You remember that time when you just wanted the game in front of you to end, despite being a fan/supporter/member of one of the clubs involved? You remember that time when it seemed like a training ground exercise for one of those sides? You remember that time when the eternal backup again failed to meet your expectations? You remember that time when the use of VAR seemed like more of a mystery than a clarification? Yeah.
So, that was a game. Not a lot to say about it as a contest other than that. First off, I was mistaken about the location. I had read a story about both clubs getting ready to play at Dortmund because of COVID concerns in Denmark, but that turned out to be erroneous. We did, in fact, play in a very nice stadium in Herning. There would be no concerns about the state of the pitch or the facilities for this match. And the Ulvene came to play. Knowing they were already out of the competition, they were playing for pride and they brought a lot of it. It’s not too often in the Jürgen Klopp era that we’ve not only been outshot 2-1 (18-9) and not only had the ball kept away from us for much of the match (only 51% possession against a side you could casually say we are vastly more talented than), but were also genuinely hemmed into our own end for about 15 minutes of the second half. It’s like the training ground exercises against PL relegation zone candidates that I often complain about. The caveat, of course, was that like our game against Ajax, we played a lotta da yutes; most notable among them being Leighton Clarkson, yet another 19-year-old who had been on the bench for Ajax but hadn’t yet seen the field for the senior squad this season, although he had played against the Villans in the WITSBP Cup last winter and the FA Cup match vs Shrewsbury. The important thing here is that, in the first half, Clarkson was also our best midfielder, without question.
A lot of factors go into an individual performance on the pitch. Football is a team game, so it’s important to have a good understanding with the players around you to perform at your best, unless you happen to be a Centaurian in disguise like Messi. The upside of that in Liverpool’s case is that, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s clear that Klopp’s philosophy has permeated the club. No matter who comes on, they clearly know how we play, where they’re supposed to be, and where almost everyone else should be, as well. Clarkson was a sterling example of that late in the first half when he took a switch from Captain Trent Alexander-Arnold (Captain in the CL at 22? Nice work, if you can get it.) that was falling short and redirected it right to Kostas Tsimikas without looking. He knew where Kostas was and he knows how our offense works, so the play was easy as you like. The downside of that team thing is that it occasionally means that without the same group of players on the pitch, it’s harder to be in top form. Even if everyone is on the same page, it doesn’t mean they’re reading at the same pace. The regular starters know each other and have the talent to be the regular starters. Seeing a lot of misplaced passes and disorganized play is to be expected when over half the starting XI are only used to playinh in cup games or as late-game subs, if they play at all (like Clarkson.)
By the same token, at some point, you expect those players who want to be part of the regular rotation to step up, especially against a team that we really should be running over, even with our backups. Due credit to Midtjylland: they played hard and they stuck to their principles, no matter what happened. CF Sory Koba, CB Alexander Schulz, and especially keeper Jesper Hansen gave a great accounting of themselves. Their names were called again and again for excellent play. You know whose were barely called at all? Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino. Now, from Divock, we’ve kind of come to expect this. Starting in the middle in the Roberto Firmino role is a lot to ask from anyone, but it’s a gigantic task for someone who is obviously unsuited to the role. I honestly fail to understand why Klopp continues to place him in that slot when it’s apparent to everyone that he can’t do that job. Similarly, Taki was playing out of position, since he’s pretty much a forward in the Mo Salah mold, but he was also utterly absent from the game for long stretches. When Midtjylland wasn’t passing through the middle third like we weren’t there, they were basically marking Taki out of the game. That’s… not good. The counterpoint to the personnel issues was, again, the solid play of the younger members of the squad who saw the field. Naby Keita doesn’t escape the critical eye, either. He was basically outshone by Clarkson and the transformation of Liverpool when Jordan Henderson took the field in his place was kind of remarkable. Hendo always boosts the squad when he’s in but, again, when you’re playing a side that you should already kind of be rolling over, you’d hope to see a bit more from the guys who started the game.
But on top of all of that, VAR continues to be an issue on a regular basis. The ideal use of a replay system is one that doesn’t really get noticed or one that gets used quickly, makes a decision, and moves on. Instead, what we have is a fine example of pedantry: constantly focusing on minute decisions that often seem to miss the forest for the trees or, even worse, when the correct decision is arrived at, leaving much of the audience in the dark as to why it was used and what it did. If it’s this bad for those of use watching on TV, I can only imagine how absurd it must seem to people actually attending the game. [waves to the people singing Liverpool songs louder than anything else at MCH Arena.] This is especially concerning when it comes to goals. Taki had one waved off for reasons that were unknown to everyone involved in the game, but was latterly declared to be “handball”. Take a look at this and tell me if you’re sure exactly whose hand is the one that gets hit:
Sadio Mané’s or Mikael Anderson’s? Yeah. I’m not sure, either. But somehow it was definitive enough for the VAR to wave off the winning goal a few minutes(!) after everyone thinking it was that Taki was somehow offside which was causing the delay, which he clearly wasn’t. There’s a policy in other sports that if you can’t clearly show that a play is questionable on replay, then the call on the field stands. The call, in this case, was a goal. But VAR somehow decided it was definitively not, which has been the case far too often in recent months, such that no one really celebrates a goal anymore unless it’s a shot from outside the box that doesn’t involve players getting anywhere near each other. I’m pretty sure that’s not the best thing for the game, in the same way that many people think CL group games are a bore (like this one, they can be) and that it may be time to shift attention to other attackers on the roster. As Klopp said in the post-game: “I used to be one of the people who said VAR is a good idea but I’m not sure I’d say that again.”
Midtjylland 1 – 1 Liverpool
Despite my complaints, there were some interesting moments to this game in the first half. Fabinho’s spectacular goal-line clearance was one of them. The rumors floating around are that LFC are trying to sign him to a new, long-term deal as one of their “untouchables”. He deserves it, as he’s been instrumental for us in so many ways. Likewise, Salah was constantly disrupting their back line and keeping them more contained than they would have liked. In the first minute, he became Liverpool’s all-time leading scorer in the Champions League, passing Stevie G, which was also the quickest goal ever scored by Liverpool in the CL (55 seconds.) His performance this season is better than his explosive first season with us, in terms of offensive output, hard as that may be to believe. Also, this guy:
That duels stat leaves out all of the ground duels he won; 11 for the game, including 7 of 7 in the first half. In fact, any ball he contested in the first half, he won. We still miss Virg and Joe Gomez and especially miss Virg’s long-range passes, but Rhys has been filling in nicely. Billy Koumetio also did well in his debut with the senior squad, setting another record as Liverpool’s youngest ever CL player (18 years, 25 days.) There have been persistent stories that Liverpool is looking for a CB in the January window, but given the performances of Williams, Joel Matip, Nat Phillips, and the redoubtable Fabinho, I’m guessing at the moment that Klopp may be willing to roll with what we have, rather than spend money that’s in tight supply.
Transformation. Again, I don’t think that transformation can be overlooked. Due credit to Trent for taking the armband in the first half. I think it’s pretty obvious that he has the potential to be the regular captain of the squad in the future. But he’s not yet vocal enough to be The Guy that the Reds often need. As soon as Hendo came on the pitch, his movement was obvious, his intensity was a physical thing that could be felt, and you could hear him shouting directions and encouragement every second. This is what we’re lacking when he’s not around and it’s an advantage that is, to date, irreplaceable. Here’s hoping that Trent grows into it. It’s also worth noting again, since we’re talking about the midfield, that Taki was not only out of position (he’s a forward) but was playing center-mid in a slot where we usually use a #6 (i.e. a DM), but were instead seemingly asking him and Leighton and Naby to basically rotate constantly in the middle third and apply our usual philosophy when and where they could. My first choice would’ve been simply playing Naby at the 6, since he’s done it before, but he also brings so much to the attack that I’m betting the idea was to shove as many guys forward to put the game out of reach ASAP and sit on the ball after that. Midtjylland had other ideas.
We will play 13 Premier League games before the CL starts again in February, which is mildly insane. The next step in that insanity is Sunday at Craven Cottage, against another of those relegation zone candidates, Fulham.