Anti-anti-football

I will always respect Jose Mourinho. There’s no denying that no matter what you may think of his football style, his personal antics, what he says to the press, his eternal victim complex (“I don’t get to act the way others do on the touchline!”), and on and on, the fact remains that he wins football matches. A lot of them. No matter the club that he’s managing, he wins silverware. He also has to be commended for the way he gets all of those sides and players to adopt his system. He’s an excellent teacher. A friend of mine who is a Spurs fan has mentioned how much he’s learned just from watching Tottenham under Jose for the past year. The man understands football and gets others to understand it, as well. It’s simply unfortunate that his style of football that he teaches so well and implements to such success is so goddamn awful.

There’s a reason that Jose’s style was labeled “anti-football” a decade ago. It’s basically about preventing the other side from playing the game and keeping many fans from staying awake. Late in the first half, after Spurs had equalized completely against the run of play and Liverpool had 80% possession and we had, once again, arrived at one of those “training ground” games, where we constantly cycle the ball from side to side, trying to find a way through a packed-in defense (aka the “parked bus” of legend), I had horrible visions of the 2016 game against Burnley, where we came out on the bad end of a 2-0 match and they had less than 20% of the ball and precisely two shots on target. I mentioned to someone on Twitter halfway through the second half that this was a Jose Mourinho dream match of attrition, as the incessant, grinding defense simply wore us down to the point of frustration and Jose’s side would get a result out of a match that they had no business getting anything from because they weren’t playing football. It was, of course, anti-football; the polar opposite of what Liverpool does and has done since Jürgen Klopp arrived and asked everyone to become believers in a different way of approaching the game. Mourinho and Klopp are the antithesis of each other in so many different ways that you couldn’t be criticized for thinking that they would somehow detonate during the post-game handshake; matter to anti-matter, positive to negative, joi de vivre to the most dolorous of outlooks.

That’s why there is cosmic justice in the happiest, most joyful of Klopp’s players getting the winning goal and becoming the brief answer to Mou’s anti-football. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Bobby Fimino’s blazing smile simply melting Jose’s wicked witch-persona as soon as its light was cast over him. You could almost imagine that Tottenham’s dejected looks in walking away from their penalty box weren’t about losing the match, but about realizing that the shallow upside to Mourinho’s approach to the game- one point or even three -wasn’t going to be realized and all of their effort was to come to nothing. As Graeme Le Saux mentioned during the broadcast: “You have to feel for the Spurs players because it’s not fun playing that way.” It’s not fun watching it, either but, again, it does produce results most of the time. But just like many in the football world felt it was Man City’s job to prevent the “insufferable” Liverpool fans from finally getting their PL desserts last season (Sorry ’bout yer luck!), it was our job today to prevent anti-football from once again taking hold of the English league. A three point margin is far from ensuring the the job is done since, just like that match was set up exactly the way Mou likes: attrition, wearing you down, chipping away at the bright side of life – the PL season (or any season) is set up that way, too. Consistency is the requirement. Captain Jordan Henderson affirmed that after the match with his comments about how “all we do is think about ourselves and what we have to do to win matches.” In other words, all Liverpool does is think about football and playing it well enough to beat the anti-football of the world. So far, so good.

Liverpool 2 – 1 Tottenham

This game was something of an exercise in showing how to defeat a low block. The key is really to keep moving that bus back and forth as much as possible in order to create gaps (think opening the gate to the oil camp in The Road Warrior.) Said gaps can then be filled by your own players and with a turn, they can get clean shots on goal. The evidence is the 11 that we got in this game (six more off-target.) The problem, of course, is that the number of players in the box makes good passes and receptions difficult. One key advantage I think we had was that Mourinho set up in a 4-4-2 and seemed to have tasked both Giovanni Lo Celso and Pierre-Emile Høiberg with the task of man-marking anyone in the middle of the pitch while the wide midfielders helped double up on Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. That’s not an entirely unusual deployment of the 4-4-2, but it’s something that is particularly unsuited to Lo Celso’s skillset. Le Saux pointed this out more than once, in that Curtis Jones was able to drag Lo Celso all over the pitch as the latter attempted to stay with him. That gave Liverpool’s midfield not only an advantage in the middle (3-2, as the wings were chasing Trent and Robbo), but also a lot of space in which to work, as Sadio Mané and Mo Salah and Bob would perform their usual tasks of dropping back to pick up easy passes. The comfort in rotation and the interchange between players in our team was on full display here and Spurs gave us a fair amount of room to exercise it until we reached the final third. It looked like we were in control because we were in control. Opta pointed out that Spurs completed only 75 passes in the first half, which was the lowest of any Mou side since his Real Madrid squad faced Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2012… a game they went on to win, 2-1. So, as noted, this is Mourinho’s schtick and he’s really good at it. We know this. Spurs have become better at it. But there are still ways to play it against them. Or simply to outplay them, like with this man:

There’s a certain level of excellence that Robbo simply maintains that often sees him overlooked in the final assessment of matches. The same thing happens to Trent, but not as often. Every right side in the PL lives in constant trepidation of Robbo’s charges up the line and fluid exchanges with Sadio. Tonight was a pristine example of that. Similarly,

Gini remains, from game to game, one of our best players. The best passing rate AND 100% on tackles? You just can’t ask him to do his job any better. Which brings us to

At times, it’s fair to wonder whether we should even play him at DM again… until he unleashes one of those daisy-cutter passes along the turf right to Robbo on the touchline and you realize that few DMs can do that; to say nothing of a centerback. And that means we have to talk about the debut.

I’m long past the point where I’m concerned about the presence of our young players in the lineup. Yes, I would also have preferred to see Joel Matip in the list before the game, but replacing him with Rhys Williams is perfectly fine for all of the obvious reasons on display tonight. Rhys was involved in 13 duels in this match; 7 in the air, 6 on the ground. He won every one of them. Every time a Tottenham player challenged him, he responded and got the better of them. He was responsible for a half-dozen clearances, including a couple crucial ones in the chaos of a set piece. Spurs gave him a lot of space in the first half, probably confident in their thought that he was the least threatening passer in a red jersey, and you could see Rhys occaionally get a little confused with the time and space that he had to move the ball. That’s fine. When he did have those opportunities, he placed some great progressive passes out to Trent and Hendo and Robbo. Yes, he’s not Virgil Van Dijk or Joe Gomez, But he’s a solid Premier League player and that’s all we need right now. Speaking of which, the man-of-the-match was a fellow 19-year-old:

That 94% accuracy was on 113 total passes, he won 4 of those 5 aerial duels, to go with the 2 chances he created and 4 interceptions. Mo’s goal (which makes him the joint-top goalscorer in the league) was based entirely on Curtis’ interplay with Bob and the ability and strength to carry the ball into the box until it bounced out to Mo for the shot. As I’ve been saying for a while now, he’s a regular rotation player for good reason. You can see many of those reasons above.

The Bob. There’s no hiding the fact that I’m a Firmino fan. I’ve said many times over the years that I think he’s the engine that makes our machine run and I respect his willingness to play the false 9 role that Klopp wants. When someone asked a question a couple years back on Twitter about picking 5 favorite players for Liverpool among the different eras, it was pretty easy for me: Kenny, Barnesy, Stevie, Bobby. (I didn’t name a fifth. Lots of competitors.) Today was a great example of why:

And basic stats like that aren’t even usually the best assessment of what Bob contributes to our side, since there aren’t easy (or quick) ways to measure the motion he brings and the harassment he creates and the general fluidity he adds to both offense and defense. I treasure what Diogo Jota brings to our squad and was as disappointed as anyone to discover that his burst of energy will be missing until at least January. But Bob remains the foundation of what we do and this game demonstrated that yet again, above and beyond putting the winner in (which was a really excellent clinic on proper heading: elevate to meet the ball evenly (i.e. when it’s at head level), so there’s less chance of it bouncing up off your head, and you make the vector all about putting it toward the net.)

Um… wait. You’re saying VAR was right? Again?! Wonders really will never cease. While I sympathize with the comparison above, the decision on Son’s goal was absolutely the correct one. The attacker should always get the advantage/benefit of the doubt in this situation so that we don’t end up with situations like Bob’s armpit denying us a goal or obviously erroneous ones like what happened to Sadio in the derby. What we want is consistency, which that tweet highlights the lack of, but we also want decisions that let attackers actually attack the goal and which 95% of actual, non-pedantic football fans would just shrug their shoulders and admit were fine, rather than checking for whether a shoelace tip was offside and disappointing everyone. So: Good job, incompetent morons!

Back on the substitution thing. There was some furor amongst football Twitter about the fact that we didn’t make any substitutions in this match after Klopp was “crying” for more than the PL currently allows. This is why most people, including among our fan base, are idiots. Klopp has been arguing for more substitutions so that he’s able to rest more players throughout the season, not for one game. Why would Klopp ever consider resting players in what was, to date, the most important league game of the season, especially when everyone on the pitch was playing somewhere from great to spectacular and we were dominating the match? A one-game instance against our rival for top spot isn’t the way to prove a point. It’s like denying global warming because there’s currently snow on the ground. Weather is not climate and one game against Tottenham is not an argument for or against more subs. The schedule of 50+ other games in a shorter span of time than a normal season is the argument, which is why every other league (including every other English division!) is using five subs.

Just a note about a wonderful guy. As all of you know, Gérard Houllier died a couple days ago at the age of 73. Gérard had been having heart trouble for a number of years, including a crisis point while he was still managing Liverpool and that’s what finally resulted in his departure from our sphere. Gérard came to us in the midst of a period where frustration was really beginning to mount at Liverpool Football Club, as the mantle of English champions had firmly passed into the hands of Manchester United and would soon be contested not by us, but by Arsenal and later Chelsea. It was evident by that point that doing things with the good ol’ boys from inside the boot room was an idea that had passed and Roy Evans, faithful servant to the club, was not going to be able to bring us back to glory. Gérard changed that perception for a couple years, modernizing both Melwood and the squad and bringing that other Gerrard along to what would be his world-renowned status. In that respect, Liverpool owes Houllier a debt it will never be able to repay and it pains me some that not only did I not know who he was when he arrived, but that I wasn’t particularly troubled to see him walk away when he did. That frustration had infected me, as well. So I will carry that debt in my mind and know that Gérard will be a name that the club and its fans should and will always remember. Thanks, boss.

So, the last couple home games have been fun. But now we have to go visit Palace and The Hodgson, which is usually not fun. Plus, it’s an early game (7:30 EST), which is also usually less fun. Life is like that. And then we go a full week(!) without playing a game during the usually insanely hectic holiday schedule… I’ve given up trying to understand it. I leave you with the best possible “not fun” expression of reaction to Bob’s winning goal.

So awesome.

Oh, and this:

Sound on for the genius of Tim Sherwood, yo.

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