Big Red Machine

There was a ripple of concern in the Liverpool fanbase this week, given the ever-mounting pile of injuries that haven’t slowed over the international break, with both Jordan Henderson and Joe Gomez added to that list. There was a fear that Andy Robertson would also be a casualty, after complaints of a tight hamstring following Scotland’s win over Serbia, which was immediately followed by Steve Clarke insisting on bringing him along to a nothing game vs Israel… If they canceled all internationals other than the World Cup qualifiers, I would not be concerned in the slightest. But I digress. (And, no, despite the title, I’ve never been a Cincinnati Reds fan. I don’t really like baseball.)

The interesting thing is that said concern was so vocal, despite everyone being aware of the steady growth of depth in this squad that gives us the ability to swap out players for capable replacements like few other clubs in the world. This was the result:

We’ve played some good games between now and last Boxing Day, but most people who’ve bothered to opine tend to agree that the emblematic performance of last season was the 4-0 demolition of Leicester City, four days after we’d won the Club World Cup. Fast forward to today and it’s pretty easy to argue that this performance was the highlight of the season, to date; only three days after everyone had returned to Kirkby from their various international ventures and/or injury recoveries. But with Fabinho back at CB and the redoubtable James Milner, Robot Warrior, stepping in for Trent Alexander-Arnold at RB, Liverpool put on a display of dominance that I certainly didn’t expect, despite being relatively confident about the depth of our squad being able to cover even this unusual string of pitfalls. This isn’t the Brendan Rodgers-led squad of ’14-’15, where losing a starter meant an obvious gap somewhere on the pitch that every opponent knew to exploit. I was kind of mystified to see some members of the Detroit chapter referring to this midfield (Gini Wijnaldum, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones) as “awful” or unworthy of trust. This is Gini, who’s started every PL game for us this year and Naby, whom has only really been stopped by injury (and was again…), and Curtis who has had his ups and downs as a young player but… awful? That’s a nailed-on starter, a likely would-be starter if he wasn’t constantly hobbled, and a regular rotation player. That’s exactly the depth we’ve been hoping for and it carried us right through this match against another side contending for the top spot in the table.

Furthermore, those are our players. None of them would be on the pitch if Klopp didn’t have faith in them to do the job. He’s as competitive as anyone and understands the kind of race we’re now running, where the unusual circumstances mean we aren’t running away with things. He’s also cognizant of the need to get a jump on some games and try to put teams away early. That was evident in this match by our staying in the 4-3-3 even when out of possession, which meant the press was on at all times and we were going to move the play to them whenever possible. Certainly, it helped that Rodgers set Leicester up to basically allow us to do just that, often sitting deep in a 5-4-1 and being remarkably passive, in total contrast to the behavior that they’ve often displayed since he arrived. But the bigger story was the machine-like operation of our side, as they demonstrated, repeatedly, why they’re still the best team in the league and among the best in Europe. “Relentless” is a word often used by Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux to describe Liverpool and it was used again tonight. That’s the mentality that is truly important here. It’s not that we’ve taken body blows in the form of injuries and are pushing through. It’s that no matter whom is on the pitch, it’s still Liverpool and everyone can be counted on to do the job asked of them. If, as an exception, someone isn’t up to it today, there are two or three behind him who are ready. That’s what we saw and what defines Jürgen Klopp’s teams. Call it belief, faith, trust, whathaveyou. What it produces is performance and that’s what happened tonight. (“Awful”? Seriously?)

Liverpool 3 – 0 Leicester City

Barrage, yo. That’s what 24 shots, 13 of them on target, looks like. It’s, uh, highly unusual to have that many of those huge boxes in the 6-yard box without them being successful, but that’s where we were or, rather, where Roberto Firmino was, not least because of this moment:

Every Liverpool fan remembers the Man City game from two seasons ago, where 11 mm cost us the title (along with a few draws, to be honest.) Thankfully, 1(!) mm didn’t cost us any points this time but you had to feel for Bob before he finally hammered in that third goal (off a Robot Warrior corner, of course) and made sure that the points were secure. But this was the very definition of a team (machine) effort and it’s really difficult to pick out anyone as a man-of-the-match winner. Truth to tell, I’ve never been that fond of those kinds of awards, anyway, because it is a team game. But among the standouts for me was Andy Robertson:

Just an immaculate performance. He’s now leading Europe in assists by a defender since he joined us (31) and his latest was a brilliant cross right onto the head of the onrushing Diogo Jota. Robertson was already the best LB in Europe, but he’s raised his level of play again this season. Not bad for £8 million. Speaking of players worth their price tag:

That tweet from the Wolves supporter about how they “fleeced” us for Jota will never, ever get old, apparently. What would we have done last season if Salah was out with a strange disease and Xherdan Shaqiri was down (again!) with injury? Probably subbed in Divock Origi and hoped for an Everton game out of him. Instead, we just put in the guy who has scored in his first four home games for the first time in the club’s 128-year history. Seems OK. But then there’s the other goal scorer (No, not Jonny Evans):

Taken at face value, those are still pretty good stats for a forward; most shots, good passing, created a chance for someone else, and scored. But here’s where he played while assembling those stats:

That’s a midfielder, yo. But this is what Klopp asks him to do in order to keep the machine functioning and he does it better than anyone else. I’ve said often that he is the engine for this team (and Jürgen has said it more often than I have) and it shows up in games like this, whether he scores or not. But speaking of mechanical parts:

You’d think normally that Milner wouldn’t extend quite as far forward as Trent usually does, simply because the latter is more offensive-minded and the better crosser. But the reality is that Milner’s crosses are still pretty good (I’ll never forget this one) and he’s still more than capable of playing a role that sees him switching from offense to defense and back again. After all, that’s what he does as a midfielder. So, he played 53 minutes at right back and neutered Leicester’s attempts to come down that side of the pitch. Then, when Naby went out, he moved right back to his usual midfield slot on the left and did an as-you-were. You’ll notice that most of the real pressure by the Foxes came after that point and they knew they could harass the young Neco Williams more than the robot warrior of legend. Milner is the best Bosman this club has ever had.

But that’s not to neglect CuJo’s sterling efforts in the recycler role in the middle third (91% accuracy, 2 chances created, one of them the excellent switch to Robbo that led to Diogo’s goal), Gini’s lockdown as our #6, Fab and Joel Matip’s confident partnership in the center, and Mané’s total and game-long disruption of Leicester’s right side, either. On a night when the great Ray Clemence was honored, having Alisson Becker churn out our first clean sheet of the league this season was wholly appropriate, too. (Not to mention charging out on Jamie Vardy once without destroying his ACL. Who knew you could do that?!) This was a complete team performance in every respect.

The gaffer said: “We controlled the game.” He’s right. Again, what’s kinda strange is that Leicester, in some ways, let us do so. They’ve often set up in the 3-4-2-1 this season with the focus, as always, for James Maddison and Harvey Barnes to feed the irrepressible Jamie Vardy. And, indeed, Maddison was involved in a lot of the action in the middle third (as you may have noticed when he was getting knocked to the ground by CuJo and Gini.) But they responded to our press, not by trying to outnumber our 3 with their 4 in the midfield, but in dropping the wingbacks to the back line and Barnes and Maddison to the deeper midfield to basically play a 5-4-1. It’s not like Rodgers. It’s not really what their personnel are suited to. Do you really want to restrain Youri Tielemans to a holding role? Especially after he’s just come back from two weeks as one of Belgium’s best offensive threats in the midfield? Weird. You could almost suggest Rodgers has a mental block about LFC, given that he’s lost all three matches against us since he took over the Foxes, surrendering more goals against us than any other opponent (9.) That’s more than a bit facile, but I’m kind of at a loss to explain his team’s approach and performance. Unless they were just overawed by how well we played, in which case… OK.

Ray Clemence. I didn’t mention it this past week while I was still toiling away on the ESL stuff, but Ray was between the sticks when I started watching Liverpool and I never thought I’d see anyone better. He was such a constant presence and so adept and, according to everyone that knew him, one of the sweetest guys around. I’m glad that Alisson had the desire to highlight his memory before the game.

April 23, 2017. That was the last time we lost a league game at Anfield (2-1 to Crystal Palace and former Red, Christian Benteke.) We’ve won 53 and drawn 11 of those games since then, accumulating 170 out of 192 possible points, scoring 169 goals and conceding just 42. Klopp has used 40 different players in those 64 matches. Machine.

Naby Keita. OK. One downside to this excursion of glory. Prior to this game, Rhys Williams had played more PL minutes than Naby had this season. Unfortunately, having recently returned to health, he went and played two full 90s for Guinea and then came back to start at Anfield and, again, ended up with an injury. It’s becoming increasingly clear that his body simply can’t handle the pace of play in the Premier League and that playing every week may be an issue, to say nothing of playing every three days. So, for all the Twitterati who like to try to stat shame everyone who doesn’t regularly acknowledge what Naby does when he’s on the pitch, the key phrase there is “when he’s on the pitch.” If he can’t stay there, it doesn’t matter how good his stats are. It’d be great if we only needed him for a few minutes every couple days like a pole vaulter or something, but that ain’t the case, especially in Klopp’s system, where midfielders tend to be under more physical pressure than anyone. Thankfully, our depth at midfielder is normally superb and at least two of them (Gini and the Robot) seem to be almost immune to injury (No jinxsies!) But at some point, there’s going to have to be some questions about whether we wouldn’t be able to get more value from a sale than we do from someone who can’t seem to escape the jaws of the treatment room.

The machine rumbles on. It’s the return date with Atalanta at Anfield on Wednesday, followed by a trip to the beaches of Brighton on Saturday. It will be entertaining to see the Llama again. And perhaps a return appearance by Thiago?

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