What constitutes a meltdown?
Two pre-Christmas defeats does not a meltdown make, nor does a couple of draws when January ticks over into February.
For a fully-blown, catastrophic meltdown, it requires a runner to have streaked clear in the title race, leaving the rest of the field choking on dust. Like Newcastle in 1995/96 when Kevin Keegan’s entertainers performed a tragi-comedic interpretation of surrendering a 12-point lead. Manchester United had the tables turned on them two years later when they were dragged back from an 11-point advantage over Arsenal. The Gunners themselves spluffed an eight-point gap in 2002/03, as did United again in 2011/12, which appears to have been forgotten because Sergio Aguero’s big moment ruined City’s own attempt at self-implosion.
You can understand why many Liverpool fans are petrified of the ‘M’ word. They have been hurt before, when Brendan Rodgers’ side gave up a nine-point lead in 2013/14 to Manchester City. Having been seven clear of City this season with the chance of making it a ten-point cushion, perhaps the flashbacks should be expected as City wait to beat Everton to usurp the Reds at the top.
When can we call it a meltdown?
The crucial difference between what City felt last month and Liverpool are experiencing now compared to the cave-ins that have gone before? Timing.
Unless Liverpool do something utterly unfathomable – not beyond the realms of possibility – then losing a seven-point lead at the turn of the year, when you’ve only just passed the halfway point in the season, should perhaps be put down simply to the ebb and flow of a nine-month season.
Newcastle’s surrender, perhaps the grandest of all meltdowns, began earlier than any others and the first sign of trouble did not present itself until late February, around three weeks from the point we find ourselves this season. It started with a defeat at West Ham which became a run of eight games with only two victories and five defeats.
Arsenal caved early too, again in late February, though their five-point lead in 2008 can hardly be considered a comfortable cushion, not for a club that had already become a soft touch. But when the Gunners imploded, oh boy, it was spectacular.
Really, we have to wait until spring has sprung for signs of a grim demise, especially when City and Liverpool are so evenly matched. United did the decent thing and waited until March before caving in to Arsene Wenger in 1998, and Arsenal did likewise when returning the favour to Sir Alex Ferguson in 2003.
Christ, Rodgers’ Reds were nine clear of Manuel Pellegrini’s City on April 20, 2014. Their meltdown consisted merely of a single defeat and a draw, which at any other time would be a blip. But, just like comedy, the real art in any meltdown can be found in the timing. If City and Liverpool have given us theirs already, then we’ve all be ripped off.
What triggers a meltdown?
Continuing the comedy theme, some meltdowns have been absolute classics of the genre. We’ve had black comedy, character comedy, cringe comedy and shock humour. Wherever there’s a meltdown, you’ll find laughter. And despite the assumption by many in the media that Liverpool are somehow the neutrals’ choice, there are plenty waiting and hoping to be bent double at the Reds’ expense in the coming months. City, for some reason, just aren’t that funny.
Steven Gerrard’s slip in 2014 remains a source of humour for anyone without a Liverpool leaning, and though some Reds will try to tell you that it was the 3-3 draw when leading 3-0 at Crystal Palace a week later that really did the damage, it all began to unravel when their title-less skipper stumbled at the feet of Demba Ba.
Only the coldest of hearts outside of Manchester would hold no sympathy whatsoever for Gerrard. That can happen to anyone. Perhaps not there and then with all that at stake, but we’ve all slipped at inopportune times. Considerably fewer of us have seen our arses like William Gallas in 2008.
When your captain behaves like the worst kind of petulant toddler, surrender is inevitable. The injury suffered by Eduardo at Birmingham was horrific, but after conceding a last-minute penalty at St Andrew’s, just when the Arsenal players are looking for leadership, they saw their skipper having his own personal meltdown before the collective one. Four more draws and two defeats followed in the subsequent seven games, leading to Arsenal finishing third.
Everyone had a good old laugh at Keegan but his “I would love it…” rant was delivered as the cherry on the top of Newcastle’s calamity cake. Keegan saw being on top as the best position from which to strengthen but his signing of Faustino Asprilla was, at best, alarmingly coincidental with their demise. Perhaps Guardiola and Klopp’s reluctance to rock the boat in January is rather more understandable in the context of the Colombian’s effect on Newcastle.
Caution is advised amid the looming threat of a meltdown. Ferguson was rather more bullish in 1998 even while Arsenal were chipping away at his 11-point lead. When the advantage was down to three points, the United boss said it was “inevitable” that Arsenal would drop points and that only a “total collapse” would deprive the Red Devils of the title. Arsenal didn’t – not until the title was secured, at least – and United absolutely did.
It cost United their title and at least one bookmaker thousands of pounds. Not that others learned Fred Done’s expensive lesson. When a bookie offers to pay out on City or Liverpool in the coming months, just as they did on United in 98 and 2012, and Arsenal in 2003, it’s time to check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Who carries the can for a meltdown?
The manager. Always the manager.
Keegan in ’96, Rodgers in 2014, Wenger always. Even Rafael Benitez copped it in 2009, and we can’t even call that a meltdown. Funny though it was, Liverpool lost one game of the 18 that followed his ill-advised-but-hilarious press conference about ‘facts’ prior to the second weekend in January.
Still, it is easy to see why in these high-pressure situations that managers prefer to straight-bat anything that could catch them on the back foot. Guardiola refuses to leave himself open by saying anything even vaguely controversial, but the City boss can’t always keep a lid on his emotions. Nor can Klopp, and in contrast to the stage-managed celebrations and perma-positive facade, his mask has been known to slip.
Kyle Walker’s tweet last week riled Klopp and so too did the officials’ performance at West Ham on Monday night, despite Liverpool benefiting from one injustice in the build-up to Sadio Mane’s goal and almost seizing upon another late on. Pellegrini couldn’t fathom it and the West Ham boss was so thrown that he chose that moment to say something interesting for the very first time.
Of course, none of the sideshow matters for as long as football matches are being won. Meltdowns can only occur in a victory void and City stopped their two-game mini-crisis in December from becoming a bigger problem by going on a 10-game run bettered only by Manchester United. That is the only way Klopp can stop some of the bedwetting currently taking place around Anfield. Beat Bournemouth on Saturday and slowly start to rebuild some momentum.
First job: sort out that midfield.