Malaise and distraction

Writing about this stuff occasionally requires genuine enthusiasm. I’m a lifelong Liverpool supporter and I’ll never completely abandon the club, but there are times when I’m much more excited than others, like any fan. When we were on the brink of administration under The Hodgson, it’s fair to say that I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be following every match. It was more of a test of endurance. This holiday period has often resembled that period. I think I may forever wonder what happened in the 8-day break over Christmas, after we’d put 7(!) past Vicente Guaita, because our play has been somewhere between mediocre and awful since then. Two draws and a loss (aka 2 points out of 9) to sides that it’s fair to say we vastly overmatch led me to question quite a bit about the recently fabled “mentality monsters.” When looking at the schedule before the season, one couldn’t have been blamed for thinking that this was the period when we might take or seriously expand our lead in the table going into the second half of the season. Instead, we surrendered it and now top ManU only on goal difference, while they have a game in hand and Man City, four points behind, have two in their clutch.

When it came to the FA Cup game against the Villans (once again drawing a PL side in our first round of participation…), I looked at it as more of a distraction than anything to be excited about. As I’ve stated here multiple times, I’m one of those dirty foreigners who doesn’t really care about the FA Cup and its hidebound aura of tradition. It’s nice when you win it, but the two pieces of hardware that matter are the Premier League and the Champions League, full stop. When it emerged in the last two days that, instead of playing hipster Jack Grealish and Co., we’d be facing the U23s (or younger), my interest very nearly bottomed out. As with most of the earlier rounds of the cup competitions, it should’ve really only been a moment to watch the bench players get some real time. Except… the starting XI had been unable to score for the past two weeks and there would be another 9(!) days between that FA Cup match and the meeting with the aforementioned red Mancs. Clearly, Jürgen didn’t want his entire starting squad sitting on its collective ass for two weeks while they haven’t been able to find a rhythm. So it would be some of the best players in the world against a bunch of 16-year-olds. Eh.

But keeping in tune with the past couple weeks (and 2020, in general), it turned out to be an actual game in the first half, because of course it did. Suddenly, it’s not just that we couldn’t score against some of the worst squads in the top division. Now we couldn’t score against a bunch of teenagers, either. This is when you begin to question your life choices. It’s also when I begin to question our modern version of “Toss it in the mixer!”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Thankfully, Thiago Alcântara and Xherdan Shaqiri rode to the rescue, presenting exactly the alternative approach that the former was bought for and that the latter often presents whenever he can actually stay on the pitch for more than two games. (Surprisingly, that sentence wasn’t a description of Naby Keita. I suppose it would’ve been “one game”, if it was…) This all comes in the shadow of a racist moron and his cultists attempting an actual coup against the US government, since we’re talking about distractions. You can file that under “sentences I never imagine I’d write, especially on a football blog.” The focus on football has been pretty weak over the past few days, which is why I’m only now writing about Southampton, in addition to the game against the Mini Villans.

But “supporter” means just what it says on the tin, right? You’re with the team, win, lose or draw. I, like most LFC supporters, have certainly been spoiled given the success of the past three years, which was produced by almost all of the players still regularly on the pitch, but also includes some exciting new parts. So, the spoiledness is even worse than it has been. It’s not like we’re following a team of aging stars or have watched Barcelona swipe our best player again. This is basically the same squad, albeit minus our two starting centerbacks, one of whom is the best in the world. Is this why Alex Ferguson used to be active in the market even when his teams were masters of all they surveyed? Is this where we wonder if some on the squad are starting to tune out Jürgen in the same way they did in Dortmund? Or is it that this is just the nature of the beast known as ‘football’? Sometimes you’ve got it and sometimes you just don’t. We didn’t have it against West Brom, Newcastle, Soton, and for one-half against Villa’s kids. But then we turned it on and showed what the squad is capable of. The malaise lifted a bit and Jürgen promised a series of 11 v 11 games at Kirkby while we wait for the PL to start again. Supposedly Joel Matip will be back. If we’re incredibly lucky, maybe Diogo Jota and Naby will be back. If we had our starting CBs, this is a squad that could achieve a treble. Until then, we’ll have to make do with being on top of the league table and still playing in two major cup competitions. No distractions allowed.

Southampton 1 – 0 Liverpool

JFC. What to say about this game? I don’t know, man. One mistake by Trent Alexander-Arnold (among many… word is he’s been having aftereffects of the virus in other encouraging news) and former Red, Danny Ings, gets a chintzy lob over Allison in the 3rd minute. After that point, despite assaulting their penalty area, we get nothing. Well, let me correct that: Despite assaulting and getting assaulted in their penalty area, we get nothing. It was this game combined with the first half today against the Mini Villans that had me seriously thinking about a needed change in our offensive philosophy. Both sides were just too ready for the “Put it in the mixer!” routine. They simply were. Yes, Sadio Mané scored the first goal today off an excellent cross, but so many teams are now prepared for this well-worn strategy that we have to develop something else. That is, of course, exactly why Thiago was bought, since we can’t rely on Naby to stay healthy in order to fill the role of “incisive passer through the middle” that takes advantage of teams willing to sit deep and wide to try to neutralize our aerial bombardment. The game wasn’t a complete tire fire:

until we come ot the officiating. We, of course, were not helped by an Andre Marriner special, wherein he decides which side is the imposed upon for the game before a ball is kicked and proceeds to demonstrate why English officials may never personally see a World Cup pitch again. Plus, we already know that we have the most decisions made against us by VAR this season. I’d really like to see the tally of decisions that were somehow not deemed worthy of VAR’s intervention like, say, this one:

Seriously. This is on top of the Soton match being the third straight league game where LFC had more touches in the opposition box than any other team in the Premier League (56-5(!); 41-9 vs West Brom; 32-14 vs Newcastle) and still failed to win. I just… don’t want to talk about this anymore.

Aston Villa 1 – 4 Liverpool (FA Cup)

Maybe they’ll call this the Turnabout Match? A little over a year ago, we had to play a similarly young squad in the League Cup against Aston Villa’s first team, as our senior squad was in Qatar playing the Club World Cup. Our kids got hammered, 5-0. This… was not that hammering. Whereas that game was 4-0 at the half, this one was 1-1 because we still couldn’t seem to snap the funk of the ghost of Christmas or whatever the hell it’s been. This season, of course, the disparity was caused by the root of all things evil: QAnon… No, seriously: COVID-19, as it’s running rampant through Aston Villa and a couple other clubs. The Villans even had to sideline some regular U23 players because they’d been training with the first team. So, this was the junior junior squad, against which we enjoyed 88% possession at one point in the first half (just like Southampton!) and we still couldn’t put the game away (Just like Southampton!)

That finally changed in the second half when recently-returned-from-the-Evertons Thiago changed our approach from B-52s (airplane, not band) to taking advantage of the fact that the Villans were giving us space in the middle of the field to… you know… do things. The PowerCube, who came on 15 minutes later, also participated in that radical shift. In the space of five minutes, Shaq had two actual assists and Thiago had two hockey assists and the game was put down the way it should have been. This is precisely why Thiago was picked up, despite many (including yours truly) thinking we were spending in an area of the pitch in which we were not hurting for depth. (Of course, I was also thinking that Naby could actually play football this season for more than 90 minutes a month.) Thiago at the 6 provides an interesting dimension because of the quality of his passing. Fabinho is the steady rock there and Jordan Henderson’s aggression and long-range passing also gives us quality when he’s on the field in that spot. But there’s no denying that the field vision and quick feet of Thiago create situations that don’t often occur with the other two. And, again, he’s also prone to creating chances in the channels, rather than in the wide areas, which is not our normal approach. Being able to switch to that (or generate it in the early stages of a match) is something that should make our offensive possession that much harder for our opponents to deal with. Stats follow:

And the Cube, who had his two assists inside of four minutes of coming on:

And Thiago with the Cube:

Also, a word about our starting left back- James Milner, Robot Warrior:

since it’s necessary to point out that a couple of Villa’s players were literally less than half his age (“You could be my dad!”) Milner was apparently the loudest voice coming out of the dressing room at the half, not only because he was taking the armband from Hendo (subbed out for Thiago in a planned move, according to Jürgen), but also because he was a former Villan and he was pissed at how poorly we were playing, as he should have been. Also, it’s worth mentioning our player who’s been in the scandal (transfer) rags, lately:

Mo remains one of the best forwards in the world. It really can’t be said often enough. Liverpool had 29 shots, their most in an away game since one against Bolton in 2009 and he was a large part of that. All of that said, due credit to the Mini Villans. They played well and stood up for their club in a really difficult situation.

I feel another rant coming about the incompetence of English officiating but I just don’t want to bother. In its place, I’ll link you to another place where I do some ranting (but usually film criticism) and did so about current events which remain extremely important for the present and future of our nation. For all those who don’t like “politics in your football”, you’re clearly reading the wrong blog in the first place. Sorry ’bout yer luck. Some things are bigger than the game and deserve your attention.

We, once again, have a ridiculously long wait for the next match (ManU at Anfield.) Maybe I’ll work up something about transfer window stupidity in the meantime.

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