After their win at IEM Sydney, there has been a lot of talk about a potential power shift in CSGO, with Team Liquid poised to overtake Astralis atop the HLTV rankings and become world number one. We use that phrase rather than "the world’s best team" despite the fact HLTV’s rankings are as definitive as it gets at this point for one simple reason, because the North Americans are yet to prove they can hang with the Danes when it counts, and are a long way from proving themselves the equal of Astralis despite their win in Australia.
They may have beaten all comers in Sydney, and won the final against Fnatic, but even in that victory the seeds of their next defeat were sown, and with every passing tournament it becomes more obvious as to where the issue lies. Frankly put, it may be that in-game leader Nick ‘nitr0’ Canella is the man reason Liquid are yet to become legitimate world leaders or overcome Astralis when it really counts, based on his time as leader under two different coaches.
Great player, but is he a leader?
Before we get into the negatives, it should first be pointed out that as an individual, nitr0 is one of the best players operating at the top level of CS and also leading a team. He is a dangerous man with a rifle or an AWP, and has won a good number of 1-v-X clutches to show he also can play CSGO under pressure. However, the culture of his team and influence of the coaches suggests there are parts of his leadership that are lacking, or could be a lot better at least.
The first point worth making is the team culture, which is set by the in-game leader when the action is underway, seems to be one of risk-aversion and indecision. There were a number of occasions when Fnatic were able to seemingly bully Liquid on the maps the Americans lost in the Sydney final, and it’s rare TL have a lead that seems genuinely unassailable when they make it to Grand Finals, which is in stark contrast to their dominant play in groups and the early stages of tournaments.
It’s true that Xist, JW and KRIMZ are very much ‘clutch’ in their own right, but the sheer ability gap between the two sides should have counted for more than a tight 3-2 win. Brollan is the real deal, but he is the only aimer consistently able to battle the likes of Twistzz, Stewie or NAF, and at this point there is no case to say experience helped Fnatic in particular when Liquid have been to more than ten finals in recent times.
The second point is more difficult to explain in a single event, but is one we can now make having seen nitr0 lead this team since the latter half of 2017 now. Back then, he cited his ability to micromanage the entire team as a reason it made sense, but it seems as though he struggles to assert himself at times, and the culture still very much comes from the coach, as we can see from the way the team has changed since the introduction of new backroom leader AdreN.
That is not to say that coaches should simply compliment a team, with the IGL king of all he surveys, but the way Liquid follow the vision of the one man without a mouse or keyboard makes it seem from the outside as though nitr0 lacks his own clear vision, or at least the ability to articulate it. That manifests most in times of extreme pressure, like Grand Finals, where every decision takes on extra significance, and can clearly be seen in the way the NA squad seem rudderless in key moments, or just randomly buy round on round when they have a lead, rather than waiting for a solid opportunity and closing out the match.
Time for nitr0 to catch fire
This isn’t the first time this has been said, of course, possibly even by this writer, but it is getting to a point where there are potential solutions available if things don’t improve by the end of the Berlin Major. Pundits employed to be witty in 280 characters are pushing the angle that Astralis are "risking their legacy" very hard, but let’s be honest and admit that the Danes can secure their position as the only story of 2019 if they win two Majors, especially without dropping a map in playoffs. However, IEM Sydney was not iBuyPower, and Liquid could still be a contender, rather than just the second-best team.
Part of the solution to the problem is already in place, with Stewie replacing TACO in the team. It was rightly pointed out that TACO is one of the better "support" players in CSGO when he left Liquid, but to this point they don't seem to have missed him, with the likes of NAF and sometimes others in the team having a single-digit game to remind us of the Brazilian, and all the flashes still apparently being thrown. What they lost in support, they also gained in mind and most crucially soul, with Stewie able to bring both into the mix.
His ability as a second caller is more obvious now than ever, and he was quite happy to question the legend FalleN in MIBR too, when others seemed scared of the consequences. What’s more than that, he brings a belief to the team that they lacked, as could be seen in the way he abused Xist during map five of the Grand Final in Sydney, clearly getting under the skin of one of the most successful players in CSGO history and gaining Liquid a mental edge.
What needs to happen now, if nitr0 cannot become the visionary his team apparently needs, is a period of work away from competition that will give them a tactical base to fall back on, that can act as insurance for the team when they have doubt in their mind. The pundits who love to crow about the Danish team not attending events never seem to question what Astralis do when they aren’t flying to Sydney, Shanghai or the like, but when they get to events it seems obvious to this writer than the Danes are swotting up hard in their downtime, and it shows in their decision-making.
If Liquid can do that, it will make them a real contender for titles beyond just events that Astralis don’t attend, and give us a second elite team. They are already as talented, if not more talented than the team above them in the rankings, and Sydney has the potential to put them over the top when it comes to their confidence too, but that has to come from the top, and start with nitr0, who can be the fuel to the team’s fire.
Images: IEM, Helena Kristiansson, ESL.