For the first time in five years, Liverpool begin pre-season training with the same manager as the summer previously. A staggering fact that could provide a key ingredient for the season ahead?
Football is our drug. Our first hit after eight weeks cold turkey (cold Liverbird even) will come against Preston North End this Saturday. We will plunge our addicted heads into the pre-season toilet bowl, desperately clutching for the dregs of stimulus and satisfaction. We need something, anything, to give us some insight into the season ahead and feed our cravings.
The football doctors will knowingly tut at you, pitying your drug ravaged foolery. They will offer a prescription of ‘results don’t matter-moxicillin and ‘all about fitness-atide.’ And you know what? They’re probably right. But my drug addled mind had a vision last night: a vision of the chequered history of the last four years in which, low and behold, the pre-season results actually gave a good indication of how each of those four early seasons unfolded. Maybe the circles that we find in the windmills of our minds can open the doors of perception and tell us something about the forthcoming football season after all.
Each of the last four seasons began with a different manager at the helm. However, they share the common theme of ending with failure to qualify for the Champions League. It makes interesting viewing when comparing whether four seasons which all ended the same, bare any resemblance to each other in the way they began.
The table below gives a simple breakdown, for each of the seasons, of the outcomes of the 6 games prior to the Premier League kick-off, and the outcomes of the first 6 games of the season. I haven’t referred to the pre-season games as friendlies because in all but the 2011/2012 season, the games included European qualifiers. Also, worth noting is that the first 6 games of the season include competitive cup games and are not just Premier League games. I wanted to look at the true form of the team spanning a total 12 game period rather than being selective and omitting less glamorous cup fixtures.
(*Prior to the kick-off of the 2010/2011 Premier League we only played 5 games)
Throwing aside detailed statistical analysis for a moment, a cursory glance at the won, lost and drawn columns will throw up a mixed bag of ones, twos and threes to your bloodshot eyeballs. Essentially, and particularly between 2010 and 2012, we started the pre-season by winning some, losing some and drawing some. Right on cue we then carried this patchy form into each of the seasons proper by winning some, losing some and drawing some. Indeed, in 2011 the general outcomes over a six game period were exactly the same before and after the Premier League season kicked off.
We have been inconsistent for four years now and have regularly failed to put a string of wins together. However, the one constant over that time has been that pre-season inconsistency has been carried over into the start of the real season on at least the last three occasions.
Why is this the case? This simple illustration below may give some clues:
We all know that we have started each of the last four seasons with a different manager. It is not a mind-blowing epiphany to say that such upheaval has been detrimental. But I think it’s only when you see those four names written down together that you fully realise how farcical the recent managerial situation at our club has been.
To put it further into perspective, if you count four managers upwards from the start of Shankly’s reign you’ll span over 31 years. Count 4 managers downwards from the end Benitez’s tenure and you’ll still span 19 years. This is an unprecedented time of change in our post-Shankly history. And a quick look at the representative points totals for the first 6 games of the season (i.e. points awarded to cup games as if they were league games) will show you the damage that this chopping and changing has caused.
You will see clearly that for 2 of the 3 managerial changes the total number of representative points in the first 6 games of the season declines. Whilst I do believe that Benitez is the best of these four managers, I do not believe for one moment that it demonstrates were our last four managers rank in relation to each other. For example, and for my own sanity I refuse to believe that the 6 points picked up by Rodgers compared to the 10 picked up by Hodgson demonstrates that Hodgson is the better manager.
However, there is a clear accumulative effect of changing managers in which each change is stacked on top of the last one forming a vulnerable, unbalanced, rocking tower.
Firstly, each change unsteadies the ship just that little bit more; everyone feeling that bit less confident and bit less secure each time we start again. Suffer from sea-sickness once and you’ll find it difficult to not suffer from it again. It’s all in your head.
Secondly, with each season that passes the hands of time tick by and we drift further away from the memory of regularly competing in the Champions League, and the vital belief that comes with it gradually dissipates.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that in Rafa’s last season the team was less affected by the same mixed pre-season form which afflicted all four managers once the season kicked off. Regardless of what you think of Rafa, that team had six years stability and a belief that they were a top four team that enabled them to simply shrug off pre-season patchiness (and an opening game defeat as we will look at in a minute) and put a run of results together earning 12 representative points. Fast forward four years and 3 further managerial changes, and that early season points total has halved as the winning mentality has been eroded and everyone ducks down wondering what shit is going to hit the fan next.
This early season decline was actually stemmed by Dalglish in 2011 who gathered the same number of representative points in the first six games as Hodgson did. Again if you consider the context there is a strong argument that this is all linked in with consistency. Our ‘new’ manager was the familiar Kenny comfort blanket we all wrapped around our shoulders, and which made us feel safe again.
Furthermore there was that bit of belief from a great run of form at the end of 2010/2011 season and the sheer relief that Roy had gone. All this helped to cancel out the uncertainty related to managerial change and create some semblance of stability.
Rodgers on the other hand walks in as the fourth manager in as many years. He takes over a team lacking belief after suffering a dreadful run of league form in 2012. The fan-base is divided by the ousting of a cup winning Dalglish and the refusal to re-appoint Rafa. And all this just as we thought it might be ok again. There was nothing to counterbalance that mixed pre-season form and we headed into the real season in a similar vein.
This may be a moot point, but below is a further illustration of how inconsistency snowballs and breeds further inconsistency. The table shows the result of the last pre-season game and the first game of the season which followed directly afterwards for the last four years.
Now don’t mistake me here. I’m not saying Rafa was more reliable and a better manager because if he lost a game you knew he would lose the next one too. I haven’t taken that much substance.
However, just look at how that unpredictability gathers momentum as each of the last 4 seasons progress. The results of two consecutive games grow further and further apart. Rafa loses 2 games on the trot, but as discussed earlier the team bounce back and have a better start to the season than they do under any manager who follows.
Change occurs with Hodgson and a final pre-season win is followed by a disappointing, but not devastating, draw.
Kenny repeats the same pattern.
And then by the time we get to our fourth change with Rodgers, a good win against Bayern Leverkusen is followed by the completely unexpected curve ball of the defeat to West Brom by three goals to nil.
So there is some meaning to the circles in your spaced out mind. They are the circles within circles spiralling downwards which represent the inconsistency of the last four years which in turn have bred further inconsistency. The words to the song seem an apt description of the last four years:
‘Like a circle in a spiral, Like a wheel within a wheel, Never ending or beginning, On an ever spinning reel, Like a snowball down a mountain, Or a carnival balloon, Like a carousel that is turning running rings around the moon.’
However, the end of this cycle may now be in sight.
During the second half of last season things settled down a bit and results steadily improved. They were far from perfect but certainly an improvement. And now for the first time in four years the manager who starts the season at Liverpool Football Club will be the same one who started the season before.
So, we should enjoy and consume this year’s pre-season fixture list like the recreational drug that it is. There may be some symptoms of niggling paranoia if we lose a couple of games. But don’t let it get you down. There are hopeful signs that unlike the last four years it won’t lead to the Class A, crack-addicted early season despair.
Everyone does their job properly, and it’s all set up for us to enter a period of significant footballing rehab.