We’re now at the point where we just have to get used to it. We’re not going to have the ridiculous defensive record of last year (only 2 clean sheets in 13 games so far, with more than twice the goals allowed at the same point last season.) We’re not going to blow teams off the map the way we did two seasons ago. We ARE going to continue to pull games out in the last few minutes, as we continue to lead the league over the past two seasons in goals scored in the final fifteen (11 this season alone), often to pull into the lead and secure the three points. And, consequently, many of those games are going to turn out like this one.
It doesn’t matter if comparative talent means that we should have lit the opposing side like a fuse to a Roman (Abramovich!) candle and waited for them to spend themselves before leaving behind a smoking shell. It doesn’t matter if we utterly dominate possession and the progression of the game for long stretches, making it seem like we’re playing at a level above the opposition (as we often are.) If this is the way we maintain the points lead (and the unbeaten record), then this is how we do it, regardless of the heart strain it causes all of us. To beat a cliché to a bloody (red!) pulp: This is how championships are won.
In this case, at least, it isn’t even that Palace is that bad, despite being in the clammy grip of The Hodgson. A whole three points separates them from the European slots right now, which is an environment that Palace has never experienced (They finished third in ’90-’91, but English clubs were still banned because of Heysel. [kicks dirt] … sorry ’bout that…) Plus, you look down their squad list and it seems strangely… capable. Who else can bring a talent like Benteke off the bench and utterly alter the way they’re playing and make it dangerous? Plus, when’s the last time you saw someone that big try a bicycle kick that was actually quite accurate? The whole thing is mildly terrifying, on top of the strange aura that descends on Selhurst whenever we visit recently (and almost inevitably win.) It’s always a struggle, even when Palace isn’t good.
Of course, the usual complaints are being lodged about VAR; the system that was supposed to “expose Liverpool”, which is now being used to “hand the title to Liverpool”, if you believe Twitter (Try to avoid that.) Considering the incident surrounding Palace’s non-goal, I can only say this: If you’re going to call a foul on Trent for the, uh, push on Zaha, then you have to call one on Ayew for the push on Lovren. I’m wholly in Zaha’s corner concerning EPL officiating. He takes way too much abuse, as most other forwards in the league do. But there’s taking abuse and then there’s taking advantage and that one was a bit much for me. Regardless, to The Hodgson’s credit, he was up front about the VAR call:
What compounds the aggravation is when we end up taking the lead (apparently too long before Kloppage Time) and then have to try to go through the motions of sitting on that lead, which is often torture. We’re just not designed to be a pack-it-in side and you can see how foreign it is when the team are asked to do that. Regardless, the grind goes on. Three more points, eight point lead, and the first step into the nine layers of hell known as “late November and all of December” for this season. Hopefully, we come out of it having ground our way into a secure lead and maybe even a new trophy.
Ugh. This game… I mean, sure. We know it’s The Hodgson and we know he’s going to play the 4-5-1 or some formation that’s the equivalent of “peer into the hole and see only our glowing eyes, because we’re not coming out.” It’s like digging a hole in sand; the sides keep caving in and we keep doing the same thing and, every once in a while, we get cut by a jagged-edged piece of glass or find a shiny, gold coin. But as frustrating as one of those games can be (and there will be many, many more of them), it’s usually at least slightly better when we’re not so sloppy. But that’s the aftereffect of an international break, when most of the squad are playing with different people and different systems and the rest of them aren’t playing at all. Neither Trent nor Robbo had a particularly good day, but still managed six key passes between the two of them and Robertson had the assist on Mané’s goal. So… yeah. It has to be said that there were some primo chances missed, as well; like Firmino’s 1v1 with Guarita and Lovren’s missed chance at the back post with nothing but the yawning gulf in front of him. In all honesty, Palace had a couple sitters that they didn’t take advantage of, either. That’s part of why international breaks suck. At least we don’t have anymore until March, but I can imagine the squad might be pining for one around the time they return from Qatar.
Croat competence. Speaking of Lovren, I’m’a go ahead and post something that’s likely a very unpopular opinion in some quarters: He’s actually a very competent defender and one of the better passers on the team. It’s just his anticipation of attackers that often gets him in trouble and calls his ability into question. But he’s been doing really well since Matip went down and you can see that he and Virg and he and Trent have developed a certain rhythm (a quality that Kloppo often cites when deciding whether guys are going to play.) Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be playing alongside this guy:
(Wait for the ManU fans: “He only made ONE tackle!!!!” Right. Good defenders don’t have to make them.) What Virg’s stats don’t include as part of those sterling passing numbers are the killer long balls he dropped on Mané a couple times. A better bounce here or a few more inches there and the latter could have had three goals and this game would’ve been put to bed in the first half.
Still killin’ it. Bob remains Bob, the heart and soul of this team. Those passing numbers will show you that Palace successfully limited his play through the middle (you try fighting your way through a five-man midfield only to run into a typical back line!) but they couldn’t stop him from opening avenues for Mané and Ox. One problem that did emerge was in the first half when it was painfully evident that Ox on the left simply wasn’t working. He and Robbo don’t have that connection the way the latter and Sadio do. So, early in the second half, Klopp switched Mané back to his customary left wing slot and shifted Ox to the right, which worked much better, given his tendency to drift inside from that spot and his much greater ability working in the center. That occasionally gave us something like a 4-3-1-2, which isn’t the worst idea, since Palace was attempting to stay wide with their midfield. When Origi came on, it kept the pressure on, but for a different reason, since Divock is a much more prominent physical presence than Ox is. I’m still not quite sure where Ox fits in the side, since he doesn’t have the defensive mindset that Hendo and Gini have to protect the fullbacks, but he’s certainly not a natural winger. Conceivably he could be a replacement for Bob, but I don’t know many forwards in the world that would currently be a “replacement” for Bob.
Okeley-dokeley, neighborino. We’re in it now. Napoli arrives on Wednesday. A win there means we win the group and can rotate the squad against Salzburg in two weeks, which would be great. Playing some kids against the Austrian club would be kind of entertaining, even if we lose, since that would guarantee that the Naples diving team gets relegated to Europa again. (That undeserved loss at the San Paulo is going to linger for a bit.) Beyond that is an invasion by rats with wings (aka seagulls), where we’ll be without Fabinho as a consequence of yellow card accumulation. It’ll probably be Hendo or Gini at the six, but with them likely already starting against the Italian club… maybe Keita? That’d be cool.
Also, weird fact of the day: Man City’s 46.74% possession today is the lowest of any Guardiola side in his almost 400 games managed. Strange tidings at the Etihad. Not sure what it means yet. Let us depart with this invigorating reflection: