Meh?

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There’s a lot of debate about the value of the Community Shield. On the one hand, it’s effectively a pre-season friendly, since it doesn’t count toward the league or any of the cup tournaments. OTOH, it’s also usually against a Premier League opponent, so the concept of “friendly” doesn’t really apply, on either competitive or associative levels. No one is going to look at a game against Arsenal or Man City and declare that they’re basically ambivalent about the results. We want to win those. We especially want to win those that result in a piece of silverware, even if it’s considered not “real” silverware. It’s a trophy with the club’s name on it. The UEFA Supercup is a similar trophy, since it pits the winner of the European Cup against that of the UEFA Cup, but is generally more highly regarded (we have it on the Wall of Champions at both Anfield and Melwood, whereas the Shield is not) because it takes place during the season and because it normally involves sides that don’t regularly encounter each other. But some clubs count the Shield as a “major trophy” and some don’t. So, I don’t think there’s a firm argument one way or the other. Like most things in sports, it matters to whomever thinks it matters.

My bottom line is this: I want to win every game we play. I’m not going to get in a twist about a pre-season loss to Dortmund or Napoli in the same way I’m not going to get riled about a draw to RB Salzburg. Similarly, I’m not as disappointed by our 1-1(5-4) loss to Arsenal that came about in the exact, same way as last year, as I am with our league loss to Arsenal a few weeks ago that was not only a loss in the league but kept us from clearing 100 points last season. But the italics probably signaled that I’m at least a little irritated that we couldn’t beat a team that we clearly outman, even with much of our normal right side (Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold) absent, and that it seems like a continuation of the overall malaise that’s largely been present since play restarted in June. I’m starting to wonder if that’s going to continue to be an issue.

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I’m not one of those people who pines for the old days and would be most likely to issue the blanket statement: “Football is nothing without fans.” The game is still the game. (/Marlo Stanfield.) You can execute a plan and perform the same way when you’re playing on a practice pitch as when you’re playing at Wembley. I don’t put a lot of faith in the idea of “momentum” in sports. However, there’s no doubt that many players and, thus, many teams feed off the enthusiasm of the crowd response. The Traveling Kop would have been out in full force at Wembley this past weekend and roaring whenever the ball moved forward at the touch of a red foot. You can see the impact of empty stadia on the team just by watching goal celebrations. Throughout the restart, they remained largely soporific compared to the usual explosions of enthusiasm. Part of this was probably because of orders to keep contact to a minimum, but also because there were no screaming fans to celebrate with. It’s no surprise that Liverpool’s enthusiastic fans can be seen as a factor in its success, both for the atmosphere created at Anfield and the support that the traveling fans provide. The manager has often talked about (and, early on, complained about) the effect that the supporters have on his squad. Their enthusiasm is similar to his enthusiasm on the touchline.

Does that mean that empty stadia might mean a tougher path this season? It could. OTOH, it could just be an opportunity for Klopp to remind the team of what they achieved last winter, when they basically cruised through the league like a machine, trusting in themselves and the gameplan to function as intended. It’s that kind of “mentality monster” strength that led to that string of 2-1 victories that I was kind of arching an eyebrow at for much of the first half of the season. It’s possible that that kind of approach was what was needed this weekend and, with the captain not on the pitch, was missing. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see what kind of energy the squad has in two weeks, given that Marcelo Bielsa also plays a very intense style and it will be Leeds’ first game at Anfield in sixteen years. Those two factors alone should make it more exciting than playing for a semi-trophy (which is still a trophy.)

Britain Soccer Community Shield
Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka and Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson, right, run after the ball during the English FA Community Shield soccer match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Wembley stadium in London, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Justin Tallis/Pool via AP)

The game. Most of the reaction to the events on the grass was a torrent of abuse for the midfield, in general, and Gini Wijnaldum, in particular. I think it’s fair to say that Gini is less effective on the right than he is on the left or at the 6. I also think it’s fair that, as a result of his tendency to drift into the middle, he unfortunately left the most inexperienced member of the squad, Neco Williams, in a few 2v1 situations that the latter was simply not ready to handle. When Gini is on the left, he’s generally OK drifting more inside because Andy Robertson has the speed to make up ground that might be left open. But on the right side, Trent relies more on positioning than speed in his ventures forward, so Hendo has to be very aware of the space in the middle third. Compounding that was also Neco’s tendency to drift inside, which let Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang get past him and into some dangerous spots. That wasn’t precisely what led to Arsenal’s goal, but it was an overall contributing factor (on top of the fact that Aubameyang is still one of the best wingers in the world.)

That said, I think our issues were a bit broader than just personnel problems. Under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal has shifted to the latest fashion in formations: the 3-4-3. This isn’t a “new” new development; Rafa used it for the comeback against Milan in 2005 and, more recently in the PL, Antonio Conté used it for Chelsea’s title run in ’16-’17. But it’s come back into fashion with the number of defenders around that are smart enough to play CB, but still fast enough to play a wider role (Witness Joe Gomez, for example.) With 4 in the midfield (wingbacks), it means the team is predicated toward offense and relying on fleet centerbacks to save them on the counter. It also means that it’s easier to get overloads in the middle third against the other popular formation, the 4-3-3, which is what we use. The cluster of Arsenal bodies in the middle of the field not only gave them opportunities in attack, but made it more difficult for our recycling game to through that area. Who’s our best at ball retention and recycling? Yeah. Gini. He wasn’t having difficulty claiming or retaining the ball. He was having more difficulty finding open guys to pass to. The 3-4-3 also tends to mask the efforts of a proper ball-distributing #6 like Fabinho because, again, there are fewer targets to find and despite having openings to the wide areas, which is what we like, those in those wide areas often get isolated, as you could see repeatedly during the game when we were carrying the balls toward the corners and getting not much out of it.

Until the second half, where we swapped some people around (Gomez to RB, Fabinho to CB, etc.) and went to a 4-2-3-1. The point there is to place that 3-man back line under so much pressure that the wingbacks have to fall back or risk overloads in their defensive third. At some stage, with Taki Minamino on, we were effectively playing a 4-2-2-2. And, in large part, it worked. The last half hour of the game was completely ours and only some unlucky finishing moments kept us from closing it out on the field. So, for all of those shrieking about the lack of a “creative midfielder” or complaining about Gini’s role on the field or how some guy from Bayern would be an enormous upgrade, I can only say this:

Gini

Remember what this man has done for us. Remember that we were one of the best, if not the best, team in Europe for the last two seasons with him as a constant starter. Remember that he is doing exactly what the manager wants done on the pitch and, in doing that, has directly contributed to that status as the best team in Europe. People used to lob some of the same criticisms at Hendo. Those people were wrong, too.

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The young’uns. Neco is not Trent. That much is obvious. It doesn’t mean he can’t get to Trent’s level (he just got his first call-up to the Welsh national side for this coming weekend), but it’s going to take some more time. No should be surprised by this. He needs a bit more game time to work on that positional sense and he’s a fine backup for cup games and the bottom half of the table. Curtis “Curtinho” Jones played really well in the few minutes that he had. He held his own on the right side of that almost-front three and constantly pressured the Gunners. Filing Taki with the youths, he looks much improved even over the games from the restart. His interplay with Naby Keita in the last 15 minutes was especially good to see. For all of the wailing about the money we’re not spending, part of the reason is that we do, in fact, have depth in a lot of areas. We just haven’t had to buy it. I can’t say I was especially thrilled at the idea of bringing Punky Goalster (Rhian Brewster) on for two minutes before the PKs started, as he has shown a need to get warmed up in game action, but that also can’t be linked directly to his miss, either. He’s a confident kid. Sometimes, shit happens.

One more note on that money situation. It was pointed out recently that Leeds United has been spending with aplomb on their return to the top flight after a decade-and-a-half and a question was poised as to how they could afford to do that, where we can’t. First off, promoted clubs frequently spend a lot of money and often poorly (see: Fulham. Oh, hey. They’re back, too…) They do so because their owners, desperate to stay in the top flight, are willing to pour money into the coffers with the hope that they can be a bit tighter over subsequent seasons to fit under FFP regulations. As noted, our owners are not like that, based on sound reasoning; much of it involving risk (see: the decade-and-a-half that Leeds spent not just in the second tier, but the third.) But there’s also a material reason. Leeds is coming up with an expectation of an increase in revenue to the tune of £90 million, thanks to the PL’s TV contract. They also have a current payroll of ~£15 million. LFC is anticipating a revenue decrease of some £90 million. We also have a payroll of £320 million. For the non-math inclined, that’s more than 21 times the outlay that Leeds are making on their squad. It’s not always just a question of how much cash we have on hand or expect to pay out over a number of years to the selling club. Sometimes, it’s also a matter of thinking about how much is going out every week. We have one of the best teams in Europe. We are also paying for it.

That’s a lot of words for a game I ostensibly don’t care about. (Who else do you read regularly that uses words like “ostensibly”? I’m betting no one.) Next time, I start on squad reviews, going back to front, and leading up to the opener against that same Leeds United. Sigh… If there’s one thing I’m already rolling my eyes at, it’s the return of self-entitled Leeds fans. Two brief periods of success in half a century and all they want to talk about is where they “should” be.

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