Liverpool basically demolished the Serie A runner-ups yesterday in Dublin, 5-0. Now, as always, the Grand Caveats: Pre-season. Friendly. Anyone watching the game could see members of both sides occasionally moving at half-speed or certainly not top speed. Also, since Serie A begins play a week later than the EPL, Napoli was a week behind in terms of preparation. That said, unlike in Ann Arbor, both sides were only missing one or two key players from late World Cup runs (Dries Mertens for Napoli; Lovren and Henderson for Liverpool) so you were basically looking at the starting XI for both clubs. Within the first five minutes, the rout was on as LFC went up 2-0 and never looked back. We stopped the high press late in the first half and in the middle of the second half, but otherwise kept the pressure on. In fact, only superlative efforts by Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly kept the score from looking far worse, as he was able to neutralize several efforts by Salah and Mané in the box.
On the other end of the pitch, Alisson made his first appearance for the club and did as well as everyone expected. You could make an argument that one shot from outside the box by Insigne should have been caught, rather than deflected off for a corner, but the main point is that it didn’t hit the back of the net, which is what everyone wants. But just as important was his contribution to the offense. Klopp wants rapid attacks and counters. He doesn’t want to play the possession game in our third. He wants to play that in the opposing third. That means having a keeper whose distribution is both fast and accurate and, preferably, long.
@WC_LFC_Torres did a comparison recently of Alisson and perceived peers like Ederson and Oblak. The key numbers that emerged highlighted the superiority of Alisson’s long-distance passing, since it enabled Roma’s attack. The same thing appeared yesterday within the first four minutes:
Alisson’s delivery to Salah creates that entire sequence and the high press and two smart passes by Clyne and Mané completes it. That’s something that has been missing from Klopp’s vision in his first three seasons and now we have it, in addition to one of the best shot-stoppers in Europe, with a save rate behind only Jan Oblak, according to WhoScored.com. So, everything’s great, right? Salah scored. Firmino apparently got robbed of a goal. The team put up 5 and allowed none, despite some close calls (that Klopp duly noted.) Liverpool looked like a machine out there, pre-season friendly or no. The season starts in a week and that team looked like it should blow West Ham into the Mersey, especially if the second line of players like Sturridge can deliver brilliant passes like this to get Moreno a laugher:
And that Italian commentator’s laugh is great, as is everything else about yesterday. Except, well…
That’s the trend of expected goals and goals conceded over the course of last season from this detailed preview article by Statsbomb. The key detail they cite immediately after this image is that, yes, Liverpool’s defense improved markedly after acquiring Virgil Van Dijk; something any casual observer could see just by looking at scoring average from the first half of the season to the second (and making the “But the defense-!” memesters look even more clueless than usual), but also that LFC’s expected goals shrank from 2.01 xG to 1.56. Key change here: Greater focus on defense (not particularly evident in formation approach and play) or… no more Coutinho?
I’m willing to follow Klopp’s general assertion that, minus the superstar, the rest of the team realized that they’d have to rely on themselves, rather than expecting Phil to bail them out, and thus raised their level of play to what we saw in the second half of the season. Considering the money we got and what we’ve spent it on (VVD, Fabinho, Alisson, Shaquiri; Keita was already paid for last year), I don’t regret the Coutinho sale at all. Good luck to him at the Camp Nou until we meet in the Champions League. But I am kind of following the crowd of many other Liverpool supporters in being mildly concerned over the lack of a replacement attacking mid to fill the void that was Phil. That concern becomes more acute now that Ox will be out for the whole season. This is why so many people are still pining for the Fekir deal, despite LFC being the club that backed away at the last minute because of his knee reconstruction.
The ideal midfield in the 4-3-3 is one of three roles: the defender, the controller, and the creator. At present, you can say those roles are filled by Fabinho/Henderson/Wijnaldum, Keita/Milner/Wijnaldum, and… ? Whom do we have that’s a genuinely creative attacking mid? I think Keita can fill that role to a degree. I think Milner can, to a lesser degree, as well. I think the presence of Firmino as possibly Europe’s best false 9 obviates that need somewhat. Still, I’d feel better about having that one guy that starts on the field with the best front line in Europe and knowing that, even if the opposition hangs out in their half for the whole game, packing the box like the old Kop to stay in front of Salah and Co., That One Guy can also score.
The counterpoint to this is, of course, The Cube. Shaqiri can conceivably fill that role and has been doing an admirable job of it in his first two games of the preseason.
Against ManU, he played as a very forward center mid, almost like the apex of a diamond. Against Napoli, he was directly replacing Firmino as the 9. So, in one case he played more like an AM, even though he was occupying the center slot of the 6. In the other case, he was playing the role of creator, albeit one that starts up top, rather than feeding that top line. The former could have been Klopp experimenting with a change to his approach with Shaqiri on the field. The latter is the one that most expect to see. Neither of those is the bog standard AM, but then Klopp is not the bog standard manager, either. Coutinho specialized in setting up goals and in scoring from outside the box. (His famous drag across the top only to put a curler into the high corner is a move that will stay with me forever.) You know who Stoke’s leader in scoring from outside the box was for the past three years? The Cube, of course.
So, yes, it’d be great to have Fekir, if only for the added depth and the sure scoring threat. It’d be great to have Ox for the same reasons. But the fact that Shaqiri may be able to fill that role and is also capable of filling any of the three top slots in case of injury (knock on Trump’s head) means that our depth issues may not be all that. And this season, already almost guaranteed to be good and a lot of fun, may be the one that we’ve all been waiting for.