Football is a business riven with superstition. Players have to put their socks on in the correct order; fans go for weeks without changing their underwear; Stuart Pearce, during his brief spell as Manchester City manager, once brought a toy horse belonging to his daughter into the dugout. Though given how well that went, we can probably assume that when she got it back, it was a Pritt Stick.
It’s tempting to laugh at these silly fools with their silly rituals, but every now and then something happens that reminds us just how necessary it all is. For there are strong and dangerous forces at work in the game, and if these forces are not given the obeisance they are due, they will take their revenge. And that can make even the strongest, shoutiest, and most expensive central defender look like a malcoordinated misery.
By way of an example, just this weekend we were treated to yet another flare up of the Curse of Brendan Rodgers and the Premature Evaluation.
You may recall that last season, after making a fairly horrible start to the season, Liverpool changed its formation, dropped most of its summer signings, and put together a decent (if occasionally unconvincing) run of form. You may recall that around March, lengthy and adulatory profiles suddenly appeared in the newspapers, and the genius of Rodgers was gently basted in full view of the nation.
His late nights in the kitchen, agonizing over tea and toast. Agonizing over tea and toast. Or tea just off toast. Or tea and tea either side of a bag of crisps he found at the back of the cupboard, with toast coming on for the last 15 minutes. His consultations with arcane tomes and secret knowledge, searching for clues as to whether Emre Can could play in defense. His doomed attempts to motivate Mario Balotelli by drawing a little picture of a man with a crown on his head, because if there’s one thing the Italian enigma understands, it’s silly hats.
Here was a man, a manager, who knew what was what, who had been through hell—a 3-1 defeat to Neil Warnock’s Crystal Palace—and come out the other side smiling, who had stared Death in the eye, wished him good day, and walked off whistling a jaunty tune. So obviously, Liverpool lost five of its next nine league games, apologized its way out of an FA Cup semifinal, and ended the season being taken to bloody pieces by a gleeful Stoke City.
You’d think Rodgers might have learned from that experience. Something about Hubris, and how she never travels alone. Something about Pride, and how it’s not just for measuring lions. But no. So it was that Friday morning saw Rodgers praising Dejan Lovren—after three decent games—for his patience, his relaxation, his focus, his condition, his confidence, and his stature …
… and so it was that Saturday afternoon saw Dejan Lovren take his patience, his relaxation, his focus, his condition, his confidence and his stature, pile them all in the middle of the Anfield pitch, douse them with kerosene and set them on fire, before removing all his clothes, dancing around the flames, then curling up into a fetal ball and crying himself to sleep.
Oh, Brendan. Look what you did.
If Jose Mourinho Was Literally A Volcano update:
Three houses have disappeared into sudden sinkholes. Water has been running thick, yellow and sulfurous. A boulder went rolling down the high street and crushed a small car. Pierce Brosnan just furrowed his brow and said something or other, we weren’t really listening, we were thinking what is James Bond doing in this nowhere town? Bruce Willis has just got on the rocket. Tommy Lee Jones is looking past the camera at the middle distance, his face slowly freezing in horror. Hang on, wait, the asteroid was Armageddon. Ignore that one. The golden retriever is still missing.
Finally, Manchester United. Louis van Gaal’s philosophical army went to Swansea and stumbled and sideways-passed their way to their first defeat of the season. A slightly difficult one to pick apart, this: United, as a whole, was certainly miserable and thick for significant chunks of the game, but both of Swansea’s goals, and particularly the second, would have been saved by a proper goalkeeper.
Still, nobody ever claimed Sergio Romero was a proper goalkeeper, and he’s only in the team because David de Gea and Victor Valdes are filthy, philosophy-defying malcontents, and Sam Johnstone is but a child.
The real puzzle that emerged from this defeat comes in two parts. One, to what extent can the general awkwardness of the team be ascribed to the fact that it’s busy making chances for Wayne Rooney? And if the answer to that is anything more than “a bit,” then—two—given that Louis van Gaal has functioning eyes and a functioning brain, how long can the manager continue to indulge the embarrassing self-parody that his captain and lone striker has become?
Just as it’s hard for any central defender to do his job without a functioning midfield in front of them, so it’s hard for any creative midfielder to do his without a functional striker. Perhaps Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, and Memphis Depay aren’t good enough to beat Swansea City. Or perhaps they aren’t good enough to do so while following Van Gaal’s prescriptions of possession and control. But until they’re given somebody competent to pass to and run off, how do we know?
You only need to look at the way Bafetimbi Gomis—who delivered a clinic in the lone striking role—made the rest of his team better by hustling for the ball, by holding it up, by making penetrating runs into clever positions, and by—very important, this—actually shooting. Four games into the season isn’t the right time to be making huge conclusions, but we’ll stick our necks out and say the following: United won’t be winning anything with a clown at one end, and it won’t be winning anything with a corpse at the other.