It’s difficult to write up regular game reports in the early rounds of the Why Is This Still Being Played cup because, like the FA Cup, you’re often on the pitch with clubs that simply aren’t in your class. Lincoln City did some damage in their prior game (a 0-5 win over Bradford City) that showed they were taking this competition seriously. Their reward was to meet the best team in England, playing almost exclusively backups, and get shown the door, 2-7. The most telling moment was the start of the second half, when the Imps (still an awesome nickname) came out determined to fight back against a 0-4 deficit and, within 17 seconds, surrendering a fifth. You could see Lincoln keeper, Alex Palmer, smiling every time a shot went past him in the second half because there was, almost literally, nothing he could do.
So, there’s not a whole lot to be gained by analyzing formations or tactics or game developments in the normal fashion, because it won’t really tell us much about the squad or how it will fare in the upcoming match against the Gunners on Monday. I guess it could tell us something about the subsequent match against those same Gunners next Thursday in the WITSBP cup… but probably not. (Seriously, in the next round, all but two (Stoke and Brentford) are Premier League sides. Why are we doing this again?) Given that, I figured I’d just run down through the roster of guys that actually saw the field and look at how they did on an individual basis. I can make one overall formation/positioning note in that we were looking strangely narrow at times in the first half and Lincoln was eating up the acres of space provided to their wide players but, again, that may have been a factor of individual error or something else random from this random tournament in the most random of games.
Adrián: Is our backup keeper and still looks solid in that role. Giving up two goals under some relentless pressure and aided by a couple mistakes on our end doesn’t deter me one bit. On top of that, he made some truly excellent saves and used his body well to impede some rushes into the box by the Imps. If anything, I think his distribution has improved, as his long balls seemed to find their target more often and he’s definitely become more rapid and assured on his throws out of the box.
Virgil Van Dijk: Um… duh. Virg did his thing, which is be the captain and cover everywhere on Earth that isn’t covered by water. I was mildly annoyed when I saw his name on the list because, again, league game vs. still-aspirant-to-the-top-6 Arsenal on Monday. But he only played a half and it was probably a good thing for the number of kids and club rookies present in that back line to have the commanding Dutchman calling the shots for the first 45.
Rhys Williams: This was the strangest of selections. Normally, one would’ve expected Sepp Van Den Berg to be the guy here and not the 19-year-old Williams. But Sepp has apparently lost his place in the order and pre-season favorite Billy Koumetio was out with a minor injury, so Williams got his shot. For the most part, he played well. His positioning was questionable on a couple of Lincoln attacks and he went to ground twice attempting to stop their first goal, rather than playing his man into the box, but that’s what you often expect from a young guy trying to visibly prove himself. He was calm on the ball and passed it to the right places and made some solid tackles.
Neco Williams: Our resident backup to Trent Alexander-Arnold, Neco was an expected face. He proved his defensive chops more than once, occasionally taking on multiple opponents on offense and succeeding. He didn’t find himself in a position to demonstrate much in the way of crosses, as I think Lincoln’s Tayo Edun and Jorge Grant had a bit more speed than Neco was expecting. But he stayed active and involved on his side and pretty much looked the part of “backup for Trent” that we’re expecting. He still has some road to travel to get to directly competing with the latter, but signs are still positive. As a side note, he apparently took enough abuse from so-called “fans” last night to have shut off his Twitter account for a while. I will continue to reiterate that football Twitter is the dumbest place on the InterWebs (which is saying quite a lot) and it’s patently absurd to be attacking one of our own for what was apparently one mistake in a 7-2 win. Here’s hoping those bandwagoning cretins decide that Bayern is “their club” in the near future.
Kostas Tsimikas: This is one of the players I was really interested in getting some more looks at. Kostas is intriguing because you can see that he has talent and a certain level of experience, but you can also see him trying to play our way, which is not typical among fullbacks. I think he had one of the best games of anyone on our side last night. He was regularly in the right spot and made great decisions with the ball, on both offense and defense. He doesn’t have Andy Robertson’s blazing speed, but he makes up for it by shadowing his mark effectively and timing his blocks and interceptions well. He also had the majority of crosses on the night and his placement was good. He’s been overshadowed in this year’s window by Thiago and now Diogo Jota, but I really think Kostas has been a positive acquisition.
Marko Grujic: Foremost among the “He’s still here?!” brigade, Grujic has been doing well at Hertha Berlin for the past couple years and you can see the confidence that’s been bred by regular, first-team football. However, having seen him in previous pre-seasons, including this one, playing as the #8 or in a similar attacking role and still not wowing me, I had to say I was flat out ogling him playing as the #6. He was… good. No one got past him. He commanded his space in the middle third. He played the traditional pivot role and frequently started attacks with solid passes through that middle third and into the attacking zone. Plus, he has the size to win aerial duels there and muscle his way through opponents to retrieve the ball. This seemed like a natural fit and I’m kind of amazed it hasn’t been tried before. Now, our midfield depth is such that he still probably won’t get near the regular rotation, but he certainly put forth an argument for keeping him, where before I would’ve targeted him as among the first to be sold to thin the squad. Plus, he probably set a recent record for number of days (1496) between first appearance for the club and his first goal.
Xherdan Shaqiri: Cubetastic. I like Shaq as an attacking mid. When he plays forward, he tends to forget everything but driving the ball into the opponent’s box and making the magic happen. But in the midfield, he’s moving around so much that he gets much more involved in the flow of the game, and that includes defense. Shaq broke up a couple of Lincoln’s attempts through the middle and generally hassled their midfield across the pitch. Similarly, he worked well with Curtis Jones and Taki Minamino in controlling the middle third and sending passes into the box. Plus, that free kick, yo.
You really can’t do it any better. If he can just stay healthy…
Curtis Jones: Speaking of midfield depth… The Scouser-in-our-team would be a nailed-on starter at many other clubs. His assuredness on the ball and his field awareness have grown in leaps and bounds over the past year-and-a-half. Observers shouldn’t be surprised by what he does anymore. They should expect it because that’s the player he’s become. This one:
which was a MOTM performance. That second goal- controlling a live ball from the top of the box, shifting it on to his right foot as he skates past two defenders, putting the curl on it just like the strike against Everton last year -was emblematic of everything he’s become. I’m really eager to see him become a part of the league rotation this year.
Divock Origi: … sigh … He’s just never been the same since Funes Mori destroyed his ankle. He put on so much muscle in the rehab that he’s more able to take the fabled battering of the PL, but he’s also trying to be a winger in a target man’s body. Not only do we not play that game, but he’s no longer fast enough to interchange properly with our fullbacks and doesn’t have the positioning instinct of a genuine striker to properly execute on incoming balls. Think of how many times in this game where he ended up at the top of the box with the ball in a swirl of defenders and came away with nothing. It’s also a confidence issue, on top of the physical limitations. You can read the frustration in his face every time something doesn’t materialize for him the way it used to three years ago. Teammates are aware of it, too, as you could see Jamez Milner talking him up and encouraging him after he scored a late goal in the pre-season. Admittedly, some days are like Everton at Anfield last year, where the other team simply can’t handle him (albeit… Everton) but you’d expect that a League One side would be one of those teams and he was basically invisible for much of this game.
Harvey Elliott: In contrast, there are similar expectations orbiting Harvey whenever he sets boot to grass, but he’s also only 17 and still seems like a walking spark shower wherever he goes. You can see the frustration on his face when things don’t come off like he planned them, but it’s frustration mixed with a high degree of confidence. It’s basically a picture of youthful insouciance (“Oh, yeah? I’m coming right back to do it again and this time it’ll work!”) meshed with a great deal of talent. Unlike others mentioned here, I wouldn’t expect Harvey to be a regular on the bench for another year or two, but the potential is significant and he showed that here by giving Lincoln’s left side fits with his pace and constant pressure. One obvious improvement was his effectiveness when tracking back, as well, as he put in a number of tackle attempts that contained the Imps’ eagerness to rampage down their left side.
Takumi Minamino: This was, by far, Taki’s best performance in a Liverpool shirt. It was also his longest appearance, so the room to breathe and ability to find the rhythm of the game was apparent. (Also, League One side, etc.) He played the Firmino role decently, although he remained slanted toward the offensive half of the pitch. But when he was on that offensive half, he harried the Imps constantly. The basic stats above don’t do justice to his presence. In many ways, he pushed the game forward and demonstrated a much improved idea of how Klopp wants the system to work. He’s still not Bob, but few players are, so this was definitely a step forward. And this, of course, just has to be appreciated:
Fabinho: Came on for Virg at the half and, um… had a couple issues? You could conceivably cite misplaced passes by Fab for both Lincoln goals, although I’d lay responsibility moreso at the feet of their urgent effort to show up in the second half. It’s certainly a much different experience playing on your favored right side with VVD backing you up, as opposed to being on the left side and pairing with a guy in his first senior game. Whatevs. Things happen.
Naby Keita: Came on and did Naby things, including a couple incisive passes through the middle to Taki. He still looks good and, like Shaq, we’re still just hoping he stays healthy.
Diogo Jota: I said last time that I’d talk a bit more about this. Diogo’s arrival was a bit of a surprise. There were some rumors filtering around that he wanted to move on from Molineux, but nothing urgent and Michael Edwards, cards close to his chest like usual, hadn’t let slip that LFC was interested in throwing down ~£40 million for a forward option that could sub in properly for both Sadio Mané and Mo Salah but… yeah. There it is. That Edwards magic again. With exceptional timing, Michael Cox dropped a piece at The Athletic, not only about Jota’s scoring ability, but also about his tendency to draw red cards from his opponents, as a consequence of his readiness to burst towards goal at any moment. We didn’t have that kind of adventure in his first appearance, but he did combo well with Kostas (in the manner that we’re accustomed to seeing between Sadio and Robbo) and mixed it up well in the opposing box. Big things to come, I think.
So, the WITSBP cup. Yay. Again next week with those same Gunners we’re playing on Monday. Why? Money. And playing time for a lot of these guys, which is the only prevailing positive.