The narrative that Liverpool will crumble under the pressure of chasing a first Premier League crown is too easy to trot out, but fans must be vigilant not to believe their own myths.
The narrative dictates that Liverpool will almost certainly crumble under the pressure of securing their first league title in almost three full decades. It’s an easy hook for not only football writers, but fans as well, both those who cheer for and those against. It’s easy to see why a non-Red would peddle this narrative. For those cheering on the challengers however, it’s a crutch, a get-out clause that they can fall back on when the inevitable happens. “Well, we’re doomed anyway.”
Liverpool did their best to blast through that narrative on Wednesday night, destroying Watford by five goals to nil, and looking unfazed by the weight of history following them around the city like a bad smell. Manchester City, meanwhile, the team virtually no one is willing to back against, stumbled over the line that same night thanks to a questionable penalty decision. A win is a win in this race, but City weren’t following the script imposed on them by the narrative of a runaway freight train gunning for a second title in a row.
29 years is a long time to wait though. And the mounting pressure every time they get close to a Premier League title is telling. Ten years ago Rafael Benitez cracked under it, which manifested itself in the infamous ‘facts’ press conference.
Five years ago it seemed as if the team was floating on a cloud, but the mere presence of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea shook the fans, and evidently the players. One slip later and the whole thing came apart. What will 2019’s moment of reckoning be?
Pressure exists for everyone in professional football. The pressure of winning, the pressure to keep your job, your place in the team, your spot in the division, your livelihood. Some thrive on it, some perish from it. But for something that plays such a pivotal in top-level sport, it resides silently in the abstract. Never seen, never heard, but always lurking.
At Anfield, the invisible becomes somehow tangible. When Liverpool’s attack was blunted in the 1-1 draw with Leicester City last month, the problem was immediately diagnosed; pressure. It had a snowball effect that lead to further stalemates with West Ham, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Gratefully the analysis of modern-day football means we are given a much deeper view into a game beyond the surface level reasoning of “bottling it”, not having enough “pashun”, or crumbling under the… you know.
Yet the P-word was still there, acting as a thread along which the conversation could be channelled in the news cycle. It simply cannot be avoided (or, at the very least, refuses to be).
The farther Liverpool get from their glory days of the 70’s and 80’s, the more focus is put on what their fandom means, the historical importance and the emotion that comes with following the club. Just take a look at the ThisMeansMore hashtag on Twitter to see how it has even been mechanised by the club itself as a marketing tool. It perpetuates this idea that there is something truly ‘different’ about being a fan of the ‘Pool.
Some see it as a superiority complex, I choose to view it as a defence mechanism. Followers of less successful sides are naturally inclined to focus on the positive aspects of their clubs that don’t concern trophies, whether that be family values, a working-class environment, a passionate and loud fanbase or the people are just bloody nice.
With nary a trophy making its way to Merseyside in the past decade, the focus has switched from glory to the history, passion and emotion of being a Liverpool fan. And this has served the club well, not just in terms of forging an identity, but on the pitch as well. Playing on their own sense of fandom, the Anfield crowd has helped to drive the team to results no one thought possible, particularly on European nights like the comeback against Dortmund in 2016 or the 3-0 drubbing handed out to Man City last season. At times it can appear wearily self-conscious.
Ironically, this can also inflate the emotional heft of performing in a high-pressure situation, leading to the sort of tentativeness that envelopes the players as the title race tightens, restricting their once free-flowing style.
Of course, this could be the narrative talking again. There’s a whole host of reasons why Liverpool’s form took a dip: Jurgen Klopp’s, at times, conservative approach, the team’s midfield issues, injuries, the absence of Roberto Firmino, who is crucial to everything they do up front.
How big a part the weight of history and the pressure that comes with that plays in the title race is yet to be realised.