There was a family that lived a couple doors down from us when I was a kid. The elderly grandmother of the household had basically one expression of surprise/glee/irritation or anything that would make her look up from her knitting and “Saints alive!” was it. Kids knocked over the trash? “Saints alive! Pick that up and quit messin’ about!” Kids made her lunch? “Saints alive! Aren’t you the sweetest thing?” Number came in? “Saints alive! I’m feelin’ it today!” Those other Saints from the south coast of England (aka Liverpool Juniors) were, uh, feelin’ it today, too. This is the first time in a while that a team has been so determined to take the game to us and it’s a sure sign of how Ralph Hasenhüttl has utterly reversed course on Southampton’s season; from the 0-9 debacle against Leicester to sitting in the top half of the league. In the first half, they created a lot of decent chances, pressed the back line, made Alisson work a bit between the sticks, and generally looked like they wanted to seize the day.
And, then, halftime arrived.
It’s an open question as to what exactly Kloppo said in the dressing room, since he won’t allow people like Amazon to break the spell of mystery. It could’ve been something wryly subtle like: “Uh, winter break starts tomorrow, boys.” Or it could’ve been the classic line that he did let slip to the media a couple seasons ago: “Play some fucking football!” Whatever it was, it worked, because the Reds came out in the second half and pretty much laid waste to the southern hordes in front of them. Klopp mentioned that they focused on using Fabinho better, which you can tell upon thinking about it. In the first half, Fab still looked rusty because every time the ball came to him, it seemed to stop and he had to deal with it as a problem, rather than an asset. In the second half, those jarring moments that stand out in the memory dissipated and suddenly the machine was purring again. I think it was a matter of positioning on the flanks that suddenly gave him more options. Those options turned into- Saints alive! -four goals in the second half and seriously encouraged the singing of “We’re going to win the league!” that will now be sung for the final thirteen games of the season.
That grandmother was using that expression as a reaction to something remarkable. You have to be dead to be a saint in the Christian church, so exclaiming that they’re alive is when you’re witnessing something that, in most days, shouldn’t be a reality. (Or you’re just aggravated enough that you’ll say it like a condemnation. Which was often.) What we’re witnessing now is deserving of that and many other kinds of exclamation, from astonishment to wonder to disbelief to frustration (for Manchester types. Tee hee!) I mentioned to some friends last weekend that I’d been supporting this club for over 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. Why? Because no one has. That alone makes it worthy of sitting up and shouting about. And what should we be shouting (yes, other than “Saints alive!”)? It should be: We’re going to win the league! Now it’s just about doing it with enough style so that no one ever forgets how it was done.
Beatin’ the xG. Obviously, not by much, since the real “numbers added” in those four goals was Ox’s daisycutter from outside the box (his preferred approach in many seasons; he has 3 in the EPL so far.) But it’s the setup to the goals that really makes them special:
- Ox carries the ball down the left and fires a (too quick) pass to the endline which Robbo recovers and follows with a cheeky backheel to Firmino, who slides it back to Ox to charge along the top of the box before slamming it home;
- Trent does one of his typical wonder-passes to the left corner where Bob picks it up, brings it forward, and then snaps it back across the box to the captain who can then pick his spot;
- Fabinho kicks it back to Alisson to reset, whereupon Ali fires a long one to (I think) Bob, who is coming up too short for it, so Hendo steps into its path and hits a perfect curl to Salah, thundering down the center, who then makes McCarthy go to ground and chips him;
- Salah plays in a perfect lead pass for Bob, who has to move outside to protect it from the defense, but then centers it for Salah, still moving, and he again chips it past McCarthy in the midst of a pile-up.
Those are team goals, where everyone has absorbed the system, knows how it’s supposed to work, and is properly executing it. As noted, Klopp thought we weren’t taking advantage of Fabinho in the first half. That’s understandable, given that we’ve been playing for the past two months with Henderson at the 6, and he’s a different style of player, as I noted last game. So, the gaffer made a couple small tactical changes at the half, and the transformation was apparent and immediate. Once again, for all that Klopp is lauded for his man-management, I don’t think he gets enough credit for his knowledge and awareness of the game.
You’ll also note that the majority of the above success was based on superlative work by one Roberto Firmino. I’ve said before that Bob is my favorite LFC player of the modern era and that remains true today. What other player in the league would be on a solid goal-scoring run (and should have had another off a beautiful feed from Keita) and yet churns out a hat trick of assists? OK, yeah, probably De Bruyne. But does KDB play defense like Bob does? No. That’s what makes our false 9 unique and still essential to the way this side performs. But that shouldn’t detract from Mo, Hendo, and Alisson, who also put in sterling efforts.
OK. Let’s talk about the annoying stuff. First off, no, that doesn’t qualify as a back pass to the keeper. The rules stipulate that the pass must be unambiguously intended for the keeper and it’s easy to see that Robbo was probably trying to bounce it off Djenepo and get the goal kick. Secondly, was that a penalty on Danny Ings? … Probably. The first contact isn’t whistle-worthy but the second attempt that Fabinho makes, when he kicks Ings’ ankle, is a pretty clear foul. Ings, of course, falls in stages which every PL official automatically assumes as “No foul! See? He’s still walkin’!”, so Soton doesn’t get the call. That they probably would have had a PK there only means that they would have tied it up because if Kevin Friend or VAR called that, then they sure as shit should have called the foul on Firmino getting dragged down at the goal line by Eric Stephens in the first half. Hasenhüttl ranted a bit about how goals change the game in his post-match PC. They sure do, Ralph, especially when we’re carrying them into halftime. LFC have gone over 100 PL games without a loss when leading at the half, just FYI.
Speaking of stupid numbers… The numbers they are getting stupid.
- Mo has more goals at home than any other player since his arrival at Anfield (43.) Only Messi and Lewandowski have more in that time. He also now has more league goals (70) for LFC than Luis Suarez (69.) His goal per game ratio is .65, surpassing Gordon Hodgson’s .64 as the highest in the club’s history.
- Bob now has 50 assists, 11 more than anyone else at the club since he arrived in 2015. He’s only the second player this season to rack up 3+ assists in a single game in the PL. Liverpool now has 2 of the top 3 for assists in the league: Trent with 10 and Bob with 7.
- Liverpool is now ahead of second-place Man City by 22 points, the largest point gap in the history of the top division. They’re also tied for second in consecutive wins at home with 20, behind only Liverpool of 1972. We also have the most clean sheets (11), the fewest goals conceded (15), and are starting to pull away in GD (+45.) LFC now has more points than they’ve gained in 18 other complete EPL seasons.
Henderson said today after the game that the most important thing to him was that “everyone is enjoying their football but it’s also about the work ethic and giving everything for each other – and that’s the most important thing to me.” This is a team. This is why we’re winning. This is why those numbers are stupid(ly good.)
Alright, das ist alles, as the two managers would’ve said today. Next up is Neil Crutchley and the U23 team taking on the Fightin’ Kates on Tuesday. Hopefully, that goes well so we can stay on track for a treble. If not… whatevs. We’re still winning trophy #1 and in the knockout rounds for #1A. After the break, we have to go Carrow Road for the first time since that insane-in-the-membrane game from Klopp’s first (partial) season. Protect yo specs.