Before I start, let me make it clear: this article isn’t trying to take any shine off what has been a great season for Liverpool FC. I am only writing it due to an online debate turning, what I see as a fairly simple matter, into a divisive subject. I claimed – no, wait, I pointed it out because it’s factual – that playing less games has helped Liverpool in their title challenge this year. Suddenly people are making stats out of isolated moments and missing the point entirely. So let me explain.
First off, I’ll reiterate, this is a good Liverpool side, and their challenge is no fluke. I’m not saying fringe teams lacking the extra European commitment will break the top four every year. Usually the established teams have the extra funds from playing Champions League football so they can fortify their squads accordingly, thus, keeping a stronghold at the top. But Liverpool has been an emerging force aided by the opening up of spaces above them. When was the last time the reigning champions fell so far away from a title race? That was all the way back when Blackburn defended their crown in the 95/96 season, they finished seventh. Normally the top four alone is a tough nut to crack. Let’s not forget though, that Liverpool are the third highest spenders in Premier League history so they should be there-or-thereabouts every year.
In an earlier blog I mentioned – as it’s been pointed out to try and unravel my own argument – a Chelsea win over PSG would give them a boost in the title run. I stand by that claim, winning is habit forming. To use it against me is an example of people using singular instances to dismiss the whole. At this stage of the season teams are fragile psychologically, one defeat can destroy a run. Indeed, Manuel Pellegrini claimed the Sunderland draw at home was down to the players still thinking about the Liverpool loss. I’m sure if City had turned over Liverpool at Anfield, Sunderland would have faced a side that didn’t feel the fatigue so much, and would have been out for more blood. So yes, in the case of winning helping, either in Europe or a few days earlier in the Premier League, it provides a mental boost. However, over the course of a long season it gets harder to maintain those runs if the squad has played extra matches along the way.
I was also asked to provide evidence showing that when teams playing more games have suffered an impact on their season, and why has a team never challenged for the title before when free of European commitment. That’s pretty simple to answer. Spurs were looking strong 09/10 but failed to make an impact the following year when they were juggling Champions League football. When Liverpool last won the Champions League they were unable to finish in the top four. And pretty much every small squad that gets Europa League football struggles in the following campaign. This year we’ve seen Arsenal start strong, hold top spot for longer than anyone expected, but still fall away when injuries and extra games caught up with them.
To put it in a crude way, if playing extra games had no effect, then a team facing seven matches a week would be at no disadvantage over a team in the title race facing just one. Of course they would. Liverpool have benefitted from having less miles on the clock. If they don’t add significant numbers to the squad over the summer they won’t be challenging for the league next May after playing the extra European games. José Mourinho has even sought permission this week to field a weaker side on Sunday because he’s prioritised the Champions League over the Liverpool clash. There we have explicit proof that playing no games in Europe makes the league easier. It’s a shame that such an exciting, close season, is undermined at the final showdown by José’s stance but it could be a mind-game. Considering how ineffective he’s been with those all season it’d be a long overdue one if it proves to be successful at Anfield.
None of this is designed to undermine Liverpool’s efforts, they have been worthy contenders this year, but there seems to be such a sensitivity toward them at the moment that you can’t even point out valid observations. Every media outlet is in love with them and plastic football fans have been transported back to the Eighties. To say less games hasn’t helped is the same as disputing how great Suarez has been this year. Facts are facts. I look forward to watching them adapt next season with the extra games coming their way.