5 years ago today, Jürgen got his first PL win. There have been ups (major) and downs (minor) along the way, but victory has generally been the outcome, more often than not. Over the past couple years, one of the hallmarks of the squad that he’s built has been its consistency. With a couple exceptions, there haven’t been games that have just gotten away from us and there haven’t been stretches of the season where it seems like nothing is going well. There’s been a certain positive consistency that embodies Klopp’s work at Liverpool and the trophies earned over the past 18 months are a reflection of that. Something I’ve often remarked upon in that period are the “grinding” wins; the ones where most commentators will sagely nod and suggest that, even when they’re not playing well, the Reds will “find a way” to win the game, anyway, and I’ve been guilty of this as much as anyone else. This, of course, doesn’t fit very well with the fact that winning games tends to indicate that they’re playing well in the first place.
One way of looking at it is from the other direction: Despite having any number of games in the PL where you’d think that LFC should be the expected winners, you can’t refute two things: 1. Football is still the most random of major sports. 2. There’s so much money in the Premier League now that even the “bad” teams can often still be pretty good. West Ham is no exception. They went into this recent stretch of games (Wolverhampton, Everton, Leicester, Tottenham, Man City, and Liverpool) where most would have predicted something like 0-0-6 or 0-2-4, at best. Instead, they went 2-2-2 with two convincing wins and one convincing loss. There’s a lot of talent in the league right now, especially given that it’s the only one of the major five leagues that spent in the summer like it was a normal window, instead of one enshrouded by the spectre of COVID-19. So, it may no longer be the case that running rampant over the PL for the defending champions is the way of the world. And, no, David Moyes still has very little to do with it. Even with that acknowledged, Liverpool currently sits atop the table. Again.
But looking at it from the other end of the equation is just as significant. Regardless of opponent or competition consequences, every game is essentially “Next man up.” This Liverpool squad is kind of a machine. When one part breaks down (gets injured), a replacement part is put in and the machine keeps rolling. There was no more obvious example of that consistency than Nat Phillips today. I, like most people, assumed that Rhys Williams would be stepping in to fill the void at CB, especially since Nat was among the foremost on this summer’s “trying to sell” list. But Jürgen, recognizing that Phillips isn’t registered for the Champions League and that Williams would almost certainly be needed for the trip to Bergamo, opted to go with Nat and not risk the injury gods once again. That option turned out to be a brilliant one, as Phillips looked twice the player that he ever has in a Liverpool jersey. He played perhaps one wrong ball all afternoon and that amounted to nothing. He was dominant in the air, in the right positions, and as calm on the ball as anyone else we have at center-half. Ex-Everton keeper without bias, Tim Howard, suggested before the game that Nat would be the target for West Ham striker Sebastian Haller. Instead, Haller disappeared from the game long before Andriy Yarmalenko actually replaced him in the 74th minute.
Similarly, one can’t ignore the explosive result of the entrance of both Diogoal Jota and The Cube. Needing a change of legs and formation, Klopp swapped out Bobby Firmino and Curtis Jones, respectively. Gini Wijnaldum and O Captain, Our Captain dropped back into the double pivot, Sadio Mané moved to the right side with Jota on the left, Mo Salah up front, and Xherdan Shaqiri once again, slotting into the #10 spot. It was from there that he produced the brilliant pass that led to the winning goal:
He’s shown this before in his first season with us, most notably against ManU. I think everyone who was in the south end of Michigan Stadium the summer he arrived and watched him do a bicycle kick right toward us had visions of what Shaqiri could provide for the club. But here’s the other side of consistency. In addition to injury troubles,, Cube has unfortunately demonstrated a regular inability to play the game that Klopp wants played. So, even when available, he’s often been nailed to the bench. This season, with the greater rotation needed to handle three months scheduled at a pace usually restricted to December, he’s going to get many more opportunities to demonstrate the consistency that Klopp requires to be a regular option, which is something that Diogo has already shown in the two months that he’s been present. Next man up…
So, despite “grinding” their way through yet another 2-1 victory (and tying the club’s all-time record for the consecutive home undefeated streak) there were some pretty bright examples in this game of just how good this Liverpool squad really is and how much depth it contains and how both of those factors are telling the story of the structure that Klopp has built here, block by block. Or cube by cube, as you like.
Liverpool 2 – 1 West Ham United
We went back to the 4-3-3 with Henderson at the 6 and most of the usual suspects on the pitch, except that Curtinho was given a league start. Jones played pretty well. His connection with fellow academy star, Trent Alexander-Arnold, shines through when they play together, as the passing between them is extremely assured. You can also tell that Curtis is used to roving all over the pitch in true Hendo style; so much so that he has a tendency to get bunched up with other midfielders, at times. But that’s a process of learning to trust your teammates. The Hammers were bound and determined to sit back (we had 85% possession at one point in the first half and finished with 73% for the game) in true Moyesian style. (What’s that? You say his approach completely alienated the fanbase that Fergie left behind? Weird…) Also, despite getting a goal chalked off by VAR yet again, at least it was an arguable decision rather than two officials looking at the same images (Kevin Friend used the pitchside monitor!!! Is that the modern Looking Glass and we’ve fallen through it?!) and coming to some completely irrational conclusion. I still don’t know how Mané sliding in to play the ball and Ogbonna kicking his own keeper in the face adds up to a foul on Sadio, but… Yeah. Never mind. I’m not even going to go there. It was arguable. Leave it at that. Even with that one denied, Jota is averaging a goal every 81 minutes this season, with 4 in 7 appearances. And somehow he didn’t work in Wolves’ system…
But Nat was MotM and deservedly so. He was rock steady back there and added 6 recoveries to the numbers above, in addition to 96 total touches. No one sheltered him. No one covered for him. He just played his game and it suited us fine. But let’s acknowledge someone else who deserves it:
That’s a masterful performance for someone playing at the 6. Remember when everyone said that Stevie was “the complete midfielder”? Jordan’s awfully close to that.
On the very mild downside, I thought Sadio was trying too hard today. He got frustrated with the smothering presence of West Ham’s back 5 and kind of let it put him off his game. That said, his presence on the winning goal was essential to its completion, as he kept the defense from clustering with his movement and he smartly didn’t move at all when Shaq’s pass went sailing in, as he wasn’t certain of whether he was offside and knew that Jota definitely wasn’t. Similarly, it’s the first time in over two years that Bob hasn’t attempted a shot or created a chance in a league game. He was solid in the middle, breaking up play and moving the ball where it needed to go, but offensive output was difficult against the 5-4-1. That’s led to some calls for his benching and moving Diogo up as the regular starter. I’d really rather not see the result of the one or two games it should take for people to see just how large a gap it is that Bob leaves behind, especially given that our next two games are against Atalanta and the Cityzens. Unless people really want to turn the clock back to ’13-’14 (we’re currently leading the league in both goals scored and conceded) which, while fun, was often just as frustrating. (Also keeping in mind that the 7(!) we gave up to the Villans distorts that latter stat just a bit.)
Speaking of conceding goals: A lot of people are singling out Joe Gomez for criticism in that respect and while it wasn’t a great header on his part, the real problem with that whole sequence began with Trent and Curtis letting Masuaku sit on the ball for several seconds, considering his options, before dropping a threatening cross into the box. It seems like some pressure should have been applied there by either of our guys on the right to keep him from pretending like he was practicing lobs before the game.
Alrighty, then. It’s off to Bergamo for a first-ever game against Atalanta on Tuesday, followed by the still-emptiest stadium in England, even with no fans anywhere, against City. After that, another damned international break and, perhaps, the return of some long-lost squad members.