Grinding perceptions

 

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Last season, people suggested that Liverpool had learned how to grind out wins, rather than swing between offensive explosions and being completely neutered by a packed-in defense. In true Proper Football Man style, they suggested that a more “mature” side knows how to endure the dreadful tactics of the less-talented opponents and trade blows in the midfield, before finally finishing the opponent off by the proper one-goal margin. Liverpool had a number of games like that in the early part of 2018-19 while they sorted out how all of the new pieces (Fabinho, Alisson) and some missing ones (Ox) were going to work (or not) together. But given that no new starters were added this summer, it could be seen as somewhat surprising that the Reds are already grinding against lesser sides that you’d expect this team would cruise past, like Norwich and Southampton.

But as with most team sports, and especially one as impacted by random chance as football is, it’s rarely the case that trends have a single cause. Rather than fretting about how “Liverpool isn’t blowing people away like they should be! There must be something wrong!!”, it’s more useful to look at circumstances. For example, in looking at our defensive frailties, it’s useful to note several things:

1) We’re playing with a higher back line, as Klopp experiments with pressing the attack in the offensive zone and relying on things like VAR and tighter offside calls to preserve the defense. So far, this isn’t a confirmed strategy, but it seems evident that now that we have video backup to the linesmen, it might be wise to play a little faster and looser with the back line in order to ensure that we can break down opposing defenses that much easier. It’s been evident with even more of those surges by the CBs to the opponents’ box.

2) We’ve been rotating the squad, with Matip and Gomez trading places at CB and the latter playing at RB, as well as Gini and Fabinho trading off at the six. As much as they’re playing the same position, all of those guys are very different players. Matip and Gomez don’t approach the role in the same fashion, as the former relies more on positioning and the latter more on recovery speed in similar situations. Gini will always be more offensive-minded than Fabinho will, contrasting their relative positions on the field.

3) Fatigue is an issue, even this early in the season. Summer breaks are shorter than ever, especially if there were lengthy tournaments to play (Copa America, AFCON.) Given that we were forced to play 120 minutes on Wednesday and follow it with a road trip to a high-pressing side (Hasenhüttl is often known as the “Alpine Klopp”), there was going to be some wearing down at some point in the game.

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Thankfully for us, most of that came in the first half after Milner left the field to deal with yet another bleeding head injury (thinking of the gash he suffered in the pre-season against Napoli last year.) It took a while for the team to find their feet again after Southampton wisely pushed the issue while we were down to 10 men. But, even after he was securely in place again, it seemed like we were having the same problems in midfield as we had against Chelsea: too many errant passes that were easily intercepted, too much of a disconnect between the back line and the midfield three. Against Chelsea and N’Golo Kante, that seems understandable. Against Oriol Romeu? Not so much. In the first half, I was chalking up part of it to Ox still working out the kinks. But after watching the game again (the only downside to watching at Magee’s is sometimes not being able to really absorb what’s happening on the pitch), his performance actually stood out positively to me. To wit:

Typical of Klopp, he said Ox’s performance was “brilliant”, while Ox said it was “alright.” That’s still vastly better than my initial perception which, like those ideas about Liverpool “not performing to expectations”, didn’t accurately reflect what was happening on the field. So, two things to keep in mind: 1) It’s a long season. 2) Football is like that. Randomness can mean that one team actually not playing better can often get the win, but another team seemingly not playing well can often be doing better than you think.

Making history. Saturday’s win meant that Klopp is the quickest manager in the 127-year history of the club to make it to 300 points in the top division, doing it in just 146 games and including adjusting for wins when they were just worth 2 points. Faster than the King, faster than Rafa, faster than Paisley, faster than Shankly. There’s a lot of argument to be had about whom the “best manager in Europe” is, but our guy has a pretty strong case.

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The Sturridge situation. No, not the actual Danny. He’s reportedly on his way to a Super Liga club or possibly Monaco. Why would it be that a still excellent player is seemingly dropping so far away from the Premier League? Probably because he can’t stay on the field, as his injury history is a brutal survey of missed opportunity for him and the club. On that topic, I’m starting to wonder if we’re running into another one. To be blunt: Naby Keita’s time at the club has failed to meet expectations. It takes most players some time to adjust to Klopp’s system (superman Virgil Van Dijk being one of the notable exceptions) so having to wait most of last year for Keita to become a presence on the field wasn’t too surprising. But part of the reason that he wasn’t able to was about injuries, more than adjustment, as he dealt with a number of minor problems throughout the year. After losing the remainder of the season to a bad tackle vs Barcelona and then having that injury exacerbated by the Guinean national manager, we were assured by the club that he was ready to go for this season. Until, you know, play actually started and one game on the bench against the Canaries was swiftly followed by a practice injury and his absence for the SuperCup and Soton. Now, it’s early days yet. A lot of players have a season marred by injury, sometimes multiple times in their careers, and still contribute to their clubs. But this regular parade is worrying.

In other news about players not seeing the field… Xherdan Shaqiri dropped a couple comments to the media about his dissatisfaction with his playing time (That would be zero minutes so far.) Considering the amount of offensive value he’s repeatedly shown that he can bring, his departure would be really disappointing. Of course, rumor has it that his lack of value on the defensive side is what led Klopp to pass him up for much of the second half of last season. Given that Firmino is going to need more rest than he got last year and that, as much as I appreciate Origi, he’s a totally different player from Bob, while Shaq can more closely simulate Bob’s output and footwork, you’d think that opportunities would be there. But if he’s still not doing what the boss wants, whattaya gonna do?

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Speaking of lack of playing time. Phil has been granted his exit from his dream club, moving to the presumably more congenial confines of the Allianz Stadium in Munich. Just like in Catalonia, he should rapidly become familiar with winning league and domestic cup titles almost by default and getting broomed in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. At the very least, he won’t be trapped behind a player who represents that star that the entire system orbits around, although he’ll still be playing second fiddle to Lewandowski. Better him than the fifth-best player in the world, I guess. But, again, tell me where playing time was going to emerge for Phil, given that we can’t even get all of our current guys the time that they want?

So, erm… yeah. About that Adrián thing.

Klopp immediately joked that he had played so well that he’d decided he had to duplicate Alisson’s performance against Leceister last season and let one in. And there’s no doubt: he HAD played well, denying Maya Yoshida on an open header from a corner, among other good moves in the box. My only concern here is that he’d already had a warning in the first half when he’d tried to clear the box and Che Adams kicked it right back at him in remarkably similar fashion. That one resulted in a goal kick. This one resulted in a goal. So, yeah. Lessons learned and all that, one hopes.

He’s Virgil Van Dijk! Next up: a whole seven days between games! Crazy. Oh, and then the Gunners come to town. I really have no idea what to expect.

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