Roy Keane said Liverpool were bad champions. For his era, maybe. Terrible champions from the time when Keane played. But now? Football has changed. These days the decline Keane finds so shocking is increasingly commonplace.
Even if Liverpool did not rise above their current eighth place, they would not be among the two worst defending champions across the last 10 seasons.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side have been accused of being ‘bad champions’ by Roy Keane
It is testament to the strength and openness of the Premier League that success is largely not sustained. Either winning the League takes too much out of a team, or the wider competition has increased vulnerability — but by Keane’s measure, there have been an awful lot of bad champions of late.
Keane’s final season at United was 2005-06, his first was 1993-94 and — whisper it — in that time the top of the division was not as collectively competitive as it is now.
During his Old Trafford career, the defending champions only finished outside the top three on one occasion — Blackburn, seventh in 1995-96 — and in 10 of 13 campaigns champions either retained the title or finished second.
This is not to say Keane’s generation had it easy. There were great teams around at that time — United’s Treble-winners, Arsenal’s Invincibles and, towards the end, Chelsea under Jose Mourinho — but they were not in such concentration.
We still think of the recent Premier League era having that same certainty, but the big two became a four, and now a six, or more.
One of the reasons the elite want historical status to count in UEFA competitions is that they are no longer sure of their place. It only takes one disrupting force to cause chaos.
Liverpool have lost six straight home games and are in a real fight to secure a top-four spot
Liverpool are having a poor campaign, Arsenal too — but Tottenham and Chelsea have recently enjoyed resurgence. However Leicester’s presence, if maintained, means three of them will probably miss out.
Between 1996-97 and 2012-13, so 17 seasons, no champion finished outside the top three and 15 came first or second the next season.
In the last seven campaigns, however, the average position of the reigning champions has been slightly worse than fifth. If Liverpool stay where they are, it will be nearer sixth. Take Manchester City away and it would be between eighth and ninth.
Jamie Carragher called the current Liverpool team ‘mentality midgets’, and that must hurt coming from a former player who still celebrates every Liverpool goal as if he scored it.
Yet, while there does seem to be a crisis of confidence at Liverpool right now, increasingly the mental and physical exertion that goes with winning the title seems to drain all but the very best.
Given the odd collapses around them, it is testament to the strategy of Manchester City as a football club, even more than individual managers or players, that they have managed to at least stay around the top, when not on it.
We think we can explain Liverpool’s problems logically. Injuries, obviously, and many in the same positions. The central midfield filled in to cover central defence, and that left both areas weaker. Then the replacements got injured, too.
Chelsea’s calamitous title defence in 2015-16 saw them finish as low as 10th in the table
The sheer number of centre-half pairings this season is staggering. Equally, Liverpool’s efforts in recent years have been close to superhuman: two Champions League finals, matching one of the greatest teams in recent memory step for step, then going again to wrest the trophy from them last season.
And Jurgen Klopp’s style of football is extraordinarily demanding. It makes sense that it cannot be maintained by the same pool of players, year after year.
Pep Guardiola blamed City’s decline last season — they finished second, but by some distance — in part on the absence of Aymeric Laporte. Liverpool have lost much, much more.
What then of the other champions who faltered? What of Chelsea’s 10th and fifth-placed finishes? In both cases, the managers got the blame. Antonio Conte fell out with the club, Mourinho fell out with everybody.
Yes, but why? Why did little spats mushroom as they did? Why did Eden Hazard disappear, why did a team who had looked so engaged suddenly desert Conte?
The same can be asked of 12th-placed Leicester, and Claudio Ranieri. These collapses were too dramatic.
Even the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson shouldn’t have sunk Manchester United to seventh. We can come up with explanations, excuses for all, but the common factor is the enormous strain of defending the title, in a League more competitive than its European equivalents.
It is harder to consistently thrive in a competition where teams regularly take points from each other. Manchester City have beaten Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool this season, but lost to Leicester, Tottenham and Manchester United; Liverpool have beaten Chelsea, Arsenal, Leicester and Tottenham, but lost to Manchester City, Leicester and Chelsea. It’s a bun fight. It’s carnage.
It is harder to consistently thrive in a league where teams regularly take points from each other
One of the reasons Leicester in 2015-16 and again this season — but also the likes of Everton, West Ham and Aston Villa — fancy their chances of breaking in, is that there are six elite clubs taking chunks out of each other.
It is not the same elsewhere. The last time a Bundesliga champion finished outside the top four the following season was Wolfsburg in 2009-10; for La Liga, it is Valencia in 2004-05; in Serie A, Juventus in 1998-99. In two of those cases the champion was an outsider anyway, a club that was not expected to maintain its supremacy.
In England, we watch as major clubs — Liverpool, United, Chelsea — win big and then immediately struggle, as if mentally and physically cooked.
This is an immensely hard league, unique in its way. Nobody would argue Liverpool’s title defence is anything less than a crashing disappointment. Yet bad champions? If that’s the case, they need to get to the back of a growing line.
HENDERSON IS MORE THAN TALK
Sir Alastair Cook said he never got involved in sledging. As an opening batsman, he explained, it was very unlikely he would survive the innings. Eventually, a bowler would have the last word. Knowing this, why engage?
It’s the same with goalkeepers. Why shout the odds in a position where one mistake spells calamity? Yet Dean Henderson has always been confident in his ability and has never been afraid to state his claim at Manchester United.
Many would have been resigned to an understudy role, or departed. Henderson fought for his chance and, with David de Gea on paternity leave, it came.
Facing Manchester City, the most prolific team in the country, was a huge test — but Henderson passed admirably. United may have one here; England, too.
Dean Henderson (pictured) has never been afraid to state his claim at Manchester United
GERRARD’S SUCCESS AGAINST THE ODDS IS MORE THAN A STEPPING STONE
If there were two teams in Scotland’s top division and the other one was Celtic, it would still be a difficult league to win. So nobody should decry Rangers’ title on the grounds of ease.
They had met Celtic five times the season before Steven Gerrard took over, lost four, drew one, and were down 14-2. The year before, six fixtures, five defeats, one draw and 16-4 to Celtic.
Gerrard has done a stunning job at Ibrox, without the stellar names once associated with the club. This wasn’t a revolution of the type steered by Graeme Souness, with players of the calibre of Terry Butcher heading north.
Gerrard has extracted exceptional performances from journeymen such as James Tavernier, who failed to make the grade at Newcastle and Wigan, and Connor Goldson, who couldn’t get in the team at Brighton.
And, it may be argued, this shows the standard of Scottish football — except Rangers have made reasonable progress in the Europa League, too, and have a pleasing style. It is unfortunate that Gerrard’s successes invariably lead to speculation about a long-term future at Liverpool, as if Rangers are nothing more than a stepping stone.
There were many who thought Gerrard was mad to take the Rangers job — including one here — that the club was destined to remain in Celtic’s shadow, its manager burdened by high, unrealistic expectations.
Steven Gerrard has done a stunning job at Ibrox but can achieve even more with Rangers
Gerrard has proved us wrong, he has made it work and the scenes around Ibrox at the weekend — while unhelpful given the pandemic — reminded the world that this is a big club with an impressive young coach.
Gerrard has done what his employers hoped — he has made Rangers matter beyond the confines of Glasgow. This isn’t about Liverpool. Not yet. Maybe not for a while.
Slavia Prague eliminated Leicester and are clearly a tough draw; but Rangers reached the UEFA Cup final in 2008, as did Celtic in 2003, and a run in the Europa League would further unleash Rangers’ potential.
Might there be young players in the English game who grew up idolising Gerrard and would jump at the chance to work with him, to play in front of passionate fans, perhaps in the Champions League?
Certainly this could be the next step, particularly now that Gerrard has shown the move is not a dead end. The FA should be watching, too. It is not just at Liverpool that Gerrard has unfinished business.
NOTHING IS A GIVEN FOR REDS
There was absolutely nothing in RB Leipzig’s first leg Champions League performance that suggested they could overcome a two-goal deficit against Liverpool.
Having said this, there is nothing about Liverpool’s recent performances that suggests they are a team to which bad things cannot happen.
Manchester United no doubt felt very confident having put five past Leipzig in their group game at Old Trafford, but went 3-0 down in 69 minutes, and were dumped into the Europa League when the teams met again.
It looked game over in Budapest last month; the way Liverpool’s fortunes are right now, however, at the same venue it could be game on. Particularly if Leipzig score first.
RB Leipzig could muster up a repeat of their second leg heroics against Man United at Anfield
HARTLEY AND BURNS NEED A DAY IN EACH OTHER’S SHOES
Alex Hartley says that Rory Burns did not understand her jokey comment during England’s defeat in India, which caused such a negative reaction on social media.
‘Nice of the England boys to get this Test match finished just before England Women play tonight,’ tweeted Hartley, a World Cup winner in 2017 who was reporting on the women’s match against New Zealand.
Burns bit, Ben Stokes and James Anderson, too. Hartley’s timeline soured horribly. One post wished her dead in a ditch. That’s the escalation these days. Misjudged little joke: death.
So, no, Burns clearly did not understand the disproportionate reaction his riposte could inspire — but, equally, Hartley appears not to understand why he might have been grumpy. It’s to do with pressure and expectation. Hartley played in a World Cup final, the pinnacle of her sport, but it is still a different environment to elite men’s cricket.
Put it like this. Matthew O’Dowd came 50th in the men’s marathon at the 2004 Olympics, but didn’t suffer the trauma of disappointment like his Team GB counterpart Paula Radcliffe.
Speed skater Joshua Cheetham did not treat his exit in the heats of the 2018 Winter Olympics with anything like the anguish that affected Elise Christie. The pressure on women’s cricketers is largely internal.
Alex Hartley (left) says Rory Burns (right) did not understand her jokey comment during England’s defeat in India
Win for yourself, your team-mates, your coaches, the country, the fans, for the journey you have been on, the work you have all put in — but if you don’t? Well, nobody is getting hung in effigy outside a pub in east London. Nobody is going on a bonfire as that November’s Guy. Mute the cretins on social media, and women’s sport remains sport.
For Burns, like Christie, like Radcliffe, the external pressure is a defining factor. That was probably why he was in no mood for levity. Having already got one on the field from India, he was no doubt imagining the almighty shellacking his mates were taking back home.
Phil Neville has never lived down a mistake he made at the European Championship in 2000; by contrast, Laura Bassett sliced the ball into her own net as England went out to Japan in a World Cup semi-final, and returned an inspiration. A holiday company paid for a Caribbean holiday to cheer her up.
A lot has been lost in translation here. If Burns knew the hell of sexist trolls, he would never have left Hartley open to them. If Hartley had experienced a tour in Burns’ shoes, she might have rephrased. It’s common ground. Maybe they should talk.
PARKER THE TREND-SETTER
Much talk about Scott Parker’s attire at Anfield on Sunday. It did seem a tad early for linen. Then again, if you’re Fulham manager and can beat Liverpool away, wear what you like.
Maybe draw the line at beachwear. Unless he wins at home to Manchester City, of course. Do that and anything goes. Even corduroy.
There has been a lot of talk about Scott Parker’s attire at Anfield on Sunday afternoon