Jürgen Klopp revived this football club. No, it wasn’t as dramatic as the journey from the second division to league, FA Cup, and UEFA Cup winners that Bill Shankly engineered, as we weren’t in as dire a state of affairs. We were, however, mired in mediocrity, with little hope of making strides against the more monied opposition that we considered our peers (ManU, Chelsea, etc.) When he first arrived, he insisted that the key to changing the fortunes of the club was rooted in the concept of turning “doubters into believers.” In many ways, he was right. For the past few seasons, both our squad and (most of) our fans have gone into every game thinking that we can win it. His man management and player development have been brilliant and his eye for talent acquisition (alongside the redoubtable Michael Edwards) is among the best in Europe. So, I am loathe to criticize the man. But, sometimes…
Tonight was a game against our toughest opponent in our group whom had just come off an absolute thrashing at their place and in danger of losing out to Ajax for progression into the last 16. They were playing for pride. They were playing for revenge. They were playing for basic confidence (i.e. Do we belong at this level or don’t we?) And, in the face of that, Klopp decided to make changes to 3/4 of our back line and start Divock Origi. Due credit to the boss: he’s right that the schedule is insane and we’re still dealing with a significant number of injury problems. I get that Andy Robertson probably needed a rest. You know who else probably needed a rest, post-league and -international duty? Gini Wijnaldum. And, yet, Gini was on the pitch. So, I can’t say I’m completely sold on the “resting our players” argument for this one. He’s not wrong in principle, but there seems a fair argument to make that going full bore in this game and being able to basically ignore the following matches against Ajax and Midtjylland when the schedule becomes really insane was the route to take. Now, we’re only 2 points ahead of both Ajax and Atalanta, so we actually have to take the Eredivisie side seriously.
It wasn’t like Klopp was ignorant of what was happening, either, as he spent most of the first half bellowing corrections at both Kostas Tsimikas and Origi. But the overall intensity of the squad was a problem, first and foremost. As James Milner, Robot Warrior, said after the game: “We never quite got going. It was pretty flat.” They beat us to every loose ball. They won most of the duels, aerial or ground. They pressed us at every opportunity. They laid it all on the turf and we didn’t. That is not emblematic of a Klopp side, which is why it’s so frustrating when it does happen. The counterpoint, of course, is that it happens so rarely you kind of have to expect that there’s going to come a game where the foot comes off the gas. The irritating codicil is that those moments always seem to happen in the damn Champions League. Win this game and we were through, but just like the last three years, we’ve endeavored to make it more difficult than it had to be.
I’ve learned to just shrug my shoulders and accept whatever happens on the transfer market for LFC. Trust in the Klopp. I agree with almost everything the manager says about the schedule and the strain on the players and the need to keep football in its proper place in the world and in life. I’m thrilled that our manager, while still being ferociously competitive, has such a well-reasoned outlook on sport and its role in these times. But it doesn’t mean he’s beyond reproach. I think he figured that our team spirit was so good and we’d performed so well against Leicester on Sunday that we could plug in pretty much anyone and ride that group to victory. Against Midtjylland, he’d have been right. Against Ajax… maybe. Against a humiliated Atalanta side looking to stay alive in the group? No. I think he screwed up here. And now we’re going to go against a similarly motivated Ajax side, also thinking about getting to the last 16. It’s not too difficult a stretch of the imagination to think that we may end up having to get a win against the tiny Danish club on the last day of the competition (again!) because we didn’t take our most difficult opponent seriously enough.
Is it a disaster? Should the Twitdiots be wailing and rending their jerseys? Well, they’re going to do that, anyway, but: No. Win the next two and we’re done, which we are more than capable of doing.
Liverpool 0 – 2 Atalanta
The game summed up in one sentence: For the first time since Opta began recording the data in 2003-04, Liverpool failed to get a shot on target in a home game in the Champions League. What really drives that sentence home is that this was against Atalanta; not exactly scions of proper defense throughout Europe. Clearly, rhythm was a struggle tonight, which is going to be normal with so many changes. Part of that lack of rhythm was too much thinking on the ball. Almost every time a pass stopped at the feet of Neco Williams or Kostas, it sat there for a half-second too long before they either did something with it or got it taken off of them by a white shirt. That’s a problem when your offense is designed to flow through the wide spaces; specifically the fullbacks. Of course, when your offense is designed to use a false 9 dropping back into the midfield to both take pressure off the midfield and feed the ball to your excellent wingers, one wonders why Divock would ever be playing for the club again in that role. He can’t do it. He. Can’t. Do. What. Klopp. Is. Asking. Of. Him. Except against Everton. Why? I dunno. Klopp was yelling at both Divock and Kostas about their movement and their positioning, both of which kept hanging the midfield out to dry and forcing both Curtis Jones and Milner to cover a lot more ground than they needed to. Unfortunately, subbing both of them off came a couple minutes too late for the first goal and unfortunately didn’t change the intensity of the game before the second happened. Rhys Williams had a solid game, but it was his man, Robin Gosens, that got left wide open for that one. These things will happen, especially against a team as genuinely skilled on offense as Atalanta.
Aside from that moment and a couple others, there’s really no blame that can be placed at the feet of “the kids”, as both Williamses did well and Jones had a shout for MotM on Liverpool’s side, as shown above. He was involved in a number of duels and won the majority of them (7/10) and did a great job of ball retention. Also, the thing to keep in mind about Neco is that, first off, he’s not Trent Alexander-Arnold. The latter is a generational talent, so expecting Neco to perform the way Trent does is just setting oneself up for disappointment and Neco for a lot more criticism than he deserves. He’s still young and still developing. That’s what I mean by “thinking on the ball.” He has neither the experience nor the repetitions that Trent has that allows the latter to be so confident and savvy on the pitch. The contrast, of course, is with Rhys, who has shown a remarkable level of assuredness in every game he’s played this season. Young guys are random like that.
Getting back to the front line, I seriously would have preferred to see Taki Minamino starting. I am not yet a Taki believer. I think it’s questionable as to whether he ever turns out to be a reliable starter for the club or just ends up staying in the Cube Zone (20 mins/game; can be relied on to do decently and occasionally spectacularly against lesser opposition.) But I do think he needs more than the 5 or 10 minutes that he’s been getting. Rhythm, again, is a thing and he clearly grows into games and needs more time to grow into. The story going around was that he’d performed excellently in practice this week and, yet, somehow we started Origi…
Alright, enough of that. We have an early game (as in, 7:30 EST) against Brighton to think about. Thanks, PL! Nothing like supporting the league’s sides in European competition.