That same old song

Sentimental fool am I 
To want decent officials for any PL match
'Cause the memory keeps haunting me
Of times when they didn't make it so hard to watch

Wait. You mean… those aren’t actually the lyrics? Have you checked with the VAR? Did he confirm that it’s not a “clear and obvious error”? What? He was only listening to make sure the music was right? Well, see? I was right, then. Case closed.

We’ve arced far, far past the ridiculous to the sublime. I’ve actually never been comfortable with that phrase because “sublime” is intended to be used about things that are so beautiful or awesome that they inspire a certain sense of respect. It’s not possible to have respect for PL officiating at the moment because the situations keep getting more absurd and the responses from the FA and PGMOL reinforce that absurdity at every opportunity. Last week, it was that Stockley Park was only checking that Virgil Van Dijk was offside and not whether Jordan Pickford had dived at his leg. Then, when pressed about how stupid that sounded, they indicated that, no, they did actually look at that play and determined that Michael Oliver was correct in not declaring a foul. Today, we get the same farcical merry-go-round. First, they weren’t checking whether Fabinho actually fouled Oliver McBurnie. They were only checking whether said foul qualifies as a penalty because McBurnie’s foot was touching the line. Then, after an hour of video evidence demonstrated that Fabinho didn’t actually foul him and the repeated inquiries from the media continued as to why no one thought to suggest that Mike Dean should check the monitor, they declare that, despite the pictures in front of millions of viewers’ eyes, Dean’s foul call should stand. Who ya gonna believe? PGMOL or your lying eyes? This is, of course, on top of the fact that anyone believes that match officials can’t assess more than one aspect of a single event simultaneously! If they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be match officials at this level.

It’s a complete farce. It’s the equivalent of people insisting that the climate isn’t changing or that racism doesn’t exist. The PL, the FA, and their officials are so determined to be “not wrong” that even when the vast majority of viewers and the media can draw a different conclusion because the replays show that it should be a different conclusion, the officials do the Principal Skinner and give almost everyone even less faith in their ability than was had previously. Almost every other nation in Europe has implemented VAR successfully. American sports have been using video replay and having the officials check the field/court/rink-side monitors for decades. But not the Premier League! The best part about it is that it’s obviously not a single club, fan-held conspiracy (“The officials are out to get us!”), as we saw an even more egregious display of incompetence in the ManU-Chelsea game. The crowner is, of course, the weekly comparison with Champions League play, where most of the officials are actually competent individuals who check the pitchside monitors (and where we get five damn substitutions.) But what’s to be done about it? No idea. It’s like trying to educate a Trump supporter. Apparently anything we say or anything that appears on camera only reinforces their own wrong opinions.

The other reason that it was the same old song was the result of the game: 2-1. We remember those days! Granted, it’s not proceeding in lockstep fashion with last season, in that Sheffield United could easily have scored a couple more and perhaps robbed us of the points entirely. But if you were sitting down expecting us to blow their doors off or even emulate the outright domination that we exhibited the last time we played the Blades at Anfield (that one finished 2-0), given that they’ve acquired all of 1 point through 6 games this season, yeahhhhh… Maybe not so much. I think we opened fine, but after the mental shock of the penalty call, it energized a side that’s used to sitting back on the counter and kind of dampened us. The other complication is that we were starting the game in a different formation. Jürgen confirmed after the game that he wanted to change things up and decided to start the game in the 4-2-3-1, with Gini Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson on the double pivot, Sadio Mané and Diogo Jota on the wings, Bobby Firmino in the #10 slot, and Mo Salah up front. It wasn’t an entirely new thing, as we frequently use this formation as a change-up against certain opponents or for certain game situations. Traditionally, the 4-2-3-1 is a more defensive approach than the 4-3-3, but the way we play it, with our fullbacks still thundering forward, it remains effective on offense for us. Plus, getting Jota on the field with the traditional front three is a situation that most would expect to result in some fireworks.

So, after Bob got the equalizer off a brilliant cross in from Hendo and with the resulting header from Sadio bouncing off Aaron Ramsdale and ending up in Bob’s lap, the game shifted back toward something approximating “normal.” Once Sadio’s equally excellent cross ended up on Diogo’s head and in the net, it was pretty much over. From there, we just closed the game down and demonstrated who the better side is, just like last year. That impression was hammered home by the return of Alisson Becker to goal and a couple key saves that preserved all three points. In those respects, it was also the same old song that Liverpool have been singing for three years now. I like that song. Let’s keep singing it, right after YNWA.

Liverpool 2 – 1 Sheffield United

Again, it’s not often we play with a double pivot, so there was going to be some different motion through the midfield. What that formation does allow us to do is to put Mo into some even more dangerous positions than he usually gets into and also lets Sadio and Diogo do the same, while retaining a lot of the enabler role that Bob fills. Against a side that was more determined to advance the ball in possession, the results may not be as great. But there were several standouts from tonight’s match, as usual.

The first that has to be mentioned is Joe Gomez. Our Man Joe has seen some heat from various sources, including this one, for his performance in the early part of the season. But, over the past two games, he’s lived up to what we’ve expected our starting CBs to be. Those 8 clearances were the most in game, which is something to say when playing a team that’s as defensively sound as Sheffield are. One could point out the less than 50% return on aerial duels, but this is something that we already know about Joe and which he more than makes up for with his other attributes. Also, when you have to contend with a striker the size of McBurnie, you’re going to lose a few.

Diogo has, flat out, been an extraordinary signing. As we’ve seen, most players take some time to adapt to Klopp’s system, but he’s been a burst of energy every time he’s hit the pitch. He’s part of the reason that Rhian Brewster was wearing a green jersey at Anfield tonight and why Divock Origi couldn’t even make the bench. He’s also the first player to score in his first two home appearances for Liverpool since… Sadio Mané, in 2016.

We already know how good O Captain, Our Captain is at the #6 and his ability in the double pivot is also common knowledge. But the steadiness, the assuredness, the ability to see situations is something that often gets overlooked about Hendo. That chance he created was the one that led to Bobby’s goal. He also delivered three or four more long passes that carved open the Blades (heh) and generally commanded the midfield with Gini, even when Sheffield was flooding it with their wingbacks and the famous overlapping centerbacks. It’s worth mentioning that, in post-match interviews, the captain visibly sneered at questions about the team’s mental state, post-derby, dismissing said questions as something not worth paying attention to and which don’t penetrate the dressing room atmosphere at all. According to him, everyone is all in. We all know that he’s part of the reason they are.

Other notes

  • As much faith as I have in Adrián, it’s easy to confess to the fact that it felt much better to have Alisson back. His command of the back third is simply more definitive.
  • Chris Wilder remains one of my favorite managers in football. His post-match interviews are always very down-to-earth and his evident respect for Jürgen and Liverpool strike me as every bit as genuine as the rest of the man.
  • One of the most interesting things about the formation change was in the last 10 minutes when Jamez Milner came on for Jota. That moved Gini up to the attacking trio and you could see some of his old Newcastle form shining through. His talent at retaining the ball turns him into a serious offensive threat, because he camps out in the final third and keeps opening up opportunities as other people rotate in, while closing in on the box himself. It’s a very different style from what our other attackers employ and probably not as effective in Klopp’s system, but it’s nice to see confirmation that he’s still capable in that role.

So, still behind the Bitters in GD, who play their game-in-hand against a capable Southampton side tomorrow. Work’em, Ingsy. From here, it’s a visit from the Midtjylland Wolves on Tuesday, before hosting the bubble porn kings (otherwise known as Jaymo’s beloved Hammers) next Saturday. We’ll see if Moyes still has some dance moves by then. I’ll leave you with this brilliant goal-that-wasn’t because VAR, even when it’s used properly, still often sucks the joy out of the game:

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