There’s a common misconception about so-called “British humor”, in that it’s usually tagged with the labels applied to Monty Python: often subtle, bizarre, and highly intelligent. An easy description would be that Python were less confrontational than what most Americans expect out of comedy. It wasn’t about flash or shock tactics. You were just supposed to appreciate them doing their own thing, even when (or especially because) you didn’t understand it. But the truth is that there is no “British humor.” There are varying styles that come out of the islands, as there are with any culture, and Absolutely Fabulous was one of them.
I never really appreciated the girls in the same way that I did productions like Python or Red Dwarf or Fawlty Towers. There was something about the “dug my own hole and now I’m sniveling to get out of it” approach that generally doesn’t sell me. But that’s OK, because a lot of people (including many friends of mine) loved it. It’s just a different style of humor than what I normally seek out. Same with the game tonight. It was a slugfest, played in less than optimal conditions, with a Liverpool squad that was still dealing with a lot of mental issues, post-derby (the loss of a star player and clubhouse leader to a reckless play, the disastrous application of VAR, etc.) That pressure was only magnified by everything that’s been circulating on social media in the past couple days, with all of the pearl-clutching about whether Liverpool will ever win another game without the talisman that is Virgil Van Dijk. Or, even the slightly more sensible reactions, bemoaning whether the defense will even be able to function without Virg (and Alisson.) This is, as Eddy and Patsy would have loudly proclaimed, bloody stupid.
Does anyone really think that this club, which has been built into a monster over the past five years, is actually dependent on one player? Does no one remember all of the accolades of the “will to win” that accompanied our season, prior to the COVID halt? Does anyone remember all of the individual honors that people other than Virg have won and been heralded for? Why would a cold, rainy night in Amsterdam be any different than a cold, rainy night in Stoke? (Other than, you know, the fact that you’d probably have a lot more fun in Amsterdam…) Does anyone think this team can’t grind out a win at the Britannia? Same thing here.
And it was a grindy game. And it became, past the hour mark, one that Jürgen Klopp was perfectly happy to simply squeeze the life out of. That’s when he swapped out the famed front line in one exchange and put in a trio that, while still dangerous on the attack, are also quite good at simply retaining the ball. I can hear the complaints even now: “But why did Liverpool struggle to beat Ajax??!!!” Because football is like that. Why did we “only” win a series of games, 2-1, last fall? I would argue that the proper assessment of a genuinely great team is one that’s able to win even when arguably playing not their best. That’s what happened tonight, with a couple exceptions. One was Andy Robertson, who’s been one of the real bright points for the squad this season, as he constantly moved the attack forward at a pace that Ajax struggled to keep up with. The other, of course, was Fabinho:
Dude was (absolutely!) amazing. Again. That’s the fourth time he’s started at CB for us and the fourth clean sheet we’ve produced with him in that role (Bayern, Brighton, Chelsea, and now Ajax.) He was everywhere on the pitch, but especially in the places he needed to be at just the right moments (4 interceptions, 9 clearances.) It’s like delivering a punch line. Timing is everything. He also added his normally efficient passing (41/49), won all 4 of his tackle attempts, and 3/4 aerial duels. Oh, and he also added the VVD stat du jour: he wasn’t dribbled past. Plus, that spectacular goal line clearance. So, yeah, maybe Klopp knew what he was talking about (shocker!) when he suggested that we were set as a squad with 3 CBs and Fabinho as a fourth.
It wasn’t pretty. Klopp said we were “good enough”, which is right. It wasn’t the smooth, electric football that LFC has become renowned for in recent years. But that’s a style thing and there are different styles that appeal to everyone. The one that appeals most to me is the one that produces 3 points (and, OK, maybe a dead parrot sketch, too.)
Ajax 0 – 1 Liverpool
Aside from the personnel changes (Joe Gomez and Fab were the 35th CB pairing for LFC since Klopp arrived; Gomez and Joel Matip have yet to start a game together…), a couple other things contributed to the sloppy nature of the game. One was steady rain, which only worsened in the second half. But the other thing was that AFC “We don’t change” Ajax… well, actually changed. Ajax has been the home of the 4-3-3 since Johann Cruyff became the manager cum godfather of the club, similarly to Barcelona. Today, Erik Ten Hag unveiled a 4-4-2 that he admitted was specifically installed to frustrate Liverpool’s attack. All things considered, they did a pretty good job of that, as well as breaking on the counter that gave us fits through the middle of the field for much of the first half. You could see Klopp nearly busting a vein in his head ranting at the squad for letting Ajax slip through the middle third like we weren’t there. Some of that may have been some inexperience on Curtis Jones’ part. But some of it was just solid play by what is still a great club with a good squad, no matter how much the vultures have picked it over in the past three windows. And as much as their 4-4-2 did kind of neutralize our wide play on the right side, with Trent being largely absent (note that CuJo was on the right side and was replaced by O Captain, Our Captain at the half), the left side was a different story.
The other contender for MotM was Robbo for the performance detailed above. He and Sadio Mané performed their usual controlled demolition of defenders that Ajax simply couldn’t contain. Nicolás Tagliafico’s OG was created from Ajax flooding defenders to that side to try to disrupt them. Much to their chagrin, when Sadio was subbed off, Diogo Jota came on and immediately picked up right where the starter left off, terrorizing Moussair Mazraoui, and creating a great chance, plus winning 3/4 dribbles (most for LFC on the night.) In 30 minutes. That kid is a huge explosion of energy in every game he enters.
But as we rave about Fabinho, we can’t forget his partner, who also had an excellent game in the “Virg is absent” spotlight. It’s especially important for Joe, given the start to the season that he’s had. My one slight note of criticism also centers around Joe, however. Given the number of times they’ve played and now trained together, the lack of communication between him and Adrián is kind of startling. The first example was that play right near the edge of the box, where Joe clearly expected the keeper to handle the ball instead of essentially tackle it off him. That led to a corner. Similarly, late in the game, when Ajax was going all out on offense and put in a cross to the center of the box, Joe leapt to take it… at the same time Adrián came forward to punch it. The weak effort created by them interfering with each other led the ball to dropping in front of Jurgen Ekkelenkamp for Ajax’s last good chance which he, thankfully, put into the seats. So, there’s an issue there, but it’s one that can be ironed out and, presumably, will be mooted by Alisson’s return in a couple weeks (fingers crossed.)
So, fine start to the CL which is just the opener to the “all fütbal, all the tyme!” period of the season, as we play five games in the next two weeks. First, the Blades come for another (presumably) grindy game with new weapon, Rhian Brewster (let’s all chuckle wryly at Cardiff and Bournemouth playing to a draw tonight with goals scored by Dominic Solanke and Harry Wilson and hope that trend doesn’t continue), and then it’s off to sunny Denmark and Midtjylland which, given the scoreline tonight at the MCH Arena, you’d think would be a bit more freeform for the Reds.