Reversion to the Mean

Shankly Gates

How arl arse is this, sneaking back into the building after Rafa finally putting one over on Demento? Everyone else at puts in the hard graft week in week out keeping the site on the road, putting up with the outrageous slurs from fans of other clubs gloating at the close season turmoil at Anfield. Then along comes bucko here, the brilliance of the grin stitched to his face after that thumping performance against Man U only matched by the luminescence of the tan acquired from a summer of doing naff all. Nice work if you can get it.

But fear not! I come not to praise Liverpool but to bury them. Console yourself with the notion that the river of flame that will be diverted into my inbox as I dare to go off message should keep me going well into the wee hours for several weeks to come. For the joy of beating down on the Mancs does not cancel out the misery of a summer when Liverpool did, to my mind, so much wrong.

Let’s start with some positives. A while back I raged against Rafa’s habit of buying players on the cheap then selling them on quickly at a loss, the footballing equivalent of a lucky dip (cf Jan Kromkamp, Mark Gonzalez). He doesn’t seem to have rid himself of that habit. The likes of Dossena and Riera don’t inspire, players purchased not because they are brilliant but because they might be brilliant. It’s the Championship Manager school of management, scouring the leagues of Europe for undiscovered talent – except Rafa doesn’t seem to have the hit rate of A Geek with his PC, or even A Wenger with his MA. You don’t need a crystal ball to see Jermaine Pennant joining the carousel. The sight of Philippe Degen trundling in on a free while Andrei Voronin trundles away in the opposite direction having also being purchased on a free, looks like history repeating itself . It would make you weep at the notion that playing for the most successful club in England is meant to mean something.

Still, it’s not all bad on the to-ing and fro-ing front. While Rafa may have shuffled the pack with a few duds, he’s also managed to make the club a tidy sum in some surprising places. While Peter Crouch and Momo Sissoko were both decent players in their times at Anfield, it would have seemed nothing short of miraculous had someone wanted to pay an eight figure sum for their services. The mere act of a top club admitting that they are open to offers for players should be enough to see their price plummet. Yet both those players went off having made the club a substantial profit.

There are a few lesser lights on which Rafa made silly money. Scott Carson proved to be a sound investment, the outrageous figure he was originally touted around for notwithstanding. And then there’s the case of John Arne Riise. A fond figure at the club thanks to his penchant for goals that were both brilliant and important, he had undergone a horrible loss of form last season culminating in that clanger against Chelsea. When it became clear that his days at the club were numbered – and again, bear in mind that you expect other clubs to be pointing out the bald tyres, the miles on the clock, the scratch on the bumper and just look at the alloy wheels and sunroof on that other model over there, mate – it didn’t seem possible that he would be anything other than a free. Yet we got €4 million for him, an absolutely fabulous piece of business. Factor in the sale of Luis Garcia, another cult figure at the club who proved instrumental in bagging a certain Fernando Torres, and look at some of the flops that have passed through the hands of A. Wenger – anyone remember Christopher Wreh? Sylvinho? Nelson Vivas? – then Rafa seems to be one of the smarter cookies in football.

So the swings and roundabouts of the mid-market signings can be said to be that for Rafa – swings and roundabouts. It is the big money deals that can make or break you as a manager though. The 20 million-plus signings are the ones that are meant to catapult you into the stratosphere, and if you get them wrong . . . Rafa got it spectacularly right in the summer of 2007, laying down big bucks for a player that half of the top clubs in Europe seemed to have sniffed around and passed on. 2008 doesn’t look like it’s been anywhere near as productive. The increasing sniffiness of the media about the start to his Anfield career can be dismissed as the usual Phil Space guff, but a decade watching the exploits of Robbie Keane have not been conducive to endearment, especially when you consider he is by some distance Ireland’s record scorer.

For someone with a spotless record off the pitch – quite an achievement in this day and age – he can be such an infuriating nark on the pitch. Some people might appreciate his constant moaning at refs for frees, his incessant insistence that he wasn’t offside or the habitual pained expression when a team mate fails to meet his lofty standards. But they’ve always left me cold. As top strikers go, he has an appalling habit of missing sitters – they all do it, but he does it more than most. He always looks like he’s just started playing football, brilliantly talented and should be great after a few years. Except that he’s been on the road for the best part of a decade. Paying c. £20 million for a 27 year old with five different clubs behind him seems excessive. You have to keep looking at his goalscoring record, which is very good indeed, to remind yourself that he’s a top player. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re picking up a player who has passed his peak, and paid top dollar for the privilege.

At least we went for him and got him. No such pleasure can be derived from the Gareth Barry saga. Once upon a time, English internationals came from all kind of wacky clubs. Jimmy Bullard this week became the first Fulham player since George Cohen to play for England. Cohen happened to win the World Cup. But this was a time when the maximum wage and the fact that revenue was derived almost entirely from tuppence-a-head gate receipts meant there was little incentive to move clubs. Now, you are a loser if you’re not plying your trade in the Champions League. Yet Gareth Barry is still chugging away with the mediocrities that are Aston Villa. If he were that good, surely someone would have pounced on him long before this? We all thought that, and more pertinently so did the best-friends-forever (again) Gillett and Hicks. Even Roman Abramovich has drawn the line on paying over the odds for players. For Liverpool though, the line seems to be a lot lower than it is for Chelsea and Man United. So this is what we have learned from our pursuit of Gareth Barry – that we are chasing players who are not good enough, and then we can’t get them anyway. Marvellous.

Unless, of course, that spectacular win over the Mancs is closer to our mean performance than the first three games. I’m dubious that we are that good. The controlled ferociousness was a pleasant surprise – take a bow, Javier Mascherano – not least to Man U who were probably congratulating themselves in advance of another toothless Liverpool attempt at a comeback. Keep that up and we’ll do well, but we had to come good against them some time – again, reverting to the mean; we haven’t been as bad as the results suggested in recent times. Even more surprising was playing so well with Gerrard only playing quarter of the match and Whatisname from Spain not playing at all. We’ve surely got to take that reality with a large pinch of salt. Play that well in every game with their additional power and we’d be invincible – which is why we can’t expect that to be the mean.

Back in the mists of time, a time when the Reds were capable of winning leagues, a rate of two points out of three was enough to be a competitor for the title. We picked up 68.4% of the available points in 1990. Nowadays you need to be a bit better than that, probably closer to three points out of four. The Mancs got 76.3% of the points last season. So our excellent start to the season amounts to being a point ahead of the trend. The race has only just begun.