Ordinarily, I hate this kind of game. Hate it. HATE. IT. It’s why I would gladly see Burnley sent down, when I don’t normally hold any particular opinion about relegation for any other club. (Although, there are a couple that would be both hilarious and astonishing. Like the converse of Leicester City, 2015=16.) We know the opponent is going to camp out in their end. We know it’s going to be one long slog of us retaining possession in their end and slinging in balls to try to get something. This isn’t like the Boxing Day domination of Leicester, who are a typically Rodgers-style attacking side and just got pinned back because we were so dominant that day. No, this is typical behavior by clubs that simply can’t play at this level, scraping by and hoping for a freak circumstance.
That’s weird to say about Chris Wilder’s side because they have been quite good. They have a system (the overlapping CBs and other midfield overloads.) They execute it well. They don’t just go into a shell hoping to see out a 0-0 draw. But today they just weren’t interested, even after going down by a goal in the 4th minute. Liverpool set a record for completed passes in the Premier League with 969 (breaking another Man City record…) Normally, the number of passes thing doesn’t tell you much about a team other than “they let us have the ball, hoping to win on the counter.” Or they’re a Pep side (even though he says he detests tiki-taka.) But we pinned them in their end for the whole game, in part, because they let us. It was Burnley in different colors. And it was mostly awful. Now, some of the awfulness was precipitated by our sterling play, as Chris Wilder was quick to point out:
Because he’s right. We did win most of the open balls. And even most of the non-open ones. The mindset that our Henderson described after the game, where he mentioned disliking the fact that Sheffield got a couple breaks in the last few minutes (horrors!), is one that generates that kind of work ethic. We’ve had it since last season and it’s really paying off, since we’ve just come through the holiday crunch with an unbroken streak of wins and 58 points out of a possible 60. What’s even better is that we’re now doing it not only with good finishing (which, uh, could be slightly better) but by returning to the insane defensive stats of last year.
Two more of those shots came in the CWC. They’ve allowed six shots on target in the Premier League during those 5 games; exactly half as many as the 12 goals that LFC have scored. And, just to refute my point that the game was as exciting as watching someone trying to pry open a pickle jar, the second goal came from a break that Alisson started with a quick throw to Robertson, which then saw Mané and Salah going 2-on-5 with Sheffield’s defense and still getting the interchange right and scoring. That’s a, uh, helluva counter. And, sadly, Salah doesn’t get the assist for a beautiful feed into the box, since Mané collected his own rebound.
So, yes, I did start this column by bitching about how I hate bunkering games. That style of play has never appealed to me (which often made the Rafa years difficult), but there’s no denying that Liverpool is on fire right now and the raves from opposing fans (and managers) are finally starting to drown out the haters. This is the best team in England. Probably the best team in Europe. According to FIFA, the best team in the world. Due credit to the traveling Blades fans, responding to Anfield singing the “champions of the world” song by singing: “Champions of League One! You’ll never sing that!” Fair enough.
Pinnacle of control. Also, due credit to Dean Henderson, Sheffield’s keeper, for doing yeoman work keeping them in the game, just like a couple months ago. His effort included this spectacular save on a nicely worked attempt by the Reds. But Kloppo’s comments after the game were accurate: we controlled the game. In at least one respect, they let us do so but, as Wilder points out above, we also made sure that we were the team in charge at every opportunity. Including some last-ditch ones:
It’s like slapstick. “Wait! You have the ball?! No, no, no, no, no. Give it back.” That was just one of the high points of masterful display from one of the guys we’re totally accustomed to seeing that from. ManU paid the English tax and the Virgil tax to get a defender who’s not even in the same class because almost no one is. Except Gomez, who also plays for us. Sorry ’bout yer luck.
In trying to close the game out early in the second half, we did shift to the 4-2-3-1. I’m not so sure that formation changes were overly useful since, again, Sheffield was totally ceding the ball to us and when you’re only playing in one half of the field, formation differences become less noticeable. Seriously, every member of our back four and Hendo at the 6 had over 100 passes in this game:
On first glance, you’d say that the Leicester City win was the more dominant one because of how obviously defeated they were in the second half. But it’s hard to look at those numbers and just think how similar the scorelines could’ve been if Salah’s chip bounced off the post in another way and/or their Henderson didn’t make that remarkable save (and stayed in front of a few more efforts. How is this guy behind Pickford for England, again?)
Speaking of Hendersons And other sons. Almost without question, O Captain, Our Captain was man-of-the-match tonight. He commanded that midfield, breaking up what few attacks emerged (3 tackles, 1 interception), and keeping the ball flowing (3 dribbles, 4 chances created (2nd most in the game.) Oh, and 92% accuracy.) At this point, we should be completely comfortable rotating the captain with Fabinho at the six, if minutes become an issue as the season drags on. Of course, we’ve also played more games in the past month than anyone else we’re facing and we’re still running teams off the field (see: Wilder, above), so I’m not sure endurance is an issue right now. But, it’s a long season and if we get past Carlo and the Bitters on the weekend, our schedule doesn’t get much better. And now we’re down another midfielder, with Naby Keita sidelined. Again.
Of course, as soon as we heard that Milner was replacing him, there was a series of tweets by the idiots complaining about the “lack of creativity” in the midfield. (How do I know they’re idiots? Because they still don’t know what our midfield does after three years of doing it.) We’ve now reached Sturridge levels of disappointment in that, when Keita’s actually on the field for one or two games, he looks great. But then he gets injured. Or sick. Or otherwise incapacitated. That was the frustrating thing about Studge. He’d look brilliant for a game or two, but you’d have to remember he was made of glass. Even in his hallowed season alongside the Biter, he sat out a number of games with this or that niggling injury. Keita is now officially in that category. The word is that it’s a groin injury. If it’s the same problem he had last year that was perpetuated by his moron national team coach, then LFC should probably be looking into a long-term solution, which probably means surgery, which means goodbye to the season. I love the guy’s play. I’m not going to be one of those other idiots suggesting we sell him because of things beyond his control. But we’re approaching the point where it’s fair to question whether he can compete, physically, in the Premier League.
In contrast, we can’t ignore the performance of Alisson in goal. Again, like Virg, we’ve come to expect it and he often doesn’t get much of a workout (see: shots on goal, above.) But he’s still kept 26 clean sheets in 50 league appearances for the Reds, putting him behind only Petr Cech (33) and our own Pepe Reina (28) in that respect. He might’ve left Reina in the dust if he hadn’t been sitting out for a month-and-a-half.
Alrighty, then. Next time is an opening FA Cup round with a Premier League side, just like the last three years. Who’s surprised? Even worse, this time it’s with the Ev and (sigh) Carlo. It’s still at Anfield, but Klopp already said he’s doing some rotation (less than before, now that Keita is sidelined.) We don’t want to lose our home winning streak, but we also don’t really care about the FA Cup anymore. How conflicted.