Absence in motion

Most of you should remember the second game of the 2016-17 season. After a 4-3 thriller over Arsenal in the opener, we went to Turf Moor and held the ball for basically the entire game. The official stat was 81% possession, but I think that’s being generous to Burnley. We gave the ball away early once and then let them out on the counter another time and they took two shots on goal… both of which went in as we lost, 2-0. It was the lowest level of possession by a winning side in the PL since Opta began tracking the stat in 2003. Then, like now, they pretty much parked the bus and waited out the clock for the entire second half. I remember being pretty aggravated with Jürgen Klopp at that result, thinking that we obviously didn’t have what it took to finish the game while, as he did so often those days, he refused to substitute anyone until very late in the match, as he was trying to see how his players would respond.

We’re not in that situation now, as he knows these players and knows how they normally would respond to adverse situations; the key word there being “normally.” Something is awry with this squad and, in truth, has been for much of the season. Certainly, there’s a level of relief and complacency that sets in after having achieved a goal that was 30 years and two grinding seasons in the making. And, suggesting that the squad isn’t playing up to form seems a little disingenuous, since they’ve still scored the most goals in the league and are 6th in goals against. But, obviously, the record doesn’t reflect that advantage, with 7 draws and 3 losses already out of their 19 matches. At 6 points behind ManU, 4 points behind Man City who have a game in hand, 4 points behind Leicester, and only 1 point ahead of Tottenham (whom we, uh, play in our next league match), it’s fair to question whether the season goal is to win the title again or to simply remain in the Champions League next season.

Both of the Manc clubs have hit their stride in the winter months while we, as I wrote about last time, have faded markedly. Is it a question of the side’s willingness to listen to Klopp, as was the case in his last season at Dortmund? (This is the first time a Klopp side has gone 4 games without scoring since his first squad at Mainz in 2006.) Is it a long-term fatigue issue, combined with a host of injuries? (You know what this game was calling out for? A Naby Keita-type player. Have we ever had a player like that on the roster? Man, that’d be cool if we did.) Is it just the dumb luck of football? I don’t know. I can honestly say that I was a bit unnerved at the starting lineup, considering that I still don’t think Divock Origi is capable of doing what Klopp always asks him to do. Of course, he also had the one clear-cut chance of the game off Ben Mee’s error and, unfortunately, fluffed it. But due credit to the gaffer for trying something since nothing else had been working. That 0-7 demolition of Palace was over a month ago. We’ve now been unable to ripple the net for over 7 hours of game time. This looks like a team shorn of the confidence that has been their calling card for the past two seasons and which had them 13 points ahead at the midway point last year, courtesy of a number of 2-1 wins in the last 15 minutes, instead of 6 points behind and looking more clumsy and ineffective since the last days of the Brendan Rodgers era, where it was clear that the manager and the squad were simply no longer on the same page.

Liverpool 0 – 1 Burnley

The offense is not a complete disaster, as Sadio demonstrates above, but our attack is neutered by keeping 8 guys in the box, full stop (literally.) And it’s not even a question of quality defense. It’s just putting guys in front of the goal. Every team we play will now employ that strategy unless they’re good enough to not do that (Man City.) Of course, most teams we’ve played since Klopp arrived have employed that strategy (unless they were good enough to not do that (see: City)) and yet we still managed to win one title and came a single point short of winning another. So, I’m not sure what the answer is except to keep going. Tonight we went back to our more customary mode of play, with both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson in all-out attack mode, since Joel Matip was back on the pitch and we could play our even-higher-line-than-usual. (This was, of course, aided by the “I’d rather not play actual football” approach of Sean Dyche.) But almost every attack still stalled outside the box with a cloud of Burnley shirts like mustard gas turning away every charge forward. That ended up in a lot of errant or seemingly pointless crosses into the box where you just throw your hands up and ask: “What was supposed to happen there?” We tried to take advantage of Xherdan Shaqiri’s footwork and passing skills in the channel in the same manner we had against ManU, but it was even less successful here; likely because Burnley wasn’t actually interested in winning the match and were only given the win off an extremely marginal penalty call. But the fact remains that the lion’s share of the blame rests not on Mike Dean, but on our inability to score; just as it has for the past month of play.

We have a conversion rate of 1.124% since the Palace game. That’s 1 goal from 89 shots. The combined xG for those shots? 6.99. Yeah. Seven. Just like Palace. We also haven’t conceded any goals in that run from open play, with all 3 of those we have given up coming from penalties or set pieces. That’s extraordinarily frustrating but we overperformed our xG for most of the last two seasons, so it’s not out of the question for the pendulum to swing the other way. Add in the fact that the meaning of LiVARpool is now clearly Li-screwed-by-VARpool, combining the lack of a call on Erik Pieters (20 yards from the ball, hand extended from his body) and Ashley Barnes (the téte-á-téte with Fabinho at halftime where only Fab got the card while Barnes was already on one) with the ludicrously weak contact by Alisson on Barnes and, yeah. I don’t really want to engage in hyperbole and say that English officiating has never been this bad, but with the chance to get things right twice and their continued unwillingness to do so (witness Rodri’s immunity from the offside rule the other day), it’s hard to argue otherwise. FIFA has clearly decided that it’s not even a question any longer.

This is what I feel like doing to Dyche every time I see him.

So, what now? There’s another half-season of the Premier League to play. Our next match is an FA Cup date at Old Trafford; a game that should be even less interesting to me than the FA Cup normally is, given that the priorities are now to finish in the top 4 and go as far as we can in this year’s Champions League. (Hey! We could invoke the Liverpool Rule again and win the thing so we get back in even if we don’t finish in the top 4.) But the truth is that the FA Cup match is yet another moment to ask: Can we play like we’d like to play? Can we score? Is it worth straining the starters a few days before playing Spurs to maybe take a win over what will likely be a bench squad for ManU? Just to break the “can’t score” curse? The pragmatist in me says “No.” But when your next match is the author of anti-football and you haven’t scored a goal in weeks, maybe it’s the inflection point that regains some of that missing confidence. Of course, it could be us putting the starters in against ManU’s backbenchers and looking as ineffective as we did against Aston Villa’s U23s in the first half, too. That’s not exactly a way to engender a belief that you’re making progress.

In the end, as with a lot of football seasons, we’re going to look back at this at some point and count all the little things (12 mm or not) that could’ve been different: Virg not getting injured, half a dozen poor VAR calls against us (Everton, Brighton, etc.), Paul Tierney not blowing the whistle six seconds early last week, and so on. That’s football. That’s part of what creates the tension of the game, even when scores aren’t what American sports fans typically expect out of a thrilling match. Especially when scores don’t happen at all. Is it time to rant about how Klopp is “ruining” the team? How this recent run of form is somehow on him? Don’t be ridiculous. The manager can only do so much and Klopp’s done quite a lot since he’s been here. This is a team issue, first and foremost, and sometimes it’s just football and there’s nothing that can be done about it besides waiting for the ball (or the officials) to bounce your way.

As a side note: I don’t wish relegation on any club… except Burnley. They play awful football and do so in a manner that screams “victimhood” whenever calls or games don’t go their way. It’s a style and attitude that’s emblematic of a bunch of Brexit-loving, Lancashire Neanderthals and the Premier League is actively lessened from having to sit through 38 matches of it for the past few seasons. Nothing would be better than seeing Sean Dyche and his minions do the Bataan down to the Championship at the end of the year and that’s something I don’t even wish on clubs like Chelsea, ManU, or Everton.

So, yeah. ManU on Sunday. Yay. Then Spurs in a week. Double yay. The hope’s not dead yet

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