I let this one sit for a couple days, again, because I often do that before international breaks. As much as I’m concerned about the intensity of our schedule for our players, there’s something compelling about knowing that we’ll be playing again in three or four days, such that I tend to feel focused not only on the game at hand, but also because I want to get things written and done before the next date arrives. That personal intensity is lacking when I know that we’re going to be bereft of anything meaningful on the Liverpool front for an extended period. Similarly, one can look at the Man City game in the same way. In the first half, there was urgency and intensity for both squads. I think both managers came out with the idea that they’d go hell-for-leather to get a lead and then try to shut the game down, afterward. Consequently, a great first half turned into a rather uneven and frustrating second half, as both squads were feeling the fatigue of the recent schedule and the energy that they’d poured out in the opening 45 minutes. The refrain coming from both Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola in the post-match reflected our overall concerns (i.e. that having 5 subs per game would make this season’s PL schedule much easier to navigate) and which reflected the circumstances of this meeting, as well. Both sides were dragging a bit as the match wore on and there seemed to be common acceptance of the idea that a point was better than nothing, so let’s just let it happen, shall we? At the very least, one could argue that having 5 subs would also provide opportunity for more people to come into a flagging match like this one and put some of that urgency back in, as the rotational players are usually even more eager to show what they can do in the hopes of obtaining one of those precious starting slots.
In this case, some of the concern over that “starter vs sub” scenario that most Liverpool fans held before the game was alleviated by the lineup, as Klopp chose to go with the 4-2-3-1 (or what sometimes was a 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-4, and later a 4-4-2) and put both Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota on the pitch together; thus, finally enabling the desires of mid-century music fans to refer to Liverpool’s attackers as the Fab Four of city legend. On the whole, in the first half, it largely seemed to work on the offensive end, as Liverpool had a clear edge in good chances, as City’s back four struggled to keep up with all of our options. But there was a downside to that formation, as well, as it gave the Mancs far more influence in the midfield. Their goal was a direct result, as Gini Wijnaldum had to rotate out to cover Ilkay Gundogan before Kevin De Bruyne’s cross came into Gabriel Jesus. In our usual setup, there ordinarily would have been another midfielder present to cover one of those openings. (This also led to one of the occasionally funny James Pearce tweets about an opposing goal (“1-1. Goal City. Jesus.”) where it could’ve been a descriptor or an epithet. Or both.) But those are the risks you take when you’re taking on one of the other best teams in the league, despite their current record.
But it’s worth emphasizing the unanimity of the message that both managers mentioned, with Pep stating that it comprised pretty much all of their post-match conversation. Said message was duplicated earlier in the day by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and he even got three points. The decision to not follow the rest of Europe and continue the option for 5 substitutions in the PL is based on little more than petty tribalism and has the consequent effect of also threatening the health and performance of the entire league’s players, regardless of whether a club is in the “Top 6” or the “Other 14.” I’m not going to cite Trent Alexander-Arnold’s calf strain as an example of why, because there’s no way to point to specific examples when every injury has its own set of circumstances. But I am going to push back against the idiots and their facile arguments for why England is the only nation to not continue this rule. “There hasn’t been a decrease in injuries in the other leagues!” is one of them. OK, Lisa. I wanna buy your rock. The idea with 5 subs is to try to decrease the likelihood of more injuries with the more strenuous schedule. The fact that they’ve maintained a normal level so far could mean it doesn’t make any difference or it could mean that they’d be even worse in the Bundesliga, et al, without the option. “But Pep and Klopp didn’t even use all their subs!” Of course not, you Mensa candidates. If you think injuries are going to be a greater problem, you don’t use all your subs for fear of seeing someone go down and ending up having to finish the game with 10 men. Furthermore, in Klopp’s case, he’s had the option to make 45 subs so far this season. He’s made 43 of them. “In the last 5 minutes!!!” Yes, when players are most fatigued and injuries are most likely to happen. Do you really want to keep going with this?
There’s no basis for denying the 5 subs other than smaller clubs sticking a finger in the eye of the Big 6 and the PL, always willing to put English clubs in more difficult circumstances for European play (Brexit!) unlike any other nation, going along with it. This, along with the money, is why the European Super League continues to be a concept among the bigger clubs of the PL. Liverpool and City would likely be a part of such a thing and, with 5 subs, might even have been able to conduct a more exciting second half. No guarantees, but having more options is almost always better than having fewer.
Manchester City 1 – 1 Liverpool
So, the jury is still out on the Fab Four approach. Klopp said he was “thrilled” with his side’s performance, which is fine. He’s not wrong in that several players did have excellent performances; among them Joe Gomez, Sadio Mané (just the touch on this pass from Alisson is brilliant), Mo Salah, and Joel Matip. Despite the offensive approach suggested by the formation, we effectively shut down City’s attack, as well. Klopp cited our surrendering the fewest chances we’ve given to City since he’s been here, even when we’ve won. Indeed, City only had two shots on target in the game. However, what’s even more indicative is that only one shot was produced by both teams in the final 35 minutes. Part of that is solid defense on Liverpool’s part. Part of it is the fatigue mentioned above. Part of it is playing more 4-4-2 in the second half so that Gini didn’t have to cover so much ground, as he was constantly having to cover passing angles into DeBruyne AND try to close down space. Easing off the attack pedal in the second half allowed us to cover more and see the game out. But it’s also emblematic of a bit of tactical muddiness on our end that is showing up in more obscure stats than normal, like this one:
Now, sample size applies here, of course, as it does with pretty much the whole season right now (only 8 games in.) But trends are trends. You can have good ones, like Mo Salah’s remarkable performance so far, reminiscent of his first season with us that catapulted him to superstar status:
(The one-season wonder has the most goals in the PL since he joined Liverpool.) But you can also have stuff that’s not so brilliant, like Bob failing to get a shot on target for the fifth game this season. And failing to create a chance for the fourth game. And failing to do either for the third game. This was, I’m sure, part of the impetus to change our attacking approach in the first place, as it’s been Bob’s role to create chances and Diogo has been brilliant at finishing them. But for all of our continued success, there’s a lot going “wrong”, as it were. Seen from a purely table-oriented perspective, we’ve already dropped 7 points this season. It took us 30 games to do that last season.
But, swinging back to that whole schedule/substitutions thing, it’s pretty easy to pin some of the disorganization and “lesser” results on having to constantly rotate the squad due to injury. So far, we’ve had Ox (not played a game yet), Virg (out for the season), Thiago, Henderson, Keita, Fabinho, Alisson, Matip, Tsimikas, Shaqiri, and now Trent and (Oh, joy!) Gomez. (Remind me why we have international football outside of World Cup qualifiers? (I’m cutting myself off from a rant about the idiocy of nationalism…)) This is on top of the COVID-19-enforced absences of Mané, Tsmikas, Thiago, and Origi. That’s, uh, a lot of games missed and we, once again, will find ourselves with a new centerback pairing under Klopp against Leicester (#38; Matip and (hopefully) Fabinho.) Again, we finally have the depth to have allowed us to go 5-2-0 since the Villa loss, despite seeming like we’re M.A.S.H. unit FC. The pessimist says we don’t look as pretty. The optimist says we didn’t take a loss and got a decent result against the 2nd-best team in the league.
The handball. Save me, jeebus. I’m not sure I even want to get into this. Based on the rule and the precise events that occurred, yes, Craig Pawson was justified in awarding a penalty (And he even went to the pitchside monitor!! swoon) Based on any shred of common sense that still exists to humankind, the decision was ridiculous. In slow motion, you can see that the ball hits his hand. That’s the rule. In real-time, the power of the kick that DeBruyne unleashes makes it virtually impossible for Gomez to get out of the way, even though the advantage of seeing it in slo-mo is that you can see Joe trying to twist out of the way. And, of course, the reason he was trying to twist in that fashion is because he was sprinting to get in front of the ball. When humans run, they tend to use their arms and their legs, so even though his arm was “extended” from his body, it was because he was in the middle of a natural motion we call “running.” What this all means is what people have been saying for the last couple years: The rule is stupid and needs modification or simply reversion to what it was before (e.g. assessing intent and all that.) In the end, cosmic justice prevailed, as DeBruyne’s kick went wide, making him the first PL player to totally miss the target on a penalty since… Riyad Mahrez in our game against City at Anfield in 2018. That one is probably still in orbit as I type.
There’s probably more to be said about this game and our ongoing injury parade (Joe…), but I think I’ll leave it at that. As you could probably tell, the substitution thing sticks in my craw a bit and it’s a thread in a larger tapestry that has to do with the European Super League concept which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while and will probably bore you with in a couple days. For now, I’ll leave you with a last look at Melwood: