There are a lot of Premier League games that one could look at and simply assume the winner before a ball is kicked. That’s simply the nature of sports: some teams are, will be, and have been better than others. Most people refer to that phenomenon in the PL as the “top 6” situation, wherein the most prominent six clubs (Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal) are presumed to be the dominant force in a majority of their matches. Even in the more hotly-contested season that we’re currently experiencing, that phenomenon remains something of a constant, in that 5 of the top 6 teams in the table after 24 weeks come from that group, with Arsenal (10th) replaced by Leicester City (the latter often being among those considered “the best of the rest.”) Of course, there’s a small erratum that has to be added this time, given that there’s more distance between 1st and 2nd right now (19 points) than there is between 5th and 20th (17 points), with 5th, 6th, and 7th tied at that point total and separated only by goal difference. Last season, the argument was that there were two leagues: Man City and Liverpool, plus everyone else. Now, there’s just Liverpool… and everyone else.
So, yeah, you can look at the vast majority of league games that LFC has played or will play this season and consider that victory in them has been or will be “routine.” This is a shift from the former perspective of “grinding them out”, as that condition presupposes that it’s something of a struggle to make that victory happen. This game was not one of those situations. West Ham are, to put it succinctly, not good. This is despite everything-old-is-new-again manager, David Moyes’, assertion that “winning is what I do.”
The facts speak otherwise, especially where Liverpool is concerned. I guess he shouldn’t feel that badly, considering that this side has managed to defeat every team in the top division in a single season for the first time in its 127-year history (Also the earliest top division side to ever do that, out of 13 that have. And in the fewest number/percentage of games.) If you like to look at things from the geologic perspective, this was almost inevitable. It’s like watching a glacier. Or Issa Diop. Eventually, things simply aren’t going to go your way. Perhaps everyone should just give up now, like most fans have been suggesting for the past few weeks? I mean, it’s all starting to add up, right? 2019 season. 19 points clear. Defeated all 19 other teams in the league. Klopp’s 19th year managing. And we’re on the verge of winning our 19th first division title. It’s almost like witchcraft.
But it’s nothing mystical or exotic. At this point, it’s just routine. Our players know our system. They know what Klopp expects. They know what they expect of themselves. As Klopp, Ox, and Alisson were all saying after the game, they know what they did well, but they know what they can do better, too. A mantra that all of them have been repeating every time someone shoves a mic in their faces is: “The most important game of the season is the next one.” They treat them all the same; as a puzzle to be solved (most often, how to unlock a 5-4-1, like tonight) and problem to be worked. In other words, like a routine. It’s a routine that’s conceded just one goal in the past 13 hours of football and has given us a point total in January that exceeds that of our total points in literally half of the seasons of the past decade. I could learn to live with this monotony.
The game. Was actually pretty cool in the second half. The first half was a typical Moyes/lower-half-of-the-table approach: do everything possible to squeeze out a point with a 0-0 draw. It’s also a hideously boring way to play football that most hoped was exterminated by the change in points scoring (3 for a win instead of 2) in the 70s and the back pass rule in the 90s. Not so much. But once we’d taken the lead, the Hammers realized that they’d actually have to… you know… go forward or something like that, so they really came to play. Our own Jamo and his lovely wife, Nathalie, sat next to me at Magee’s and we were actually shouting and gesticulating at things moving on the screen, rather than watching the metronome-like motion of Liverpool passing the ball around the back line, waiting for the clock to run out. West Ham may not always look good doing it, but they can cause a bit of a ruckus in the middle of the pitch. But in the midst of what was overall a solid performance, a few of our players, like usual, come in for some superlatives:
- Salah: 80% passing, 2 chances created, 5 shots (one off the post), a brilliant assist, and a goal from the spot. That’s 90 goal involvements in 95 league games: 66 goals and 24 assists. He’s also scored and assisted in 14 different league games since he joined us, more than any other player in that time. One season wonder, yo.
- VVD: 92% passing, 5/9 on long passes, 5/7 in aerial duels, 3/3 in ground duels, 2 tackles, 4 clearances, and a 10th clean sheet this season. He’s the best defender in the game.
- Alisson: 4 saves, including a couple brilliant one-handers, bringing him an 8th clean sheet in just 16 games played, and an overall save percentage of 86%.
But man of the match for me was, once again, our captain:
Over the course of the game, from substitution to substitution, he shifted from the 6 to the 8 to the 2 (right back) without a hint of a problem, and compiled the stats above. Meanwhile, he was still reading the riot act to anyone who wasn’t measuring up and pushing the team forward. You can’t get more comprehensive than that. And this isn’t to diminish the contributions of anyone else on the pitch, including those listed above and those not, like Ox whom, with Salah, did this:
Yeah, man. That’s an outside-of-the-boot curling pass and Ox showing the strength to barrel past Lanzini and still put it past one of the best keepers in the league. But Henderson is beginning to reach Virgil levels, where you simply expect him to be so good that all the ways you try to elaborate upon what he does seem not to be sufficient. In a season full of superstars, I think it’s fair to argue that Henderson is in the running for our player of the year. I have to continue to heap praise onto Joe Gomez’s return, as well, since he’s been “the other half” of that superlative defense in front of Alisson.
The above chart is a great example of looking at that effect that he and the team have generated. StatsBomb decided to try and take shot-stopping ability out of the equation and just examine the quality of shots that were being presented to keepers. You, uh, can see which side has been the best at preventing their goalie from being exposed. Looked at one way, you can almost suggest that Alisson has been underperforming based on the quality of shots he’s faced and goals conceded. But that’s a figment of sample size, because if he’d made just one more save, he’d be considered to be overperforming compared to the average Premier League keeper. The main thing to draw from it is that the team succeeds in playing defense long before Alisson ever gets involved, which is exactly what Klopp wants. We also have the best goal difference in the league as a consequence of scoring the second-most goals, so it’s not all about the D, although we do have the most clean sheets in the league, with 10.
Alrighty, then. Three days off (feels like December!) and we have strangely resurgent Liverpool Juniors (aka Southampton) coming to Anfield. I’d left them for dead after the housing they took from the Lesters, but the Alpine Klopp (aka Ralph Hasenhüttl) has them… in the top half of the table! I mean, granted, there’s 4 points between 5th and 14th but, still, I thought they were going down. Still might, I guess. Meanwhile, we need one more win to guarantee CL play next year (i.e. before the knockout rounds for this year even start…)