Big Sam and the love of the game

I don’t get irritated about losses most of the time. Frequently it means that we just didn’t show up, like the 4-0 drubbing against City last season. Sometimes it means that we just didn’t take advantage of the opportunities presented and ended up chasing the game where we didn’t need to, like the 2-3 defeat against Atleti. And then sometimes it’s just weird, like the 7-2 debacle vs the Villans. Most of the time, you can look at those games and just say: “Yeah, we got outplayed.” or “They beat us in x, y, and z areas.” and that’s usually because the other team was actually playing football. But then we come to Big Sam Allardyce’s specialty: the denial of the game. I was talking about this a week or two ago in regards to Jose Mourinho’s “anti-football”, but Sam, the relegation savior, actually takes it to a greater degree than Jose would probably even consider. Even Mou will simply set up in a 5-4-1 and still leave that 1 out there near the midfield line so some semblance of offense can be generated. But not Sam. No, what we witnessed today in the first half was a 6-4. They didn’t even bother considering coming forward in the first half. It was almost literally a training ground exercise where one side does nothing but play defense and the other, in this case Liverpool, does nothing but play offense to see if they can break down 10 men packed into the opposition’s penalty box.

Rather remarkably, that was the period where LFC had the better chances, with Mo Salah missing two great deliveries by Andy Robertson and Sadio Mané being on the end of a nice lobbed pass by Joel Matip with a great first touch off his chest before scoring. So, we have the squad that can, indeed, break down that kind of formation that is the physical example of Sam shouting to the world: “We don’t want to play this game!” In Mou’s case, it’s usually the not quite as obstinate: “We don’t want to play your game!” But Allardyce takes it even further because he’s the walking excuse for why some teams are even in the top division. The secret is to not play football for at least half the game. There’s almost no better argument for a European Super League than having to go through this kind of ritual dance on the regular, where one side has 82% possession and the other basically doesn’t employ forwards. But today’s result isn’t all because of Sam, because West Brom actually shifted into Mourinho’s style in the second half and often looked like the better team.

Shifting to the 4-5-1 (i.e. actually leaving an attacker outside the 18-yard box), they continued to absorb Liverpool’s pressure and made several real attacks that Alisson and the back line had to respond to. This was accentuated by the Reds, once again, having a complete off day in the second half, similar to the first half against Fulham and, once again, dropping points to a team in the relegation zone (firmly in this case, as opposed to Fulham who are struggling with that status.) So, yeah, I don’t get too fired up about losses. But the draws… The draws are what aggravate me because it’s not a case of hoping for the unrealistic: “Well, if this had totally turned around, we’d have three points!” It’s more a “Well, if we’d actually played decently, we’d have two more points and wouldn’t be looking at the table in frustration.” That phenomenon led to the 97 points two years ago that failed to win the league, despite losing all of one match. We now have 5 draws: one of which was fully deserved or rightfully could’ve been a loss (City), two that were delivered by VAR (Brighton, Everton), and two where we simply didn’t show up as the team we’re supposed to be (Fulham, WBA.) It’s hard to decide which of the latter two categories is the more frustrating, but it’s more aggravating than any loss.

But on top of all that is simply the dreadful nature of the game as a whole. I often rewatch our matches to see if I can pick out any elements of them that I may have missed and did so with the Merseyside derby (through gritted teeth.) I won’t be watching this one again because not only did we not perform for half the game, but the experience of the game was one that was generally awful. If you polled Average Idiot American Sports Fan (a large crowd, to be sure), they would point to a game like this as “exactly what I don’t like about soccer!” Are there Baggies fans who enjoyed that first half, which was basically watching their side play target men for an artillery barrage? And, yet, this is the kind of thing that Big Sam is extolled for; getting his side to not play football in order to stay in a division they likely don’t belong in and play more awful games that no one enjoys. Yay? Jim Beglin was nattering on about what makes the Premier League so exciting and how this was a perfect example. This? This 1-1 draw that, as Jürgen Klopp noted afterward “won’t be remembered in 20 years”, is what you think is the selling point of the PL? Why wasn’t Sean Dyche up in the booth instead of Beglin? We could’ve been treated to the same brand of Neanderthal wisdom, either way. Quite frankly, these are the matches that make me detest football. Or at least detest the fact that people like Allardyce are lionized for their ability to produce them on a regular basis. He’s a long way from his glory days at Bolton and it’s going to be quite the climb for West Brom to stay in the division. At the moment, I’m actively hoping that they don’t; not because I carry any particular malice for the Baggies, but because I’d really rather minimize the number of dinosaurs that we regularly have to encounter in the league. Give me Daniel Farke and Norwich any day.

Liverpool 1 – 1 West Bromwich Albion

There’s not much to say about this game. I think Curtis Jones had one of his lesser efforts for us today, as he just wasn’t on top of the ball in many instances, especially in the second half where he could have been replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain much earlier than he was. (Also, am I the only one who thinks “Indiana” every time Beglin or Adderley mentioned Curtis’ first name? (“Jones!!”)) I think Mo and Roberto Firmino spent a bit too much time trying to be delicate with six guys packed in front of the goal when more decisive actions might have been more productive. Heavy stress on the “might” there because those actions just as easily could’ve come to futility against a side not interested in playing football, no matter what was tried. The fact that a couple mistakes on our end led to an unnecessary corner and then far post-delivered header and the draw, well… That about sums up the whole match. Didn’t close it out when we could’ve. Didn’t respond when they started to actually play the game. Fin.

The casualty list grows again. No one should’ve expected Joel to last a whole season or even a significant portion of one. He never has before and this is the small flaw in Jürgen’s decision to roll with just three senior CBs and Fabinho as the emergency backup. We would’ve always been down to just two seniors and Fab for much of the season. Now, of course, we’re down to zero seniors and Fab for as long as it takes Joel to recover. The last story coming out of Kirkby was that we were sitting pat in the transfer window and relying on the personnel that we had. But that means we’re down to three starting CBs (Fab, Rhys Williams, and Nat Phillips) and emergency emergency backup Jordan Henderson. Both Rhys and Nat have played well enough to earn their spots, but all I’m thinking about now are injuries and how difficult it will be to avoid them, especially once the CL starts up again and we begin playing FA Cup games next month. No one wants to spend in the January window because prices are outrageous and everyone is hurting for money right now. But if we’re going to defend the title and make a charge at the European Cup again, we may not have any choice.

And then there’s Naby Keita. Klopp said he’d picked up an injury in training and was out for this game and confirmed afterward that he also won’t be available for Newcastle. This simply isn’t sustainable. We’ve gotten 2600 league minutes and 3607 total minutes out of him in three years. That’s a little over one season (40 games, where we usually play ~60 each year.) It’s hard to remember that he actually played in 25(!) games in 2018-19, starting 16 of them, simply because it seems like he’s almost never been available. Contrast that with the 7312 total (5200 in the PL) minutes that Fabinho has contributed in the same period of time. And we paid €20 million more for Fab. I recognize Naby’s talent and I know that there’s nothing that he can do about his seeming fragility, but there’s a limit to all things. What’s even more frustrating about it is that it’s a recent phenomenon, since he played 2000 minutes or more per league season with both RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig; the majority of them starting appearances. But it’s becoming clearer with every instance that he, like Joel, can’t keep it together long enough to be an essential part of this squad. There’s no way that Edwards would think of selling him right now because there’s no one who would either be willing or able to even approach his sale price (€65 million) to make us not be completely ripped off on the deal; on top of the fact that the buyer couldn’t even be sure that they’d be getting someone who can… you know… actually play for them. But at the moment we can’t do anything but look at this as a huge missed opportunity and a colossal waste of money. I’m having flashbacks to Danny Agger’s time with us. At least he turned in some key performances over his eight years. But he also didn’t cost anywhere near as much, even in adjusted Euros.

I’m now going to try to not think about this for the rest of the season. Newcastle next. Maybe I’ll come down and sit in the cold with all of you, out of respect for Erik.

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