‘Warning: if you are on anti-depressants, have them to hand while reading this article.
On 21 January 2021, 17th-placed Burnley beat third placed LFC at Anfield 1-0. It was a famous victory for them, and an unusually regrettable loss for us, as it brought to an end our run of 68 Premier League home games undefeated since 23 April 2017. The disappointment, however, was tinged with some relief – we could at least partly blame unavoidable injuries; we no longer had to face the incessant media scrutiny in trying to extend that remarkable record; and the loss had not been inflicted by either of our traditional rivals.
Thirteen days later, Brighton beat us at Anfield by the same score. Coincidentally, they were also lying 17th going into that game, fourteen places below LFC, but the result felt worse than the loss to Burnley. Why? Because it gave CPR to all those doubts in fans’ minds which Klopp had supposedly replaced with beliefs. They had not been eliminated - merely comatosed. Now they were awakened, as painful as ever, and were re-enforced by the subsequent loss to relegation-threatened Fulham, and draw with lowly West Brom, with Big Sam in charge as he had been in 2017. If we still can’t beat lower league clubs…. That was the nature of the crisis from the fans’ point of view, more than the actual results. Some writers and phone-ins to radio programmes forgot YNWA and verged on the irrational – ‘Klopp must go!’ ‘Sell all the players except the Scousers!’ I thought a few callers were losing it!
Unhappily present recently is the excuse ‘where have all the spectators gone?’ but I’m still not sure that Covid-19 is an acceptable reason for losing to such less well-endowed teams. At Christmas 2020, we were top, after all.
A commentator brilliantly summed up this problem years ago – it’s like Citizen Kane seeing Bugs Bunny take the Oscar.
Is our fear based on solid evidence, or is it just human nature, like reading a medical book and realising how ill we suddenly think we are? Beware of relying on superstitious behaviour, a sure sign of loss of confidence. Taunts about not being a ‘great’ team, until we have retained our title, fester away inside. How did LFC fare in the glory days – surely our fathers and grandfathers, with Hunt, Keegan or Dalglish, didn’t collapse when faced with lower-level opposition – and, if they did, how did the fans react?
The following observations are based on the relative league positions of opponents in the final thirty First Division, and first twenty-nine Premier League, tables recording seasons from 1962/63 to 2020/21. The simple assumption that a league position is an accurate predictor of success in the next game takes no account of goals scored, or points gained, particularly in the first few games of the season. Accordingly, emphasis has been arbitrarily put on those results which involve differences of at least ten league places at the start of play in matches between Liverpool and their opponents. This decision may err on the side of caution but, hopefully, it allows for little doubt about the outcome. Losing to a club five places below LFC can be attributed to many things – injuries, lack of form, bad luck with (i.e., incorrect) referees’ decisions, VAR, and so on, the general vicissitudes of the sport; but, despite being in a league in which ‘anyone can beat anyone’, we should surely not be losing to clubs ten or more places below us. So, when did we, how often did we, and why did we? Furthermore, how long did we have in those games in order to retrieve at least parity after their winning goal?
In the Premier League era, LFC’s table of shame is follows. (Initially, there were 22 clubs in the league, dropping to 20 for the 1995/96 season.)
Premier League places below us and number of times LFC lost at start of play
10 - 13
11 - 7
12 - 10
13 - 6
14 - 11
15 - 3
16 - 3
17 - 5
18 - 2
19 - 2
20, 21 - 0
Average losses were just over 2 per season; 15 were at Anfield, 37 were by a single goal difference. We have thus lost 37 Premier League points (over one per season) by failing to score just one more goal against these opponents, and 111 (over three per season) by failing to score a second one.
Furthermore, what happened to our mantra, ‘with X in the team, we’ll always outscore the opposition’? Well, Rush was there for eight of these games, Fowler for fourteen, Owen for eleven (two of them with Fowler), Torres for five, Suarez for six (including Wigan’s first ever win at Anfield), Mane for six so far, and Salah for four (three of them with Mane). Evidently, even God can have an off-day or two.
How long were we given to equalise or win after the opposition scored their actual winning goal in those 62 games? The average was half an hour left to play, with extremes of five games having under 5 minutes left (Coventry, Spurs and QPR scoring in the 90th minute) to eleven when we were beaten before the half time whistle (including Bradford on 13’, Coventry on 18’, and Stoke on 21’ ). The 2020/21 Burnley and Brighton results were therefore towards the bottom of the list – only fifteen others were worse since the Premier League began – but at least they had the good grace to beat us in the second half!
Why did we lose those 62 matches? Newsprint, airwaves and internet have been awash with their consequent reports, most of them as unbiased as you could expect to read for the purpose of analysis. They fall into two main categories – those which Liverpool should have won (in the opinion of the pundits, and based on how well LFC played) and those which we deserved to lose. Where did the fault lie – in our opponents’ stars or in our own?
One common explanation is that, by the very circumstances of the matches identified, many clubs had started to fight much harder than their league position suggests once they had fallen low enough to be facing relegation. (A few, however, feel themselves too superior an outfit ever to be relegated – Arsenal, for example, who beat us in 1992/93 while lying 21st to our 11th. Later in the same season, Everton won 2-1 at Goodison when they were lying 19th while we were 8th, their winning goal scored by Peter Beardsley! We lost away to MCFC two seasons later when they were 17th, twelve places below us. In 2000/01, 16th placed Chelsea, whose 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge included a gift from Sander Westerweld who punched it into his own net, enjoyed a first win in nine games.)
‘The Bounce’, that well known phenomenon in which torpid teams liven up when trying to please a new manager, is real, though not universal, and has been pinpointed as influencing the outcome of some of the 62 losses. Laurie McMenemy at Southampton, George Burley at Ipswich, and Joe Royle at Everton were credited with sparking life into moribund teams which we had incorrectly expected to beat with ease.
Another general theme - or perhaps excuse - is that we fall prey to lower-lying bogey teams, sometimes expressed as a bogey stadium or even city. Reports mention this aspect of Liverpool’s losses in games against Aston Villa, Coventry, Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough, Southampton and Swansea. By March 2021, some had added Anfield to that list!!! Rationally, of course, the previous record at a particular ground should make no difference, and we don’t want to start another argument about jinxes. It seems to be in the minds of reporters, if not the players, but written as an interesting comment rather than blaming it as a real cause of our losses.
Relatively few reports indicate that the responsibility for a loss lay mainly with our opponents, rather than being attributable to LFC. Is hustling an illegitimate form of defence? Only if you commit fouls when you try to knock Liverpool out of their normal rhythm of play. Is ‘parking the bus’ an illegitimate form of defence? Only if you do it with more than ten outfield players. Furthermore, the latter is an easily predictable tactic and therefore should be more easily countered. Ipswich, lying next to bottom, fighting for their lives in 1994/95, who had never before won at Anfield, and were facing both Rush and Fowler, erected a nine-man defence after scoring on the half hour, allowing LFC a total of 85 minutes of possession during which we failed to score. So much for obvious home wins on the pools. Ah, but wait a moment - John Barnes was missing from our line-up; now, if he’d been available….
If all else fails, managers can quote the players who were not available for selection, otherwise (we are supposed to infer) we would not have lost. Ince and Fowler were suspended for bottom-placed Barnsley’s 1-0 win at Anfield in 1997/98, so we had only Berger, Leonhardsen, McManaman, Owen, Redknapp, and Riedle to provide the goals. However, the 2020/21 loss of so many defenders, and subsequently of their replacements, is no joking matter. Another, curious, explanation for why we lose such matches is that the opposing goalkeeper was too good. This should be a cause to congratulate the winners, not to explain why we didn’t score.
How about blaming the referee, always popular with fans who are usually ahead of the reporter anyway? I’ve found only one game in which this was quoted as might have even partially affected the outcome – at Southampton in 1993/94 when the late Peter Foakes’ performance was mysteriously, and without explanation, described as ‘eccentric’.
A common complaint from lower, winning, clubs is that they are rarely praised for playing well – they see only reporters whining (or gloating) about how badly Liverpool played. Well, it probably sells more papers, or perhaps the reporters are trying to help LFC by pointing out our defects, though using words like ‘carphological’ (Everton game, 18 Nov 1995) might be a touch counter-productive. Euphemisms from managers, if taken at face value, give the impression that such help might be needed, and on more than one occasion an LFC Premier League manager has professed to be totally baffled by how his team lost – Graeme Souness after the Everton game in which Beardsley scored the winner, or Roy Evans at the Ipswich game above, for example. Luckily, the hacks were on hand tell them how.
Of course, managers can always blame the players, but I’m never sure whether fans prefer managers to blindly shield their players, or to let rip with their true thoughts. However, there have been many times when LFC managers had good cause to single out individuals, or specific sections of the losing team, and if the manager doesn’t do it, the commentators certainly will. Prime place goes to goalkeepers who make the goal easier for marauding hostiles by making silly mistakes. (Goalkeeping errors are more final, spectacular and memorable than those of outfield players.) We cannot exempt Alisson from this accusation, but villain of this particular set piece was David James who was red-penciled into dispatches seven times, the first against Wimbledon in 1992/93 after Souness had called the whole team ‘gutless mercenaries’.
The defence, from whom own goals and penalty awards usually come, does not escape general criticism. Midfield and wingbacks can be blamed for not providing the wherewithal to the strikers, evidently preferring to keep the ball themselves. More commonly, we are regaled with ‘missed chances’ which, translated, means ‘good football – pity we can’t shoot straight’ or, when we are on target, we have successfully aimed at the keeper.
How does the modern period compare to results in the ‘glory days’ of 1962/63 to 1991/92 (Shankly to Souness).
First Division places below us and times LFC lost at start of play
10 - 12
11 - 5
12 - 13
13 - 7
14 - 11
15 - 5
16 - 5
17 - 8
18 - 10
19 - 4
20 - 3
21 - 6
Average losses were 3 per season, 23 of them at Anfield, 54 of them by a single goal difference. We lost 54 Premier League points (almost 2 per season) by failing to score just one more goal against these opponents, and 162 (almost 6 per season) by failing to score a second one. Despite these losses being about fifty per cent more numerous than those in the later period, there were two seasons in which we had no such losses (1964/65 and 1987/88) and four when there was only one (1970/71, 1973/74, 1981/82, and 1984/85). Contrast this with the corresponding figures from the Premier League - two seasons again with none (2003/04 and 2018/19) but eleven with one such loss, and you begin to wonder whether life before 1992/3, the years under Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish, were all that consistently glorious after all. Our record against clubs in the lowest league positions was considerably worse than in more modern times.
Liverpool was given only fractionally more time (average 34 minutes) to avoid losing, with a broad spread of winning times. We lost 34 games in the first half, (compared with only ten in the Premiership), once to QPR in the first minute, and four others (Coventry, Ipswich, West Brom, and West Ham) in the first five minutes! Lapses of concentration allowed Arsenal and Bolton to win in the 90th minute.
How did the Kop react? Did they phone in with doom-laden messages beginning with ‘The end is nigh’? Did they stop buying season tickets? No. There are plenty of examples of crowd behaviour after a shameful loss when the Kop applauded David who had just beaten Goliath. Bottom of the table (and ‘bogey’ team) Leicester City won 2-1 and ‘the Kop cheered Leicester all the way to the tunnel’. That is a double-edged sword – the good sportsmen applaud good football, but in so doing the Kop tells the home team what it thought of them. In 1983, after a successful defence against LFC’s onslaught, (a defence which Phil Neal likened to Hadrian’s Wall), Joe Fagan admitted that he didn’t know how to combat it; the Kop gave Sunderland a ‘long ovation’. Later in the same season, Wolves were applauded after defending their eighth-minute, one-goal lead with ten men for eighty per cent of the game. Applauding a former LFC player is also a goodwill gesture much appreciated by the recipients – Jimmy Case, Emlyn Hughes, Jimmy Melia, and Gordon Milne helped their new, lower status team beat their old with no doubt excellent advice on how to do it.
I’ve found no First Division report which lays the blame on decisions by the referee.
Liverpool lost to 19th-placed Stoke in the glorious 1983/84 treble season
Detailing these losses suggests that, on the whole, the causes were the same as already described. Commonest cause by far was ‘missed chances’, opponents fighting to stave off relegation, goalkeeping (ours bad, theirs good), parking the bus, a new manager (or new players) for our opponents, a poor record against some, like Ipswich, Leicester, MUFC and so on. There are, however, significant differences, some of which will help to explain why losses to lower-level clubs were more numerous before, than after, 1992.
There’s no need to remind LFC fans that our First Division winning record was many times better than in the Premier League. Often forgotten, though, are the ‘Last Quadrilles’, the games we have to play even though there is nothing at stake when we have already won the title and are tempted to put out a weaker team. A good result in these matches is the avoidance of injury, a classic example being the 2-1 loss to bottom-of-the-table Bristol City at the end of the 1976/77 season, with the title already won and LFC in the Cup Final five days later.
Happily absent from the modern period is that old chestnut – blame the pitch. Two very different problems occurred which gave our opponents the advantage. A week before Xmas 1977, Upton Park was ‘almost a quagmire’ after two inches of melting snow and light rain. The game was played only after several inspections. Again, take one description of the game against Brighton 1981/82: ‘A steady downpour, a high wind, and by 3.10 the ground was cast into almost darkness….the midfield quagmire…became a paddy field… [causing] the ball to slither to a halt on the goal line.’ We lost because they sensibly played the long ball up the pitch, while we played ticky-tacky (or in this case sticky-tacky). That game was at Anfield!
In order to avoid such pitches when they clearly became a lottery, four clubs installed artificial surfaces in the early 1980s, getting used to the experience every other game. (A less obvious advantage was the income derived from loaning it out.) Astro Turf on top of concrete helped to take Oldham into the First Division, with others at Luton, QPR (which was the first to revert to grass, in 1988), and Second Division Preston’s lasting until 1994. They were removed in the belief that it had given the home team an unfair advantage, and were banned in England a year later.
Never forgetting – Hillsborough. Imagine, after all the physical and mental trauma of the event itself, ten of the squad who had been there on the fateful day seven months earlier were now having to concentrate on football, facing a Leppings Lane stand empty except for scarves and newly laid wreaths. We were top of the First Division yet again, facing Sheffield Wednesday, a side nineteen places below us. Dalglish could not gauge the effect the stadium had on the players, but any score in those circumstances would have been understandable. We lost – again.
Could this small measure of a club’s success contribute to the still-ongoing debate as to which was superior – the ‘70s and ‘80s for Liverpool or the final decades of MUFC under Ferguson? LFC’s last long period of ascendancy in the league was 1969/70 until 1991/92 (with 22 league clubs in each season) during which we came first eleven times and second seven times. In those years, we lost to clubs 10+ lower than we were on the day 65 times. In contrast, during MUFC’s ascendancy, twenty-two last years under Ferguson (with 22 clubs in the Premier League only until 1995/96), our rivals lost only 39 times to clubs 10 or more places below them. Clearly, they were more ruthless in dispatching smaller fry than we were.
Our present cohort, in the last ten years, have shown a considerable improvement, however, with one really bad result per season (none in 2018/19) except for slips into the old ways in 2011/12 (4), 2016/17 (5) and recently 2020/21. However, beneath all the drama with rivals at the top of the table fighting for places in next season’s Champions and Europa Leagues, LFC had, by early March 2021, fallen behind in the two foundations of a successful season - home victories and beating lower placed opposition - having lost to Brighton, Burnley, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham, and MCFC.
The four ‘slips’ in 2011/12 and five in 2016/17 were spread though the season; this time they were simply more concentrated and part of a wider malaise: lack of pre-season, injuries, injuries to their replacements, no fans to lift their flagging spirits. All bad things must come to an end, however, and after Crystal Palace and the amazing recovery, we have everything to look forward to next season.
Written by Colin Rogers for LFChistory.net