The shadows fell like dominos across my desk, caging the envelope. Ah, the envelope. Unopened. Nondescript save the return address line:
B. Rod... M. Red, esq.
Anfield Road, Liverpool
L4 0TH, United Kindgom
I'd let it sit there for a week. I wasn't sure I had the stomach for what I knew must lay inside. But bills were past due and an empty bottle of Woodford Reserve was staring balefully back at me, so finally I reached for it. After all, at the end of the day it was a job and I was still a football detective.
Tearing the envelope open, I found my new case: a disappearance on Merseyside. The victim? Liverpool FC's attack, last seen in May of 2014 and gone nearly six months now. My task would be to sort through any evidence I could find to determine what exactly had happened in the case of the missing offense.
The 2014-2015 Season, only in its infancy, yet some Liverpool fans were already frothing after a disappointing start. Sitting in ninth will do that to some people. Already there was a list of suspects as wide as Dejan Lovren's shoulders and as deep as the River Mersey. My job? Cut through the noise and get to the truth. And to do that, I'd have to cut down a few red herrings.
Red Herring #1
Lazar Markovic/Dejan Lovren/new signing du jour are all underperforming.
My first step would be to chase down one of the more obvious suspects: new signings. The reddest of the herrings. Both Dejan Lovren and Lazar Markovic may have had uneven starts to life on Merseyside, but in the case of those two players, narratives surrounding their supposed underperformance drew on two of the biggest strawmen out there: transfer fees and replaced sentimental favorites.
Dejan Lovren: representative of the latter issue in that his left foot arriving on Merseyside preceded the departure of Daniel Agger. The two transfers happened a month apart, Lovren being brought in at the end of July and Daniel Agger being sold right nearer the close of the transfer window, but most embraced the idea that one was always going to be making way for the other.
But was it true? It might have been reasonable to infer Liverpool had one too many centre-backs once Lovren arrived, but it's equally possible Kolo Toure or Mamadou Sakho could have made way. In fact, for a time it appeared Toure would be gone, with a Turkish destination lined up for the veteran. It's unfortunate that in the end it was Agger who left, but it was never inevitable he would be the odd man out, and so it's fallacy to suggest Lovren was brought in to replace him.
Markovic, on the other hand, appears a victim of the price-tag fallacy. With his transfer fee hovering at around the 20 million pound mark—or 2.5 Coutinhos—the issue is a shady and reductive math—2.5 Coutinhos—that overlooks the fact he's only 20 years of age and most had cautioned when he arrived that he wasn't the finished product. In truth, Markovic is one of the brightest young talents in modern football—exhibiting touch, pace, and vision beyond his years.
Red Herring #2
It was a terrible summer transfer window.
Ian Ayre cut a rueful figure as I pressed him for information. Are you dissatisfied with this summer's dealings? And I thought you promised me a custom motorcycle helmet?
The summer window lacked a so-called marquee signing, a flashy name for fans to rally behind. However, it did bring Liverpool a group of new players who could be expected to play productive roles in the upcoming campaign—often adding the promise of tactical versatility, further answering the calls for depth.
Yet the problem Liverpool found themselves in was that that depth had been non-existent, mostly thanks to injuries. The following were the players who had seen significant time on Dr. Zaf's table:
- Adama Lallana
- Lazar Markovic
- Emre Can
- Dejan Lovren
- Mamadou Sakho
- Joe Allen
- Daniel Sturridge
Of the new signings, Lallana was clearly the biggest miss. Add a long-term injury to Joe Allen further upsetting the midfield and last season's second-leading scorer out for a month and it's clear injuries had played a bigger role in the early disappointment than the quality of the summer window.
Red Herring #3
Mario Balotelli sucks.
He hadn't scored as hoped, but here it seemed fairly clear that tactics had played a role. Balotelli wasn't a typical target-man. Yet at Liverpool, he too often had played on his own as a less-mobile 9.5—a poor replacement for Luis Suarez, and one in dire need of a partner who could find the space around him, allowing him to instead play as Mario Balotelli.
And again, it was injuries. Daniel Sturridge should have provided the thrust leading the line, and his presence and quality had been sorely missed—most of all by Super Mario, who instead of pairing with him was left without a partner of similar quality.
That 9.5, though. The one by which all other Liverpool strikers were now to be measured. At least until the next all-time great came along. I thought I had a trip to Uruguay on my hands.
Red Herring #4
None of this would have happened if we'd kept Luis Suarez.
Before I could purchase my ticket, though, Suarez' representatives informed me Luis would not meet me due to "occupational restrictions." Something about football related activities he wasn't allowed to partake in and that would have kept him from being involved in the first two months of Liverpool's season no matter who was paying his wages.
Blame it on the injuries.
All of the usual suspects had fallen to scrutiny. A unifying thread did emerge, though; a nefarious culprit: injuries. The offense lacked cohesion due to the most important signing and the main goal threat both falling to injury. The midfield looked increasingly ragged and overrun as rotational options sat on the trainer's table.
Ultimately, the issue wasn't that new signings weren't performing but rather that the injury bug had caused a sluggish start. Were there tactical issues? Sure, but there always are, and I kept coming back to one thing: the lack in quality wasn't because it didn't exist. It was because it was in the infirmary. Mundane, perhaps, but nonetheless the truth. And better than frothing over red herrings.