When the clubs took an international break, I ended up accompanying them; not because I had planned it that way, but simply because there wasn’t much to talk to about re: Liverpool’s performance or much of anything else. Not only were the major leagues not playing, but there wasn’t much about the way things were turning out that was surprising. City and LFC (and Chelsea) were ensconced at the top of the EPL, Juve was running away with Serie A, PSG was dominating the fairly wretched Ligue Un and… wait. Bayern was sixth in the Bundesliga? OK. Not everything was proceeding according to form. Even so, the title of this piece isn’t too far off the mark (and reminiscent of a recent column by Slate about songs and hooks of same from the last 25 years that will last), especially when it comes to the way Liverpool was winning or not-quite-winning: grindy and without much scoring. (BTW, there are some tracks in that list that are irrefutable, like Seven Nation Army, but others where I’m shaking my head. I would have gladly asserted that no one I know was familiar enough with Liz Phair to identify anything she did in 1993, except me, and certainly not enough people to allow that track to last down through the ages.)
Liverpool defeated Huddersfield Town yesterday, 1-0. That scoreline is as uninspiring as any of recent vintage; the upside being two-fold: the Reds once again demonstrated a tenacity in narrow wins that had been absent in recent seasons and Salah managed to get one after his recent fallow period.
That was easily the most efficient moment of the entire game for LFC: a great through-ball from Gomez, an even better leading pass by the Cube, and Salah slicing it into the far corner. Thankfully, those seconds of brilliant play resulted in a goal and the whole three points, because the rest of the day saw play taken to Liverpool by the Terriers in equal fashion to what was shelled out and, despite some encouraging build-up play in the middle and final thirds, the last pass would simply not pay off. Klopp cited it in his unusual post-game joint interview with Town manager, David Wagner:
The last pass was almost always a problem. Granted, Town played well and, again, these are the kind of wins that were often absent from Liverpool’s ledger in past seasons. We’re still tied atop the league with Man City. We’re still setting or matching club records for point total and wins. But the fact is… so is Man City. They’re matching or exceeding the pace that they set in their unprecedented season from last year. People laughed at Pep for being irritated about his team’s performance in a 3-0 win over Fulham, but Pep likely knows that this Premier League race is going to be close and that goal difference may end up being a factor. Liverpool, although tied with the reigning champions in points, is now 10(!) goals back because City defeated Burnley 5-0 yesterday, while LFC ground out another 1-0 win over a side that is Championship-level with League One facilities, but is somehow in its second season in the Premier League.
The upside is that LFC, again, managed to extract a narrow win and also did so with a number of changes to the side, instead of pushing all of the starters through it. That depth was absent in previous years and something the club can now rely on. The goal above was the product of one player playing in a reserve position (Gomez at right back) because his normal position was allotted to a backup (Lovren) and another highly-touted reserve (Shaqiri) filling in for the injured Mané; in addition to Sturridge and Lallana also filling in for starters that either returned late (Firmino) or joined the injury train (Keita) that seems to follow most international breaks. I’m in complete agreement with Klopp in that the Nations League is an awful idea for the top players who have little rest for 9 months and also just emerged from an actual interesting tournament that absorbed much of their summer break. People complained that international friendlies were “boring”. Fine. Don’t play them. Let these guys that are playing four matches in ten days have a week off. Other than James Milner, Robot Warrior (who once again defied the odds and returned early from a hamstring injury. Because he’s a robot.), the players aren’t automatons and both physical and mental fatigue are factors that take an effect on the club play that everyone actually cares about. One can only hope that the La Liga players’ revolt against being shipped around the world to play starts to manifest in players and clubs telling FIFA and UEFA to piss off at some point in the future and bring the schedule back to sanity.
There’s not much to say about the game, tactically. Huddersfield’s low block did its job and Liverpool was fortunate to not give up the equalizer when Town decided they had to come out and play. Ordinarily, a team willing to run with us provides openings that the front three can exploit. But I think the lack of Firmino was important here, since he’s normally an enabler for the two wingers, whereas Sturridge, as great a finisher as he is, has never really been the guy who opens the door for those around him.
However, another positive note about recent events is that Liverpool assembled its top-of-the-league point total by going through a more difficult schedule than the rest of the top 6. Tottenham away, Chelsea away, Napoli away, plus Chelsea in the League Cup and PSG and City at home, is a rougher stretch than anyone else has played and we’re still top of the table. The upcoming list (2 dates with Red Star, Cardiff, Fulham, Watford) is much less daunting, with resurgent Arsenal being the only significant date until the return trip to PSG and the Merseyside derby start to ramp things up again before the holiday test. And many other numbers bear out the sterling play that Liverpool has exhibited so far. At this point of last season, we had 14 goals scored. We currently have 16. We have six clean sheets. We didn’t reach that until the end of November last year. We have 23 points. We didn’t reach that until mid-November last year. So, yes, a lot of upside. Just give me a couple wins over Cardiff and Fulham by 3 or 4.
Elsewhere in the world:
Has anyone else in the footballing world had a worse last six months than Julen Lopetegui? He negotiates with Real Madrid on the eve of the World Cup and gets sacked. He then leads Los Blancos to a fifth-place position in La Liga, behind Barca (of course), Atleti, Sevilla(?), and Alavés(???) They also endured their longest scoring drought in the club’s history, going almost six matches without a goal until Marcelo hit one… in a 2-1 loss to Levante. Most media outlets are now saying that the club is going to fire the manager nine games into the season, which would make him the quickest firing in the club’s history, beaten only by Jose Camacho’s resignation in 2004 after six games. This is Real Madrid, so this can only be responded to with the full Nelson:
But one has to feel for Lopetegui: manager of one of the greatest national teams in the world to manager of one of the biggest clubs in the world to unemployed in less than six months. I mean, he knew the risks of getting involved with the Meringues from the outset, so ya dig yer own hole and all that. There will likely be job offers in the near future, so it’s not like he’ll end up destitute, either.
And speaking of Alavés, the fact that they’re sitting 2nd in the league in mid-October is probably a result of one of two things: 1. That whole gods-dice-with-the-universe perspective. Or, 2. That TV money for the league having been redistributed a couple years back is finally beginning to pay off. Looking at the spending in the last window, while Barca and Atleti still outspent everyone else to a ridiculous degree (including (ahem) Real Madrid), when you have clubs like Getafe shelling out €19M and clubs like Valencia spreading €67M around, you might actually have some competition for league position. Barca is, uh, still in first, of course.
The Bundesliga is also kind of interesting for the first time since the last time Bayern Munich raided Klopp’s league winners. Before yesterday’s games, the perennial champions were sixth in the table. They now sit third, behind the streaking Dortmund (as Bob has noted here) and Werder Bremen. Meanwhile, last year’s second-place “challenger”, Schalke, is in a complete tailspin, sitting just above the relegation zone. Most surprising of all is the presence of Hertha Berlin within shouting distance of the top. Taking a look at the map of the league will show that 16 of the 18 teams play in the former West Germany. The two exceptions are Leipzig, a Red Bull-monied club, and Hertha. Despite some success in European play in the early years of the century, Hertha has roamed the distance between mid-table and relegation (twice) in the last decade. It is, of course, still early and most are simply waiting for Bayern’s overwhelming talent advantage to take its toll as it usually does, but it’s at least encouraging to see one of the former Iron Curtain clubs that’s not the equivalent of soft drink Man City play some kind of relevant role in the first half of the season. Monchengladbach, German monster of the 70s, is also looking better than usual, so take a moment to tune into Fox Sports for a Krautball game, if you have the time.
And, oh, where would we be without saying something about the explosive drama at Stamford Bridge near the end of what was a pretty exciting 2-2 draw between two teams that absolutely should have had a meteor dropped on them?
In Jose’s defense, that was a pretty low class move by Sarri’s assistant. OTOH, drama is as drama does. Mou does whatever he can to keep the focus on himself, from charging down the tunnel to engaging the crowd to remind them how he won three titles with the Blues. It’s all about Mou. We’re just bystanders.