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Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis
In Me ‘Ead, Son
31st October 2018 – I’m not sure I can keep doing these midweek trips for much longer”
They are the words I never thought I’d hear come from his mouth. But there they were, on a cold Wednesday night on the M6, spilling out as we made our regular service station pit-stop with a couple of hours driving to go.
He, in case you’re wondering, is Anil, a Kop season-ticket holder for almost three decades and one of the leaders of the supporters’ club I travel to Liverpool games with. He goes week in, week out, waves one of the flags before kick-off and absolutely adores being a Red. But he’s deep into his forties now and, understandably, he’s tired.
Travelling for long distances can be hard. It’s mainly sitting around and talking - certainly so on the coach we take from north London to Anfield and back - but nevertheless that can be draining. After a while you get fed up with it, as Anil was on the way back from Liverpool’s Champions League group fixture against Red Star Belgrade last week. We’d won 4-0, played some decent football, but now it was gone midnight and, as is always the case, our long journey home had been made longer by roadworks. Truth be told, we were all fed up; Anil was merely the first one to say it out loud as we took our mid-trip break.
Why am I bringing this up? Because it’s relevant in the context of the Premier League title race, and specifically in regards to the potential fortunes and failings of Liverpool and Manchester City in the coming weeks.
Following City’s 1-0 win against Tottenham - a decent game that took place on a less-than-decent pitch - Simon and I engaged in a somewhat spiky Twitter conversation. Without going into the details, I thought he was taking the piss and he insisted he wasn’t. Anyway, it led to Simon pointing out that for Liverpool, four of the next five games in all competitions are away from home while for City, four of the next five are at home. This led to a bit more spikiness as I questioned why the need to include non-Premier League games in a conversation that was about the Premier League title race, to which he said something that got me thinking. “Because away trips to the continent have an influence.”
He’s right - they do. It’s the travelling, you see. It takes it out of you. Leaves you feeling fed up.
Now, of course, when it comes to the effect travelling has on the brain and the body, there’s a big difference between a bunch of out-of-shape and overly-stressed blokes going up and down the motorway in a glorified mini-bus and a group of highly-trained and perfectly-prepared athletes flying first-class, but travelling is travelling. Some form of negative impact is inevitable.
Ask Virgil van Dijk, James Milner or Sadio Mane if they’d rather play a series of games in early winter home or away and I’m sure they’d go for the former, especially given the furthest their main rivals for the title have to travel between now and the 24th November is east London. No early check-ins for Pep’s boys. No sitting on a plane, which even at its most comfortable can be a bit of an annoyance, or training and resting in completely unfamiliar surroundings. All those awkward and influential variables have been taken out of the reckoning for City as they look ahead to games against Fulham in the Carabao Cup, Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League and Southampton, Manchester United and West Ham in the league.
Liverpool, meanwhile, go to in-form Arsenal at the weekend before travelling to Belgrade for the return game against Red Star. There then follows a home game against Fulham before away fixtures against Watford and Paris Saint-Germain. Belgrade aside, none of those trips are particularly taxing but they are trips nonetheless, quite literally taking Liverpool out of their comfort zone for the best part of four weeks.
I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit of a concern given how relentless City have been so far this season. At times they’ve been incredible while on other occasions, such as at Wembley on Monday, they’ve done just enough, but it all adds up to an ominous opening to proceedings by the champions. Now comes a slog of a stretch and pitted alongside Liverpool, they have the inside lane and the wind behind their backs.
That’s what made City’s most recent victory a kick in the nuts for Reds. Having seen Liverpool beat Cardiff on Saturday, we tuned in to the game against Spurs hoping - expecting, even - that Mauricio Pochettino’s men would do us a favour by at least securing a draw. But instead they were beaten having conceded an early Riyad Mahrez goal and then failing to take one of the clear-cut chances that came their way on a cold evening in north London. City, in turn, marched back to the top of the table.
It was a less-than-sparkling performance by the men in purple but neither were they lucky to win. Mahrez’s goal was a peach while the two Silvas - David and Bernardo - were yet again excellent. Oh and Kevin de Bruyne came off the bench and delivered some lovely passes. Great.
It was soon after the final whistle that Simon and I got into it on Twitter, and one thing he wrote that I most certainly do not agree with is the sentiment that City’s win will “deflate Liverpool completely.” No chance. The players are doing incredibly well despite not delivering consistently good displays while us fans - tricky motorway journeys aside - are absolutely loving what we’re watching right now. A proper team with proper players and a proper manager. Sorry Simon, but you don’t deflate that with a 1-0 win on an NFL college field.
One other thing - the fourth of City’s four straight home games in November is the Manchester derby. United are a bit of a mess right now but they’ll be well and truly up for that one, and if last season’s title party-crashing result at the Eithad is anything to go by, a win for Jose Mourinho’s men in red simply cannot be ruled out, whatever the circumstances.
For City, snuggled up under a blanket in front of a roaring home fire, it could prove the most awkward and influential variable of all.
– Sachin Nakrani
31st October 2018 – There must have been a Koppite or two watching City’s smooth progress through Touchdown Territory on Monday and hoping for a loose divot or a parched bit of NFL trampled turf to trip City’s aristocrats up. Instead the ludicrously poor pitch came to City’s partial rescue, flicking a ball that Eric Lamela was about to plant in the net for a Tottenham equaliser playfully onto the Argentinean’s shins. The result, a ball over the bar instead of under it, will have produced more than just the isolated groan from those of a Liverpool persuasion.
Liverpool – fans and players alike – will have been looking to Spurs to upset the smooth progress of the league leaders. They will have been thinking that here was a venue, a team, a manager and now a wonderfully dilapidated pitch that could cause some serious bother.
That it did not and City sailed serenely back to the top of the league must have an effect.
My co-writer begged to differ after the game, but I put that down to the adverse effects of Lemsip. In the cold light of Tuesday morning, there was nowhere for Liverpool followers to gain succour. The highly publicised best-ever Premier League start continues to yield "only" second place. The dailies joined in on this theme and, if they dare to read the growing statistical evidence, Liverpool supporters will see clear evidence City are improving on last seasons record-breaking totals too.
But, Liverpudlians are a stout lot. The players are strong and positive. The fight goes on. It’s a marathon not a tea dance etc etc, but somewhere inside these little occurances start to eat away at your self-belief and the first step in the war of minds was taken on Monday night, when all the ingredients were in place and still the soup didn’t boil over.
City now embark on a potentially pivotal four-game home run, while Liverpool set sail for Paris, Belgrade and Hertfordshire. You can argue that it makes little difference, but I would disagree. It makes a difference alright and it is the little differences that will separate the great teams come the end of the season. Nobody expects any of the continent’s big hitters to be weakened by doubt at this stage of the season; nobody expects them to be frozen with fear or paralysed by turns of events so seemingly small and insignificant.
And yet the nagging thoughts persist.
What are you supposed to do? Ignore it? Turn it into a positive? The great philosophers, the coaching gurus would always have a bon mot to make everyone feel ok with themselves, but for all this to have its desired effect on the brain, a kernel of truth has to be seen. You cannot keep bashing on about doing your own work and seeing every problem as a challenge if bloody City just keep on winning away, even in London (a thing incidentally in this writer’s experience, they never ever used to do). Suddenly they cannot stop.
City’s numbers are beginning to look ominous. Skysports published a graphic showing many of City’s hugely impressive stats from last season are being improved upon this. If this continues, it will need much more than positive thinking to keep Liverpool close on City’s lightly stepping heels.
And then there’s the small issue of City not actually hitting top gear yet. That’s not even worth contemplating, is it?
A slice of Iain Dowie’s Bouncebackability might at some point be needed by Klopp's men, although the difficulty for Liverpool is there is nothing to bounce back from. They are winning more regularly than they have ever done in the Premier League era. The goals are flowing. It is impressively easy. Against Cardiff, four goals were dispatched despite a low-key performance which did not drain the players’ energy levels unduly. Neil Warnock’s assertions that his team could never win at Anfield played true. Psychology at work again, but in reverse Warnock gear.
Football twitter - and footballers’ twitter in particular - is full of anodyne fripperies about “going again” and “keeping one’s chin up”, but it is what these individuals are really thinking that we need to know. Did Herr Klopp drop finally into bed and say to his wife in the dark “Do you know, I don't think we are ever going to get past these buggers”? We will never know, although the image is a troubling one and now I’m stuck with it.
If Frau Klopp turned wearily over to face his delicately lined features and whispered, “Liebling, setbacks are actually progress in disguise,” before falling into deep and rewarding sleep, then the power of positive thought may well still be alive and well Chez Klopp. Whether everyone else can remain quite so buoyant as the winter closes in around us, only time will tell.
My own frazzled mind floats off to thoughts of what that master mind-bender Bill Shankly would have said in circumstances like this. Perhaps his most poignant quote “If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing…” might be better left unsaid in the present circumstances.
– Simon Curtis