The learning curve of title winning teams

Sometimes the difference between winners and losers comes down to the thinnest of margins. We learned this all too well in 1989 when Arsenal pipped us to the title on goals scored (tied on points and goal difference) after beating us 2-0 at Anfield on the last game of the season in the closing minutes.

Sometimes you wonder – what determines some of those slim margins? Sure, sometimes it’s mistakes and bad luck and moments of individual brilliance and tactical genius, but as often as not, it’s grit, determination, doggedness and cool-headed perseverance that provide the consistency that separates Champions from also-rans.

You may be wondering where I’m going with all this, but bear with me for a moment. I was taking a look over some tables from previous years and I came across an interesting trend:

  • In 1950-51, United finished second before winning 3 of the next 6 titles.
  • In 1972-73, Liverpool won what was to be the first of 11 titles in a 17 year period. The previous year we were in a 3-way tie for 2nd place in what was our first title challenge in 6 years.
  • In 1992-93, United won what was to be the first of 10 titles in a 16 year period. The previous year they finished 2nd in what ws their first real title challenge in over a decade (they were runners up in ’87, but hardly challenged as we sauntered to the title 9 points clear of them with 90 points).
  • In 93-94, Blackburn won the title, having finished second the prior year.
  • In 2004-05 and 05-06, Chelsea won the Premiership, having finished second the previous season.
  • Do you see the trend?

    Before becoming champions (and in several cases remaining at the pinnacle), all these teams found themselves on the losing side of some very close title challenges before developing the needed strength and resolve to go the distance the following year. (One last example: the Arsenal team that consistently fought with United in the 90’s were involved in a 3-way tie for 2nd place in 96-97, prior to winning the title in 97-98).

    Teams seem to historically need to learn from some very narrow defeats in title challenges before developing the strength and character to last the full distance in the race. It’s as if champions learn what it takes only after narrowly losing out.

    A few years ago on the way to the title, Chelsea churned out 1-0 victory after 1-0 victory on their way to their first title in 50 years. This year we’re seeing United do the same thing, while recently we have found ourselves losing 1-0 leads and drawing other matches 0-0.

    I don’t believe it is a coincidence that we seem to be lacking the mental toughness, resolve, determination and discipline needed to turn some of our draws into wins in what is our first title challenge in 20 years. I believe that although occasionally teams have managed to win the title out of the blue without previously having challenged at all (Leeds in 91-92 and perhaps Everton in 84-85), the vast majority of the time, champions only learn what it takes the hard way – through defeat.

    I’m not saying this to prepare myself because of some defeatist attitude regarding this current season. Not at all. I believe we are still in with a very good shot of winning the title, and I’m confident we can beat United at Old Trafford this year and push the race right to the end, and perhaps with a bit of luck and hard work, bring home number 19.

    However, aside from being really thrilled that we’re finally involved in a title challenge and taking confidence in the youth team we have and some of Rafa’s signings and alleged targets, I’m feeling more and more confident that our progress under Rafa is building towards not merely a one-off title win, but the sort of reign that previous Liverpool teams of the 70’s and 80’s have enjoyed for decades.

    BenitezI say this not merely because I’m optimistic about the work Rafa and co. are doing at Anfield right now, but because most of the players involved in this title race are young and will benefit greatly from this experience regardless of who finishes in May. Our current first team squad has an average age of 25.6 (Including Hyypia but not including Stephen Darby and others yet to feature for the first team this year), and has many playing years ahead to build on the experience and the lessons from this title race. At the same time, we are now at the point where we can start spending almost all of our yearly transfer budget on players of the quality level of Torres, Gerrard, Berbatov, Tevez, Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs, etc. – Players who through individual ability and moments of brilliance can transform matches and turn draws into wins.

    So although I think this could very well be our season at long last, I’m even more excited as I think about the next few seasons and look forward to the total domination that our current learning curve may well be preparing us for.