Beware The Shifting Sands

Liverpool’s nineteenth league title should not be allowed to taint the legacies of those who tried and failed.

As regular readers of the blog will know, I spent a bit of time recently looking back over previous attempts by Liverpool teams to win a nineteenth league title.

Across 30 years of close-calls and outright failures prior to June 2020, the nearest the club had come was unquestionably the incredible 97-point total achieved under Jürgen Klopp in 2018/19. Not only did that team lose out to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City by just a single point, its performance would have been good enough to win 25 out of 27 Premier League titles going all the way back to the inaugural season in 1992/93. In fact, only Guardiola’s side had ever done it better than Klopp’s in the Premier League era, statistically at least.

It occurs to me that those seasons, as well as the teams and managers who crafted them, may undergo some historical revisionism now that Liverpool have not only won that long-coveted nineteenth league title but have done so in an undeniably historic fashion, namely: the earliest the top division of English football has ever been clinched (7 games remaining), and with records for the highest margin of victory and most points potentially to follow.

I’m not talking so much about the 2018/19 side, which has become the only Liverpool near-miss in three decades to come back and win it the following season, and will in any case forever be inexorably linked to the 2019/20 title victory by virtue of the fact that it’s essentially the same team. No, I’m talking about those who ultimately toiled in vain during the previous 28 years, at least as far as the league title went.

The Anfield Wrap’s Neil Atkinson, speaking on the 3inMidfield podcast recently, correctly pointed out that Liverpool supporters “have not had a miserable 30 years” waiting for number nineteen. That’s not only down to the fact that “they’ve won every other trophy you can win during that period, but also the efforts of Liverpool sides which ultimately ended seasons empty-handed but nonetheless gave their supporters the most wonderful days and nights along the way.

These were the teams, for example, who had us singing “and now you’re gonna believe us, we’re gonna win the league” following wins at Craven Cottage in April 2009 and at home to Sunderland in March 2014. These are sides who, at the time, were no different to the 2018/19 vintage, of whom Atkinson wrote the following last year following a 3-1 win at Southampton: “The Reds have the hand of history on their shoulders. It still may not happen. But they give us this. Like they have given us similar so many times this season.”

Coming back to win it at the second time of asking bestows many things upon the current team, one of which is potential greatness, but at the very least it guarantees that their story will continue. Most Liverpool sides since 1990 have been mere novellas in comparison, with endings that have often veered in tone between The Notebook (heartbreaking) and Fight Club (flat-out anarchy), even if some of the plot devices in between were worth every moment.

Now that the club has finally had its Shawshank ending with the Premier League trophy, it’s important not to re-write the legacies of those teams. Under slightly different circumstances, Liverpool might have been able to go one better under managers such as Roy Evans, Gérard Houllier, Rafael Benítez and Brendan Rodgers, just as they ultimately did under Klopp. That they didn’t, however, should never diminish what those teams gave us, no more than finishing 2nd last season should have diminished the memory of Liverpool’s 2018/19 Premier League campaign if the current side had gone no further.

* * *

The catalyst for this post, aside from revisiting those previous title challenges, is a school of thought most recently elucidated by the Anfield Wrap’s Paul Cope last Thursday.

It says that great teams are simply able to respond to the level of competition around them at any given time, so that if Klopp’s Liverpool had reached 105 points last season, City would have presumably found the necessary 7 additional points to remain ahead of them, and vice-versa this campaign. In this regard, Cope specifically referenced Manchester United’s 2006–2009 team, which won three Premier League titles in a row and a Champions League during that period:

The year we thought we came close under Rafa, 08/09. If we’d have got a bit closer, Ferguson would’ve just gone ‘well we’ll just get a bit better’.”

At face value, this reads suspiciously like a Liverpool supporter diminishing one of the best Liverpool teams of the Premier League era in order to lavish praise upon a Manchester United side, albeit in the context of comparing Liverpool’s current team to the best that Alex Ferguson ever managed to assemble at Old Trafford. Possibly by virtue of the fact that the club now has a winner on its hands as opposed to a mere runner-up, Liverpool’s 2008/09 title challenge, which meant so much at the time, is suddenly being tacitly squeezed into historical insignificance in the process. Enjoy the kids’ table Rafa, Nando and Stevie.

To be fair to Cope, he was referencing comments already made by his Anfield Wrap colleague Atkinson on the aforementioned 3inMidfield podcast, but his interpretation of those comments seemed more than a little wayward to me. For the record, Atkinson had said:

Liverpool get 86 points, 08/09, and United get 90, and there was a real feeling that United were at their limit. And I just sorta think that if that side had needed to get 97, it would’ve got 97, in hindsight and having seen this Liverpool team now.”

This is certainly a fascinating proposition. Inevitably, with Liverpool still in with a shout of becoming only the second team to crack 100 points in the history of English football’s top division, the conversation will turn to where they rate amongst some of their historical Premier League rivals, most obviously both of Manchester United’s three-in-a-row teams (1998–2001, 2006–2009), Mourinho’s back-to-back title winners at Chelsea (2004–2006), Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ in 2004, and of course Guardiola’s City team that averaged 99 points per season in winning back-to-back league titles (2017–2019).

Atkinson’s point is that every league in every historical time period has had a ‘bar’, a standard to be met for teams in accomplishing their season goals. The old cliché was that 40 points would keep you up, and it still rings true today. The title is no different, even if the threshold for becoming champions has fluctuated significantly higher than that of Premier League survival.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, 80 points was the gold standard: that total would have won you the Premier League in 1997, 1998, 1999, and got you to within a couple of points in 1996. In the wake of Roman Abramovich’s initial investment at Chelsea, that number spiked to around 90 points in the mid-to-late 2000s (90.3 the average total for title-winners from 2004–2009 inclusive), a total that itself wouldn’t have been enough in 2005 or 2006.

From an average winning points total of 82.7 in the first 7 years of the Premier League (1992–1999, some of which were 42-game seasons), the average for the next decade (2000–2009) was 88.3. The past decade, not including this season, has seen another slight increase to 88.9. If we take the last 4 years as a barometer, however, the current running average is 96, and that figure will go higher again unless Liverpool lose their last three games of the season.

The bar has unquestionably been raised by the arrival of Guardiola at City. Liverpool’s monstrous 97-point total in 2018/19 wasn’t enough, and it would have taken 101 points for anyone else to win the title in 2017/18. Liverpool are currently on course for 100+ points, and if you throw in the 93 points that Chelsea won under Antonio Conte in 2016/17, there is little doubt that a new standard has now been set: if you want to be a legitimate Premier League title contender as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, 95 points is pretty much the minimum requirement.

So when it comes time to make comparisons between teams from different eras, it isn’t really enough to simply say that Klopp’s Liverpool, should they set a new points record this season, are better than all the rest. Likewise, is City’s 100-point team of 2017/18 really 21 points better than Manchester United’s treble-winners of 1999?

Atkinson’s point is that it matters what standard the great teams of the past were planning against at the start of each season, and that if Ferguson’s team in 2008/09 had gone into the campaign knowing that 97 points was the minimum required, then they probably would have planned accordingly and achieved that total as necessary. And it’s certainly difficult to argue with that, given the quality of the team in question, although that may have also changed Benítez’s approach in terms of signings and tactics.

Nonetheless, in terms of the 2008/09 season specifically, it was never just a “feeling” that “United were at their limit” during the spring of 2009 — they were. It wasn’t a year “we thought we came close under Rafa” — we did come close. And it was never the case that Ferguson could simply say “well we’ll just get a bit better” as Liverpool closed in rapidly on his team.

The most successful manager in Premier League history absolutely would have done so had such an option been available to him, but the list of struggles that his team endured in successive games under the pressure of that title race in March and April 2009 strongly suggest that simply telling them to “just get a bit better” was not an option open to him:

  • 14 March 2009: Lost 1-4 at home to Liverpool, Nemanja Vidić sent off;
  • 21 March 2009: Lost 0-2 away to Fulham, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney sent off;
  • 5 April 2009: Won 3-2 at home to Aston Villa after trailing 1-2 on 80 minutes, with a 93rd minute winner from a 17 year-old debutant;
  • 11 April 2009: Won 2-1 away to Sunderland with another goal from the same 17 year-old, who would go on to score just another 3 senior goals in total for the club and has subsequently averaged 5.7 goals per season for 10 different clubs across an 11-year period;
  • 22 April 2009: Won 2-0 at home to Portsmouth;
  • 25 April 2009: Won 5-2 at home to Tottenham having been 0-2 behind at half-time, the comeback sparked by the award of a fortuitous penalty.

The above was the maelstrom of the 2008/09 run-in. By the time of United’s comeback against Spurs, Liverpool had already imploded at home to Arsenal days earlier and their race was effectively run. The title was eventually decided by 4 points, but it was never a simple case of going back up through the gears when required. Instead they dug in, desperately, a mark of a great team in itself, but quite aside from telling them to “just get a bit better”, Ferguson briefly lost all composure and publicly engaged in outlandish conspiracy theories with Sam Allardyce while his team struggled to stop the wheels from wobbling beneath them.

Ferguson’s greatest side, perhaps even the best of the Premier League era, in a season where they set club, Premier League and English records for consecutive clean sheets, in a season they entered as European champions having signed a marquee centre-forward (Dimitar Berbatov) for in excess of £30m, were forced to their absolute limit in holding off Liverpool. In the process, they were obliged to win 19 of their last 22 games from mid-December onwards. To suggest that there was any slack to pick up as required is simply wrong.

And that, to quote the one of the season’s most famous moments, is a fact.

* * *

The sense I get from the comments outlined above, particularly Cope’s, is that Liverpool’s 2008/09 team was simply being held at arm’s length throughout the season, flailing wildly at a vastly superior opponent that could have applied a knockout blow at any time. That is not only incorrect but desperately unfair to its legacy.

Their 86 points were, at the time, the most gathered by a Liverpool team in the Premier League era and the highest in any era since 1987/88 (a 40-game season). That total would stand as such until Klopp’s current team eventually surpassed it in 2019, a span of 31 years in total. It was the first Liverpool side to win 13 away from home since 1905, and lost the fewest number of games in 105 years. It had the best goal difference in the division and the fewest losses, and it took one of the best sides of the Premier League era to beat it to the title.

I would hate if a first title in 30 years now makes it unfashionable to hold that team, or indeed the 1996/97, 2001/02 or 2013/14 sides, in the esteem which they deserve: not historically great, for sure, but who said they needed to be? There are supporters of clubs who could never dream of doing what Liverpool have done in the Premier League over the 29 years preceding this one. Atkinson name-checks three (Sunderland, Scunthorpe and Doncaster): in reality, he could name more than 80 of the 92 clubs on the professional football ladder in England.

This blog might delve deeper into some of those Liverpool seasons in the future, but for now, suffice it to say that if a dominant league title win in 2020 somehow means that 29 years of near-misses are seen as some kind of embarrassment for which we’re now too cool, then shit…we’re in for a nasty surprise if history ever repeats itself.

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