I didn’t bother to write anything after the 4-0 loss to City because, in the end, what was I going to say? City is still one of the best sides in football and if you let down against them, you’re going to pay for it. The irritating thing is that we played well in the first 20-25 minutes or so and then pretty abysmally from then on out. What was the trigger? Well, going down 1-0 might’ve been it. But there’s a funny contrast in the team’s reaction in certain games to falling behind. It hasn’t happened that often this season, but you can tell when it seems like our reach exceeds our grasp at certain points. Against City, as it was against Atleti back in March, we seemed to be Trying Too Hard (TTH) to get the equalizer and then to score at all. The same thing happened against Watford in our only other loss in the league this season. In contrast, earlier in the year, when we went down 1-0 early to the Villans, we simply continued to play our game; working, working, working until finally the breakthrough and then the winner. Which brings us to today’s game…
Granted, both City and Atleti are vastly superior teams to Villa, so it might make some sense in that trying harder to even up the game or get back into it makes sense against superior sides. But then there’s Watford… Then again, theory might simply go out the window and one might look at each game as an instance, which you often have to do, given the nature of football and sports, in general. Sometimes things go right or at least not horribly. Sometimes, it’s Watford or City or extra time against Atleti. You can take a similar perspective on today’s game: Was the first half just a continuation of the malaise that seemed to have settled over the team since City’s penalty on Thursday? Or was it a personnel or strategic issue? Certainly, the Villans were set to be going all-out from the opening whistle, given that they’re a point behind the aforementioned Hornets and in the relegation zone. They were going to carry the intensity to us and it’s typically expected that a Klopp team will match them, blow for blow. And I don’t think attitude was an issue. I think the problem was who was on the pitch.
We made three changes from Thursday’s game, replacing Bob with Origi, and Hendo and Gini with Keita and Ox. That midfield- Keita, Fabinho, Ox -is what a lot of Football Twitter regards as the “dream” setup. In their imaginations, it’s better to have “technical players” (the latest cover phrase for idiocy like “creative midfielder”) that will “produce”. This is like the old “Henderson only passes backwards and sideways!” routine, but with language that makes them sound more educated. And, honestly, they’re not wrong about Fabinho or Keita. The former is the best DM in the league and one of the best in Europe. The latter has remarkable skill that reveals itself in small movements that are often hard to pick up unless you really know the game. And Ox is no hanger-on. He’s in the squad because he’s a good player and Klopp wants what he provides: aggression, energy, and a distinct attacking threat from the middle of the field, like a classic #8.
Howevah, one of the key elements to LFC’s approach since Klopp arrived is that much of the chance production comes from the fullbacks. That means they have to play forward, which means that the midfield must cover for them. You know why Villa seemed so dangerous for much of the first half? Because our midfield wasn’t covering properly. It’s great to have players like Naby and Ox that we can count on to provide that kind of offensive threat and Keita has more than just that, since he’s spent time at the 6 in his career, as well, and is a great tackler when he needs to be. But I’m betting he’s also subject to some of that TTH I mentioned above. His career since he arrived has been waylaid by injuries. Every time he’s on the pitch, you can tell that he’s trying to demonstrate just how good he really is. That led him forward fairly often in this game and it left Robertson either on his own or behind the play, which is part of why he looked less than normal, as well.
But the other element is the one that’s, to date, simply irreplaceable. Witness:
Divock Origi, cult hero that he is, can’t do that. It’s just not his game. He does have skill. Anyone who watched the beatdown of the Ev back in December can see that. But he’s not Firmino and his limitations as a false 9 are on glaring display every time he starts in the middle. He lasted for about 20 minutes there before Klopp gave up and moved him out to the left, which forced Mané into the center, where he’s not as effective as he is coming off the wing. He’s still more capable at it than Origi, though. At some point, they also shifted Salah into the center and put Mané out on the right, where he played when he first joined us. But the main points are these: 1. Origi is not a starting forward for a side as good as Liverpool. 2. We still don’t have a solid backup for Firmino.
We soldiered on into the second half with a little more verve in our step until Klopp finally gave up and put the usual suspects back in. He did pull Fab instead of Keita, probably because he wanted to see more from the latter and the former put in a lot of work against City. (You try holding the line against Sterling, Jesus, Silva, Silva, De Bruyne, and Mahrez and see how long you last…) Almost immediately, the team transformed. With Keita still out on the left and Hendo and Gini swapping places between the 6 and the right side, plus Bob running his usual interference in the middle, suddenly they looked like Liverpool again. As Jim Beglin noted on the broadcast, “Since the substitutions, Liverpool look much more fluid.” Ten minutes of sustained possession and pressure later, we had the lead. Bob creates gaps in the defense, Trent feeds the ball to Keita, and he slides a nice cross along the grass to Mané. Where was Trent in that exchange? In the middle of the field, 40 yards out from goal. You know, where a right back should be. Why was he there? Because Henderson was covering for him.
I think Keita and Ox can do the things necessary to keep playing the way we do. They may never be as good at it as Hendo and Gini are, simply because they’re not that kind of player (Keita may be; Ox definitely isn’t.) For all the “creative midfielder” and “technical players” horseshit, neither our captain nor Wijnaldum get anywhere near the credit they deserve for keeping the machine moving. Their ball control and retention is among the best in the Premier League… just like Bobby. A fair counterpoint is that a lot of teams have sussed out our methods over the past two years. They’re staying wider and deeper to neutralize Trent and Robbo and Villa tried exactly that. That leads to a lot of empty crosses and what looks like old dump-and-chase hockey. Having an answer to that with players that are skilled in the channels (like Keita) is nominally something that should be developed. Of course, we’ve also only dropped points in four games this season and successfully attacked a lot of parked buses in order to be in striking distance of 100 points. It’s not exactly a crisis. But it’s something to consider for the future.
Titles. I thought of the title for this piece late in the game, not only because of the contrast in play from pre-sub to post-sub, but also when I thought we were going to put it away, 1-0. We’ve been looking at a lot of zeroes lately (0-0, 4-0, 4-0, 2-0), albeit not that many 1s, but Peter Drury and Beglin were remarking on the number of 1-0 wins we’ve had this season in all comps (6), so there’s your very mild coding joke for the day. It was reinforced by the above, showing our one(!)-season wonder setting records alongside all-time English greats. It’s also worth mentioning the other #1 that showed up:
That was the first PL goal for the only player whose name contains the letters for “Scouser.” Home town lad, indeed, makes good. And right after signing a new contract, yo. When people complain about not dropping cash in the market in the last couple years, it’s players like Jones, Neco Williams, and Rhian Brewster that Klopp points to as an answer to that overwrought concern. It’s indeed fair to ask whether Jones could be considered one of those “technical players”, except that- gasp! – his game is a lot like Henderson’s.
Other game stuff. One thing that can’t be denied about Villa is that they can produce offense through Grealish and Trezuguet. They outshot us for the game (Liverpool had the fewest shots on target of any half this year in the first and took the longest (31 mins) to get their first) and two of the three they put on target were solid; including Grealish’s in the 90th minute that Alisson steered away. Of all the amazing buys we’ve made in the past few years, he may still be the one that ends up bringing the most value. Last I saw, his GSAA (essentially, the saves made on shots that xG almost certainly label as goals) was 5.92. In other words, he’s saved almost 6 goals that most keepers would be expected to have lost. He also has 13 clean sheets and is is in a tie with Nick Pope for the Golden Gloves, despite playing 8 fewer games. Compare that with Ederson getting Salah’d by Che Adams today. Oh, and, y’know, broken record time:
“But I am constant as the northern star/Of whose true-fixed and resting quality/There is no fellow in the firmament.” – Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 1. (See? You get weak programming jokes and Shakespeare here. Speaking of value…) Also, let’s not fail to point out:
I am not a Naby Doubter. I want the guy to succeed. I think he has the ability to be another Xabi-type for us (Xabi… Naby… Totally works!) I just object to trashing the essential contributions of our regular left- and right-midfielders because people who block their own vision with just numbers can’t see how the game actually works.
So, five games left. We need 4 wins to break the total wins record, which will also guarantee us the total points record. We also need to win both home games left (Burnley, Chelsea) to be the first (and only other) side since 1892 to win all of our home games (Chelsea will have a mild interest in that one, since they’re one of the joint record-holders at 18 with the two Mancs.) But, before that, it’s the Flying Rats of Albion on Wednesday. They’ve been playing quite well since the return, so it could actually be a game. In the meantime, here’s this, just because it’s amazing and also an English game (that they invented!):