So, let’s just get this out of the way right up front. The Aston Villa game was a bit of a disaster. There were personal errors on the part of several players but, just like in the Watford game last March, it was simpler than that: We just got outplayed. How did the barely-avoiding-relegation Villans manage to outplay the champions of England? The same way the heading-to-relegation Hornets did. Sometimes, football is like that, where one team comes in with a good plan and executes it and the other is just never on their game. Is it a reason to panic? No. The Reds are still likely the best team in England. But one of the exciting aspects to the Premier League is that, given the amount of money that it generates, the level of competition from top to bottom makes it more likely that the better teams are going to get tripped up by one of the lesser teams (see: Man City last season.) You generally won’t see that kind of thing in Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga because the gulf between teams like PSG and Bayern and their domestic opposition is so wide that the likelihood of an upset is comparatively lower (he says, merely two weeks after Bayern got housed, 4-1, by lowly Hoffenheim; exception proves rule, etc.)
There’s also zero- and I mean ZERO -sense in excoriating any of our players for the result. No one on a Jürgen Klopp team approaches a game like it’s a fait accompli. There’s no debating that a couple guys had a rough game; foremost among them, Joe Gomez, who had the dubious honor of being highlighted by Michael Cox in a piece at The Athletic about Liverpool having let in 11 goals in the first four games of the season, which ended with a suggestion that Joe “needs a break from the first team.” But it’s not for lack of effort. Indeed, some of the moments that Cox analyzed may show that Joe was trying too hard; overrunning the play in his eagerness to get back and cover from our usual high line. Another piece to that puzzle is that we’ve now engaged our backup keeper for the next couple months, given yet another injury to Alisson Becker. Every keeper has different tendencies and it’s incumbent upon the other defenders to know them and work with them. That miscue by Adrián and Gomez for the first goal was one of those things.
As noted above, the xG difference was bad, but it wasn’t 7-2 bad. Three deflections and a keeper mistake is 4 goals right there, which means we still would’ve lost the match, but not in the “worst loss since the early 60s style” that occurred. But it was still a loss, which means that it’s worth examining aspects of the game that didn’t just involve user error, as it were. Dean Smith took advantage of the lessons that Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds had provided, in that a really aggressive midfield approach can work even when you’re largely ceding possession to the opponent. Every time the ball entered the middle third, it was generally because it was on the way forward and Jack Grealish and Co. made sure it stayed that way. They didn’t attempt to contain the ball in that segment so much as disrupt our transition and then immediately pounce on forward opportunities. A lot of our opponents’ midfielders spend time trying to cover the wide areas to minimize the impact of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Villa didn’t really bother with that (which is part of why Robbo was so outstanding), instead largely pushing the pace up the middle of the pitch. We’re often dependent on Fabinho and Roberto Firmino to cover either end of that segment of the field and neither of them really had a strong performance in this game. Neither did Naby Keita.
What that Villa approach also helped contribute to was Mo Salah’s performance, which was kinda brilliant. It hasn’t all been about the strategy that the opposition has taken, though. Mo is 1st in the league for shots and chances created (19 and 14, respectively.) He’s also 2nd for goals (5) and 3rd for successful dribbles (25.) I mention this not only to highlight one of the few positives for this game and one of the real positives for this early part of the season, but because Mo has also frequently been the target of criticism from so-called Liverpool “supporters.” He’s been playing brilliantly and I still mostly read or hear the complaints of “selfishness” or “lack of finishing” (5 goals in 4 games!) when it comes to discussing his role in the team. Like any successful club, there will be a lot of fair weather fans and more recent supporters attracted by the run of success (this is where I devolve into my old man “You don’t know about Everton!” routine.) But one of the most important elements of Liverpool Football Club is that we’re all in this together, including every player on our squad. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is the club’s anthem for a reason. Jürgen Klopp is our manager for a reason. Bill Shankly solidified the club’s philosophy as one of socialism for a reason. No one in our club is complacent or happy about losing. The best scenario is to hope that, by the end of another season where we’ve won more trophies, we look back and kind of scratch our heads at what happened at Villa Park and then just shrug and move on.
Was it a bad loss? Yes. Are there defensive issues to work on? Yes. Would it be better with Alisson in goal? Yes. Can we still go back to the top of the table with a win over the Bitters on Saturday? Yes. So, let’s do that.
The penalty situation
There have been an unusual number of penalties in the league this season; most of them centered around the, uh, excessive interpretation of the handball rule. I’m not getting into that morass as, believe it or not, it’s easier to talk about the other kind of penalty: fouls in the box. Now, a lot of supporters have suggested that there’s a bias against Liverpool in some way, even as our number of penalties received in the league has steadily grown over the past four seasons. But the way to properly contextualize that is typically by a comparison of the number of actions/touches we take in the opponent’s box, indexed with penalty calls. Squawka brought this issue into partial focus in this excellent piece, where they mention that Mo had twenty-one touches in Leeds’ box in our opening game of the season. The next highest in the PL that weekend? Sadio Mané. The five most prolific players in terms of touches in the opposition box last season were… our entire front three, plus Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha.
And, yet, despite that presence, we still end up with situations like the above tweet, where an obvious hip check straight out of the NHL isn’t called. This leads us back into multiple discussions about implicit bias among PL officials (none of our front three are White) and English officiating as a whole (i.e. what constitutes a “play on” in the PL would be a blatant penalty in almost every other league in Europe), to say nothing of Martin Atkinson in particular (sigh…) I’m not going down that road today, but it’s something that will definitely reemerge as the season progresses.
Also last week, LFC did confirm their Champions League squad, which doesn’t include Harry Wilson, but does include the Cube, so rest easy Shaq (Not that Shaq) fans:
Alisson Becker, Adrian, Caoimhin Kelleher
Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Kostas Tsimikas, Andy Robertson, Joel Matip, Trent Alexander-Arnold
Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum, Thiago Alcantara, James Milner, Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xherdan Shaqiri
Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Takumi Minamino, Diogo Jota, Divock Origi, Harvey Elliott
Other key details are that we have the maximum of 17 foreign-trained players, four home-trained players (Milner, Hendo, Ox, and Harvey), and three club-trained players (Gomez, Trent, Kelleher.) Fear not, Curtinho fans, U21s who’ve been at the club for two years don’t need to register, but can still play. Harvey had to register because he’s only been at the club for a year.
Speaking of which, that was probably enough ranting about a game we’d rather forget. So… there. Forgotten. It’s the only thing international breaks are good for. Next up is the Merseyside Derby and Carlo’s resurgent/insurgent Toffees who are currently sitting atop the table, led by red(!) hot Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Our last trip across Stanley Park was less than thrilling. We could really use some of the right kind of excitement right now.
Also, coming up later today, I’ll be posting a breakdown of Project: Big Picture, supposedly led by our owners, FSG.