away against Tottenham. A bit of an anti-climax really but at least Djibril Cissé, our new record signing from Auxerre opened his account on his debut. After that it was a season of mixed results to say the least. We stuttered from time to time at home, losing 3 and drawing 3, but winning 13. Away from Anfield, we lost 11, drew 4, and won 4. It was obvious that our away form was really hurting us in that first season under Rafa, and it was equally obvious that we were nowhere near being a championship contender. The season finished with us managing a dismal fifth place with 58 points, one place lower and two points fewer than the previous season under Gerard Houllier. If it wasn’t for the heroics of the Champions League we would have been looking forward to the consolation prize of a season in the UEFA Cup, while our neighbours would be gloating over their qualification for Europe’s premier competition. Still, we didn’t realistically expect to win the League that first season; most managers would honestly say that it will take considerable time to make the necessary improvements for that. For example, when Gerard Houllier took over as manager he said that he had a five year plan and that we must be patient.

It was easy to see that we urgently needed to improve our away form if we were to make any gains for the following season. If we could just turn the losses to draws and the draws to wins, then we would have an easy twenty points or more, which would put us way up chasing second place. Beyond that, then who knows – we might even make a title challenge.

Rafa’s second season started with a scoreless draw away at Middlesbrough. We continued slowly with a couple of draws and only one win in our first five matches. That didn’t look very promising but we did start to pick up the pace after making progress in Europe (again). Once we started scoring goals away from home we found that we could win those away matches and by the end of the season we had managed to improve our home record with fifteen wins, one loss and three draws, and our away form had drastically improved with five losses, four draws and ten wins. That was enough to give us 82 points, good enough for third place and just a point behind second. That was a dramatic increase of 24 points, slightly more than what we had hoped for. We hadn’t just gained a place in the standings, as we did each season under Houllier, we had jumped two places. If we could do that again the following season then we would definitely be in title contention.

Rafa had already bought wisely in the summer transfer window of the summer of 2005, and had added another couple in January. Then, in the summer of 2006 he brought in more players and surely our prospects were as good as they possibly had been for some time.

But, it was another slow start and another series of disappointing performances, especially away from home, that now finds us late in the season in fourth place. After today’s dismal draw at Villa Park we have eight games remaining and a possible maximum of 78 points. That would be four points below last season’s total, and of course would be only if we win all of our remaining eight games.

Somehow, we have performed magnificently again in Europe, having topped our group and then knocking out last year’s champions Barcelona. If we’re not careful we’ll find ourselves in fifth place by the end of the season and hoping to win the Champions League again as the only way to qualify for next season. That scenario wouldn’t be so bad, and I don’t think too many of us would be upset if that was to be the end result of the season; but we wanted the League title more than anything else and it’s been clear for some time now that it’s not going to happen for us this time. The most frustrating part is that we took those two steps forward to third place at the end of the second season, and now we’re looking at one step back to fourth for the end of the third season.

I don’t know what the answer is, and to be honest I don’t think anybody can offer a simple cure. From what I’ve seen, mostly in our away matches, there’s a lack of enthusiasm. I don’t understand why but it seems as though the pace of the game is slower, the passes go astray more often, and the players don’t seem to know what to do and look confused. It could be fatigue, or it could be simple lack of motivation from knowing that the League is already lost. I just hope that Rafa knows what’s wrong, and knows how to fix it.

It’s easy to say that we need more players and especially some players of quality, but we know from past experience that they don’t always work out as expected (no names necessary, I’m sure you can think of your own examples). Our one consolation for this season is that we are still in the Champions League at the quarter-final stage, and we have as good a chance as anyone to win it all.

For me, this Premier League season is pretty much over. The remaining eight games are going to be of little interest other than the Arsenal match which could be the decider for which one of us finishes third and fourth. There’s more money at stake for finishing third, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not enough to worry about. Both the third and fourth place teams still have to go through the qualifying round for entry into the Champions League for next season, so does it really matter? Other than some pride the answer is no, not really.

Surely it will be better next season. I don’t think anybody would find the current situation acceptable, and there will be moves to correct that. Whatever Rafa does in terms of transfers in and out this summer (and I don’t expect there will be much activity there), it will be with an eye to improving the League performance as a priority. We have a core squad of players that will improve with time, especially Gonzalez, Aurelio, Arbeloa, Mascherano, Pennant, and Kuyt. It takes time for the new players to be ‘œbedded in’ with the other players and the team’s system of play, and Rafa will be intent on making it work. We also don’t have a World Cup to distract the players, and so this summer should be a well earned rest for all of them. With that in mind, we should see them coming back in July/August with renewed energy, ready to meet the challenges of the season ahead.

I don’t question if Rafa is the right man for the job, he’s given us enough over the first couple of seasons alone to be happy about, and I honestly don’t think that there’s a better manager out there. We have to be patient yet again, and trust that the performances and the results will come. But it’s obviously going to take more time. There has to be improvement next season, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. That feeling of expectation and then disappointment again would be too much to take.

Keith Perkins