25, 24, 1, 0, 73. Those aren't the Euro Millions numbers but Liverpool's superiority laid bare in numerical terms. They are bafflingly, mind-bogglingly, chin-scratchingly good.
In the early 00s we saw two of the most dominant sides English football has ever seen back to back. One after another. Arsenal's Invincibles and Chelsea's 04/05 season, the first under Jose Mourinho, changed the way we perceived the English top flight. They opened our eyes to just how comfortably a high-functioning collective could thrash through The Best League in the World™ completely unscathed, barely flustered by the other 19 teams fighting tooth and nail every week to keep their heads above the parapet.
Liverpool are doing something else entirely. Liverpool are taking the piss. They have drawn a single game, reached 70 points whilst it was still January (January!) and could well lift the Premier League trophy after a game using the winter ball. They are, whichever way you look at it, the best team we have ever seen domestically. There is nothing to compare them to. Whatever competition they had historically has been blown out of the water. Alisson, Trent, Joe, Virgil, Andy, Jordan, Gini, Alex, Sadio, Bobby, Mo, Jürgen and the rest stand now alone. The best ever. The best many of us will ever see.
Let's try and fuck it all up for them shall we?
(It just felt right to include a picture of Christian Poulsen at this juncture)
There have to be some ground rules here. I can't just sell every Liverpool player, replace them with the team from 2010/11 and let that be that. After all, I am an artist. The joy, for me, is in the process. I'm going to grind Liverpool down, bit by bit, until they are nothing but a fine dust. I'm going to gradually and methodically undo all of Jürgen Klopp's five years of meticulous team building, nut by nut and bolt by bolt. I'm going to very slowly turn them into Manchester United. Here are the rules I'm giving myself to make it something of a challenge:
- I cannot get fired
Ok, that's it. That's the only rule. But that makes it much trickier than you think. No dropping of Alisson for Andy Lonergan for no reason. No swapping Virgil van Dijk with Roberto Firmino 30 minutes into a game because I'm a bit bored. Not replacing Fabinho with Jay Spearing. Not signing Adama Traore and turning one of the most perfectly balanced teams to ever exist into a rehash of Jonah Lomu's heady moments in an All Blacks jersey. Give him the ball and get out of the way type stuff. Actually... I might do some of that. I might try and do as much as that as I can get away with. Whilst, you know, not being fired. The trick is to win just enough games to stay in the job long enough to turn Liverpool back into a shitshow. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is my idol.
Let's see how this puppy plays out.
Alright, so I did buy Adama Traore. And Jonjo Shelvey. And Jay Spearing. I also attempted, and failed, in a bid to sign Demba Ba purely for all the bad juju he would bring. Anyway. Moving on.
I leave my pre-season in the hands of assistant manager Peter Krawietz (Christian Poulsen isn't interested in taking the role) and he guides us to some truly appalling results, including a 1-1 draw with Ludogorets, a 0-0 with Tranmere Rovers and a lethargic 2-0 win over Blackpool in a conditional friendly arranged to facilitate the transfer of Jay Spearing. Had to move mountains to sign that boy. Welcome home Jay. I hope you appreciate it.
The reason the wet fart of a preseason is so surprising is because I hadn't even set about cutting all the brakes and unscrewing the salt shakers at Liverpool yet. I'd set up my tactics as Klopp does - an attacking 4-3-3 gegenpress - and was even being considerate with team selections. For the first time in my life I was actually limiting the amount of games I was giving to Jonjo Shelvey. That's honestly never happened before.
In that sense, the early signs were promising - things were falling apart without me really needing to do much.
Andy Lonergan is closing his eyes in his Wikipedia photo but my word is he playing with them open
My first competitive game as Liverpool's saboteur-in-chief comes in the Community Shield. Against Manchester City. And without Roberto Firmino (injured), Mo Salah (injured) and Sadio Mane (holidaying after the African Cup of Nations).
As a result, I'm forced into a rather rogueish front three consisting of Adama Traore, Divock Origi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. James Milner starts in place of Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has a pre-season knock, but gets injured after only two minutes himself. Reluctant to pull the trigger on a little performance piece I'm calling 'Adama Traore as an honest-to-God fullback', you know, everything Trent can do minus all the unbelievably accurate crossing, I stick Joe Gomez there instead.
The first half passes without incident, other than the fairly sizeable incident of Raheem Sterling smashing a shot off the bar with Andy Lonergan completely frozen. Possibly because he had realised he is Andy Lonergan. And is somehow playing in a cup final for Liverpool. Against Man City. A few months removed from Leage One. Where he played for Rochdale. As a backup.
The second half kicks off with the vast majority of my team 'composed', Fabinho 'calm' (and playing well on a 7.1 - Jonjo Shelvey is going to have to fight for his place it seems) and Lonergan 'nervous', which sounds about right. But in the 52nd minute I think we have the opening goal of the game, coming exactly from the source you'd expect it to: the old Lonergan/Traore attacking one-two punch.
Lonergan thumps a goal kick long towards Origi, who completely misses it but distracts Nicolas Otamendi enough to allow Adama Traore to race through like a bulking powder-addicted mutant Roadrunner and I'm already up off my chair celebrating. He smashes the ball straight at Bravo and I sit back down.
On the hour mark, Origi does Firmino's job so poorly that Fabinho has to sprint 50 yards out of position to press the centre backs. Lonergan makes a series of vital saves - from Bernardo, then Agüero, then Jesus - to keep Liverpool in it. Realising that we're under the cosh, I decide to shore up my defence in an attempt to take the game to penalties. Jay Spearing your time is now.
He does exactly what I need him to do and, even better, scores a penalty in the shootout. Unfortunately that Love Island imposter Adam Lallana has other ideas and hits his own directly at Claudio Bravo - a rookie mistake as that is the one place where Claudio Bravo can actually save shots. Unfortunately for Lallana, and Liverpool, Andy Lonergan reverts back into his normal form after briefly becoming possessed by the ghost of Lev Yashin. He doesn't save a single penalty Liverpool, I mean we, lose the Community Shield. Good. Very good.
Jamming a fork in the proverbial toaster. A big one
Ahead of the opening Premier League game of the season, which is against Watford at Anfield, I decide to get to work slowly dismantling the seemingly impermeable team morale that Liverpool have developed over the last few seasons. How do I do this? In search of the inspiration with which to guide my transformation of Liverpool into Banter FC, or Arsenal as they are otherwise known, I head straight to the source. Where did Arsenal go wrong? Extensive research led to me to the historical annals of the Gunners and the name 'William Gallas'. Time to appoint a fundamentally inappropriate captain. Jordan Henderson and James Milner are getting removed and replaced as captain and vice-captain, respectively.
I'm convinced Virgil van Dijk would be the next best choice so I obviously skip straight past him, along with Trent, who already has incredibly leadership and teamwork attributes despite his age. Instead, I decide Traore and Traore's biceps the size of quadriceps deserve a custom-made XXXL armband, with Jonjo Shelvey installed as a worthy deputy. Henderson immediately develops concerns whilst Milner, ever the consummate professional, is fine. Which is annoying, to be honest. Should have given his title to Jay Spearing instead. Even James Milner can't help get pissed off by that.
I make it through the summer transfer window without receiving a single bid for any of my star players, which again, annoying, as I would have hit the accept button faster than José Mourinho gets up to abscond a fourth official. But, on the other hand, it doesn't seem right to just transfer list van Dijk and sell him off to the highest bidder. Instead, I have to bide my time. I have to trick him. I have to get him to want to leave. My mission is to destroy Liverpool slowly and from the inside, like a ravenous centipede devouring the innards of a particularly juicy peach. Lonergan, Shelvey and Jay Spearing will be starting the next game. Van Dijk will be benched. This is the long con.
Surprisingly calm inside the Hornets' nest
In my first Premier League game Trent starts at right-back whilst a half-fit Sadio Mane leads the line. Shaqiri is given a start on the left but, exactly like James Milner, pulls up with barely a few minutes played in the first half. With Milner I genuinely think it was an injury. He wouldn't lie to me like that. With Shaqiri I think that it was just because he had Adama Traore on the opposite flank and was feeling sad about no longer being the thiccest boi on about town. In fact, I'm pretty sure I overheard Adama shout "Xherdan your trap game is weak bro" moments before the Swiss international feigned pulling up with a thigh injury.
Speaking of Traore, he once again proves the most dangerous player on the pitch. Possibly in the universe. Although I'm not entirely happy with his decision making as he beats his man, races to the byline and instead of crossing to Mane and van Dijk (subbed on as a centre forward - sorry, got impatient), tries to recreate Maicon's goal against North Korea in 2010. Sadly and predictably it does not work.
Moments later van Dijk gets the opportunity he's been waiting for to show off his predatory instincts. He's fed a glorious pass from Shelvey, who threads the eye of the needle - which in this case isn't a needle at all but an all-Craig centre-half pairing - and watches in disgust as the big ponytailed Dutchman's shot hits the post and bounces out. Immediately afterwards, Shelvey also goes down injured and I catch myself genuinely having the thought: "Well it's a good thing I signed Jay Spearing". Henderson, miserable, comes on in his place.
In the second half, and despite my best intentions, we surge into a comfortably two-goal lead thanks to a deflected Hendo strike that falls perfectly at the feet of Mane, who can't miss, and a Joe Gomez header from a Trent free-kick. Adding salt to the wound, it's a wonderful delivery. The kind he's been producing week-in week-out in the Premier League this season. Going to need Traore to start asserting his authority and taking those off him, to be honest. Will have to address that in the set-pieces menu before the next game.
After that, the entire mentality of the team switches to one of unbridled complacency, other than my back five, who are calm and performing well in front of the human brick wall that is Andy Lonergan. I guess that's just the confidence and focus he instils in people. In a bizarre twist, and possibly inspired by my own managerial stylings, Watford throw Christian Kabasele up front for the last ten minutes to absolutely no effect. File under things you love to see, please.
A VAR decision rules out an Ismaila Sarr consolation and Andy Lonergan gets his second clean sheet in two games, no less than he deserves. I don't care how good Alisson's beard is, he's going to have to work his fucking socks off to get back in this team.
Jordan Henderson is unhappy - I repeat, Jordan Henderson is NOT happy
Ahead of the UEFA Super Cup final against Chelsea, Jordan Henderson comes-a-knocking on my door like the angry, shouty centaur-man he is demanding to know why I stripped him of the captaincy. As I am, a), a coward, and b), frightened of football players who run like centaurs, I ask James Milner to try and resolve the situation on my behalf. Remarkably, it works. Somehow it works. Henderson is completely fine again. Wow. Incredible. I don't think that option has ever worked for me on the game before. God bless you, James Milner.
Jordan Henderson is completely fine again
In the UEFA Super Cup final I rest Lonergan for my new cup keeper Adrian. That is my first mistake. My second is giving an early penalty to Adama Traore over a multitude of actual good options. He misses. Pedro goes up the other end, shrugs off a pathetic, PATHETIC, Jordan Henderson challenge and slams past Adrian. I consider bringing on Jay Spearing then and there to teach the stupid horse creature a lesson but calm down enough to reconsider. Divock Origi hits the bar twice from the exact same spot with the exact same header. Willian then makes it 2-0. Everything seems to be falling into place.
The second half goes like this: Adama Traore gets the ball, Adama Traore runs to the Chelsea goal unimpeded, Adama Traore kicks the ball harmlessly out of play. Ross Barkley adds a third for Chelsea after a weak parry from Adrian and I vow never to rest Andy Lonergan again. I wanted the wheels to come off but not this quickly. I wanted to at least enjoy myself for a while first.
"SEAN! SEAN! DON'T BE A FUCKING DICKHEAD. FUCKING HELL, SEAN" (Burnley away)
Against Burnley, we start the game by allowing Matej Vydra (yes, Matej Vydra) a clean run on goal all so we can stand around and watch, mouths agape, as Andy Lonergan springs into life and pulls off yet another ridiculous save. We then do the same thing again. That's two clear cut chances for Burnley after five minutes. With me playing the normal Liverpool back four. Christ.
Liverpool's first chance comes after Shelvey spreads the ball wide to Alexander-Arnold, who in turn swings in a cross to the back post. Origi arrives and - you're going to think this is a joke but it isn't, it honestly isn't - heads against the bar for the third time in two games.
Fortunately for Liverpool, they do have one player who seems to know how to find the back of the net and Virgil volleys in from a corner to give them a 1-0 lead. In the second period Lonergan makes some more huge saves from Vydra - truly a clash of the titans - and the game peters out without so much as a Traore slice into the side netting. Very disappointing but three points is three points, I guess.
No, but seriously (Chelsea at home)
"Traore has a go from a tight angle". That's all I have to say really. With this piece I initially set out to find how you could dissemble the most brutally efficient team in the world at the moment. Well, I'm only four games in and the answer seems to be obvious: Adama Traore, birth child of the Tasmanian Devil and a tropical cyclone.
Beyond that, it doesn't help when Virgil van Dijk, the foundation stone upon which this red empire has been built, suddenly forgets how to head a football. The thing he is best at it. We go 1-0 down after a hopeless Ross Barkley punt is stopped and stared at by van Dijk and Tammy Abraham sprints in behind. For once, Lonergan can't get a hand to it. Things look dire, which is exactly what I want, but even the virtual equivalent of Liverpool's players seem to not know when they're beat.
They adapt to the situation, basically by channeling every pass down the left, i.e. as far away from Adama Traore as possible, and fight their way back into the game. Mane and Robertson both score, I pick up a deserved three points I didn't really want and Liverpool move top of the league after three games.
It's clear I'm going to have to up the ante if I really want to derail this Scouse juggernaut, but fresh hope is offered in the form of Zinedine Zidane watching on from the stands, eager to prise Sadio Mane away from me.
Sensing an opportunity to tip the world on its head, and fuck with Zizou, my childhood hero, I make an offer of Mo Salah for Sergio Ramos, straight-up. Fiorentino Perez licks his greedy lips and accepts but the move is torpedoed when Ramos refuses to enter contract negotiations with me - possibly due to the fact that he would have both eyebrows shaved off and 'CHEATING PRICK' Sharpie'd onto his forehead the second he'd land at Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
I return to the home screen only to be greeted by the news that Roberto Firmino, whilst regaining his fitness in an u23 match, has broken his leg. He'll be out for at least six months. To most this would be a heartbreaking setback. But me? I sense an opportunity. Liverpool need a new number 9. I think I've got one in mind.
To be continued.