I was talking post-match with my friend, Jerry, a former sportswriter for CBS, when he pointed out on Twitter that every time he stops to watch a “big event” Premier League match, it turns out to be a dreadful bore (He’s a Huddersfield Town supporter.) This, unfortunately, was no exception, barring a couple thrilling saves by Alisson Becker. Playing Man United today was a lot like playing Burnley (our next opponent… sigh.) We had 2/3 of the possession and they parked the bus and tried to play on the counter. As with most of our other games in recent weeks against teams who’ve done exactly that, we failed to score and United didn’t, either, despite getting what seemed to be the better chances and more shots on target (4-3.) Jerry suggested that after three or four seasons of going deep into the Champions League and playing virtually every PL game, the front three were just fatigued, in a long-term sense. I told him that was a reasonable argument and one which kind of sidesteps the long layoff of last year’s interrupted season and Diogo Jota’s arrival which meant fewer minutes this season, overall, for our usual attackers. But it also doesn’t explain the fact that our problem games usually come when the schedule is less congested, as it has been over the usually harried holiday season. In truth, this is looking a lot like the typical winter fade that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool sides have experienced in every season but one: Last season.
Two years ago, we went through a stretch in January and February where four of six matches were draws; one of them a 0-0 vs ManU(!), but also a couple 1-1s with Leicester and West Ham and a 0-0 with Everton. All of those are clubs we should’ve beaten then and should beat now. We’re now in a stretch where not only have our last four matches been three draws and a loss, but we’ve scored all of one goal at the 12′ mark against West Brom. We’ve since gone four full game times (361 minutes) without scoring in the league, with the lone exception being in an FA Cup match against Aston Villa’s U23s. Certainly, Jerry is not being outrageous when suggesting that long-term fatigue may be a factor, despite the fact that we still have the most goals scored in the PL and the leading goal scorer in Mo Salah. But the other argument against a lack of rest is the long layoff last year during the COVID interruption. Of course, the immediate counterpoint is that, with that long layoff, the players basically have had no break since the restart in May, with abbreviated pre-seasons and then plunging right into all of the regular competitions again. The concern here is that it’s only going to get worse, as everything will be accelerated in the second half of the season (we’re in mid-January and haven’t even finished the first half…) to try and finish early enough to get back to the regular schedule (and to leave time for the 2020 Euros that really should be cancelled like most international competitions, thanksverymuch.)
So, now we sit in third, a point behind Leicester and still three behind ManU. Meanwhile, the Other Manchester has two games in hand. Win them both and they’re top of the league, leaving us four points behind. I think City has lost a great deal of their machine-like aura in the last two seasons, but would I want to try to catch a City team that’s four points ahead of us and rolling? No. No, I would not.
Liverpool 0 – 0 Manchester United
What to say? We dominated the ball and had ManU under siege for a good part of the first half before things settled into a more even exchange in the second. The xG turned out relatively even, although it’s hard to argue that ManU didn’t have the better chances in the second half and we were rescued by Alisson being his usual steady self. There’s also the number of half-chances they got on the break that were nullified by Fabinho and Jordan Henderson.
But we’re still suffering from the lack of Virgil Van Dijk’s great through-play from the back and the ability to play both Fab and Hendo in their natural spots, which would also help the attack. Imagine Fabinho in his usual spot at the 6 with Thiago Alcantara on the left and Hendo on the right? But the lineup was what we have to work with and I think Jürgen was right in starting both Thiago and Xherdan Shaqiri. Both repaid his trust by doing exactly what everyone expected them to do: create opportunities and move the ball through the middle. That’s what happened in the first half, such that we weren’t completely reliant on Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to bomb things in from the wings. What it also meant was the United had to pay attention to what was happening in the middle of the pitch, which gave both Trent and Robbo more space than they’ve had in recent weeks. You see that string of shots along the left of United’s penalty box? Yeah. That’s all initiated if not created directly by Robbo. But Thiago showed what he could do with the ball at his feet, as well.
So, chances are being created. Opta pointed out that we’ve had 62 shots since the Crystal Palace slaughterfest and scored 1 goal; a conversion rate of 1.6%. I’m sure there’s some level of fatigue, physical and mental, and just rotten luck mixed up in all of that. And I’m sure that, the more Thiago plays and becomes comfortable with things on the pitch, the continued demonstration of exactly what he was signed to do will actually result in goals. I’m just not sure when that will be or how many more points we’ll drop along the way to getting there. Diogo isn’t due back for another couple weeks, which means we have to play the parked buses of both Burnley and Tottenham (oh, and this same ManU squad in the FA Cup) before then.
Just a note on Gerry Marsden. The voice behind Liverpool’s anthem and Merseyside native, Gerry Marsden, died a couple weeks back. It’s just the infrequency of these posts in recent days (Crowded holiday schedule!) and my own lack of enthusiasm that has prevented me from mentioning something before this. The best story I ever heard about Gerry was from someone posting about a game at Anfield and realizing that they were sitting right next to the man himself. When You’ll Never Walk Alone came over the PA and the crowd began to sing, Gerry joined right in, sounding just like the voice coming across the loudspeaker, as if he hadn’t aged a day. We owe him a lot for recreating that piece of music and giving Liverpool one of the more famous anthems in all of sports, which many other clubs have copied. But we’re the original and so was he. RIP.
And, yes, it’s Sean “Brexit” Dyche on Thursday. Yay. Can’t wait.