You remember that season? It was a long time ago and, as is often the case, I’m among the few who remembers the old stuff. It was back when the world wasn’t burdened by a rampaging plague and most people weren’t talking about election fraud and before UEFA had face-planted on their own Financial Fair Play regulations. It was, in fact, 2018-19. Liverpool Football Club lost one game that season because of a goal that fell 12 mm short of creating a draw. But there was a stretch in January (as seems to happen so often with Jürgen Klopp’s teams, but also to English sides in general, given the ridiculous pace of the holiday season where every other league in Europe is sensibly taking a break) where a number of games that could’ve, should’ve, would’ve been wins ended up as draws. Liverpool lost the title that season by finishing 1 point behind Manchester City and you could point to any one of those draws instead of the 12 mm not-goal and say: “That’s where we lost the league.”
Liverpool has ended up with the terrible gray spot (Robert Louis Stevenson reference) in five of its last nine Premier League games, for a total of six draws on the season already. Two of those were caused by VAR (Everton, Brighton) and one of them was quite deserved and easily could have been a loss against City. But the other three- against 14th-ranked Newcastle, 18th-ranked Fulham, and 19th-ranked West Brom -were different. It’s true that we were outplayed against Fulham in the first half and just as true that we dominated the game against Brighton but didn’t finish chances, so perhaps you swap out one for the other in defining them as “This is where we dropped points that we shouldn’t have.” But you wouldn’t be overly judged for casting the hot take that there’s something genuinely awry with the Reds’ attacking form at this point and it could end up costing them the title when everything crashes to a halt sometime in May, June, Jupost-COVID (fingers crossed!) Of course, I’d label that a “hot take” because Liverpool has the most goals scored in the league (37), the best goal difference (17), the leading goal-scorer (Mo Salah, 13), and in the middle of these frustrating draws, annihilated Crystal Palace, 7-0.
After the match tonight, Jürgen said that our position in the table is the last thing he’s thinking about because it doesn’t matter. From a broad perspective, he’s right. It doesn’t really matter until it matters (i.e. at the end of the season.) But it’d be a much more comfortable ride through these plague-ridden times if we weren’t going into every match the way we were for the last two months of 2018-19; convinced that if we dropped a single point, the race was over. That’s not quite the situation we’re in now, as even if ManU wins their game-in-hand and ties us on points, we still have both GD and GF over them, barring a Selhurst-like explosion over someone. But it’s still a far cry from where we could’ve been with wins over the Baggies and Maggies, which would’ve left us 7 points up. Or with wins over the Gulls and Bitters that would’ve left us 11 up and securing a chokehold on the season.
Football is like that, yo. Random stuff happens. Young goalkeepers have the absolute game of their lives and keep out definite chances or defenders do a John Stones and rescue a ball clearly heading over the line. Sometimes it happens in the same match (yes, this one.) Often you will clearly be the better team and still end up dropping points to sides that you feel like you should run off the field even more convincingly than what is, in the end, a decent Palace squad. But, yeah, it can get pretty demoralizing to come to the end of a season and look back and say: “If not for one game against Newcastle, where we had multiple open looks at the entire net and somehow still couldn’t bundle the ball over…” It’s every bit as frustrating as saying: “12 mm.” But the end of the season is still a long way off (and possibly even longer, given the way the virus is now rampaging across the country) and there’s time to get things sorted. This season is this season and not that season. So, here’s hoping the Reds approach it as the new challenge it is, and not be like frustrated writers, thinking about the last time this happened.
Newcastle United 0 – 0 Liverpool
It’s rare that I choose to criticize Klopp. And, even now, I don’t think I’m really jumping in feet first and arguing that he did this or that particular thing wrong. But when I saw the lineup, I was mildly irritated. We’d just come off a game where West Brom had demonstrated the nth degree in defending against us and we swapped out Gini Wijnaldum, regularly a fulcrum in moving things forward, for the just-returning James Milner, Robot Warrior. As happens to some robots, Milner had rust from being on the sidelines for so long and it showed, as he was a touch slow in turning and moving the ball in the first half, although he improved markedly in the second. Similarly, Curtis Jones didn’t play particularly well against Big Sam and the Quicksands, but he was on the pitch again with Gini on the bench. Now, the caveat here, of course, is that Gini has played an insane number of minutes for us this season and you’d like to think that he should get a rest somewhere against the bottom-third sides in the league. It would be even easier to get him that rest and not start someone just back from injury if Naby Keita was able to play more than one game a month anytime soon. But that isn’t the current season we’re living in.
Similarly, I’ve never been particularly fond of Jürgen’s substitution patterns because I think he extends too much faith to guys that are already showing that they just don’t have it today. This was drawn into ridiculous contrast by the performance of Thiago Alcantara when he finally made his return, post-Richarlison assault. Thiago came on for the last 17 minutes. I’m thinking he could’ve come on for at least 10 more and things may have turned out differently, given the immediate injection of life to our attack which, truth be told, had looked better in the second half as Newcastle began to tire, anyway. (Would you like to extend our speculation of doom above and imagine that Thiago might have been able to rescue more than one of the aforementioned draws? Will we be saying that the Bitters’ contemptible attacker (assaulter) possibly dragged our season down even more than their reckless keeper? Or does that veer into Everton “Heysel rooined ah chance to be a contendah!” territory? Probably.) Thiago looked exactly like what we paid €25 million for. But too little, too late in this case, unfortunately.
Fabinho, of course, was the stalwart that we’ve come to expect. This was, however, the first game that I’ve looked at our CB pairing and gritted my teeth a bit, as Nat Phillips did not have a brilliant game or otherwise fill me with the same impressed outlook that I’ve had for both him and Rhys Williams so far this season. He also lacks the regularity of Virgil’s brilliant long passes (yes, I’m mentioning it again), as most humans do, which is a factor in hindering our attack. But there’s plenty of blame to be cast around, as passes in general were just off or sent to spaces short of their target or not delivered with the level of rapidity that we’ve often been accustomed to. Trent Alexander-Arnold, in particular, was something of a lowlight reel, with only two completed crosses and only one key pass (the brilliant slice in for Sadio Mané) for the whole match. It was a cold, snowy night on Tyneside (cf. Stoke) and we were just off for a good chunk of it. And, again, Karl Darlow made some spectacular saves. (This is where we wonder if he can keep doing that in their next game against Leicester…)
Pros and cons. I’m now relatively convinced that Liverpool will not be buying a CB in the January window. Rhys and Nat have played well enough that Klopp and Michael Edwards are probably choosing to circle the money wagons and gut it out for the rest of the season. This comes alongside the news that Joel Matip will be out for three weeks with a groin issue. Because of our weird schedule, the squad won’t be under that much stress (Soton in five days, the Villans in the FA Cup four days after, and then nine(!) days before facing ManU at Anfield.) That means that Matip, with good progress, might even be available for that kinda-important game, but it also means that other missing members like Diogo Jota might be that much closer to returning, as well. Just in case we find ourselves needing some offensive inspiration or something of that order. So, definitely not like the usual barrage of matches that is the festive period of yore (like, say, two seasons ago…) However, that’s a mixed blessing, as it seems like every time we sit down for an extended period, the rust becomes paramount. It’s what it looked like against West Brom after a week, certainly. For as much as Klopp and all of us rightly bitch about the crowded schedule, it certainly seems like we play our best football when we do have to hit the turf every three or four days.
So, yeah, first match of 2021 on Monday vs Liverpool Juniors. Here’s hoping the league doesn’t get suspended before then.