I held off writing about the Brighton loss for two reasons: 1. My hand is broken, which makes typing kind of a pain (literally.) 2. It was either going to be the last blip before a change in direction or it was going to be just another in a long string of issues we’ve had for all but two games since Christmas. With the much more important Man City game coming up, I figured I’d cool my heels and wait to see how that turned out.
We are done with a title defense. Barring an epic collapse by City and 15 straight wins by the Reds, we’re not going to win the Premier League this season. The best we can do right now is secure a Champions League position for next year and do our best to continue in the tournament this year. The incredible string of injuries has just been too much to overcome and on that list was one of the sparks we recruited over the summer, Diogo Jota, to get us over the line more often against the low-block, low-table sides. With any luck, Jota returns in form in the next couple weeks and we actually pull off that string of wins to close out the season. With even greater luck, we somehow smash-and-grab our way through the CL and make a return trip to Istanbul in May. That would go a long way toward salving some of the pains of watching what is among the club’s greatest-ever squads stagger their way into their current state and realize that, with even marginally better injury luck, we might have walked the league again.
Again, the casualty list is irrefutable. City fans like to point to the loss of Aymeric Laporte last year as a primary cause of their letdown in form. Well, we should be able to do the same by pointing to Virgil Van Dijk AND Joe Gomez AND Joel Matip, none of whom will come anywhere close to the 15 league matches that Laporte played last season. City was “stuck” playing Fernandinho at CB for the other 23 matches. We’ve been stuck playing two midfielders, including our captain, Jordan Henderson, whose absence in midfield is keenly felt, an academy product, and a journeyman we were trying to sell last summer. They’ve all done well to fill in, but no one can reasonably argue that it doesn’t detract from the overall product when your starting #6 and #8 are stuck at the midfield line. As I’ve noted multiple times already this season, the thing we perhaps miss the most about Virg’s absence is his accurate, long passing. But we also miss his confidence in possession and grace in positioning. It’s something that Hendo and Fabinho do well, but not in the same way that Virg does or, for that matter, Joe and Joel.
So, we have not bottomed out. We are not Sheffield United, staring into the maw of the Championship. There are still good matches to look forward to, including the first leg against RB Leipzig which has been moved to the famous Puskás Stadium in Budapest (Germany currently won’t allow entry from places where COVID-19 is rampaging at the level it is in England; UEFA was putting the burden of that unfortunate situation on Leipzig, who would’ve been stuck with an 0-3 loss if they hadn’t found a venue.) We are still Liverpool. I’m not sure that it feels like it means more right now, since it feels kinda bad, but this isn’t the time to bail on the club or the squad or the manager. Indeed, that would be the polar opposite of what’s needed, since one of our greatest strengths- fan support at Anfield -also may be being revealed as a serious weakness when it’s not present. As Pep noted after today’s match, he saw no way it wouldn’t have helped to have fans at Anfield when it was 1-1. But, like the rest of the world, we just have to endure through the current moment and see what’s on the other side.
Liverpool 0 – 1 Brighton
This was a case of yet another low-block/counter approach stymieing our attack and our failing to put in the half-chances that we did get. After the relative explosions of Tottenham and West Ham, I thought we might be past that period but, alas, not so. The squad seemed largely lifeless in this match which doesn’t leave me a whole lot to say about it that’s worth straining the broken hand for. It’s just another in a long string of missed opportunities against bottom six sides that we’ve had this season.
Liverpool 1 – 4 Manchester City
In contrast to the 5-3-2 of Brighton, City came into this match in something that resembled a 3-5-2. They were attempting to seriously outnumber us in the middle third while keeping their width against Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Indeed, most of the focus went against Trent, matched up with Raheem Sterling, as Robbo was basically unbothered by the ball for much of the match. Phil Foden was slotted in as a false 9, which isn’t a normal approach by Pep and speaks to his growing confidence in the young Englishman; confidence that was repaid, as Foden went on to a MotM performance. Ilkay Gündogan became the third of the last four penalty-takers of City’s against Liverpool to totally miss the target, but after two significant Alisson Becker errors in the second half, the game just disintegrated. Granted, those errors were partially caused by City’s high press being very effective and our inability to deal with it, but we were trading blows pretty evenly with them to that point, as you’ll notice an even number of shots in the diagram above and we were actually leading in shots on target until those disastrous few minutes late in the game. As Klopp said afterwards, we were playing pretty well for long stretches.
As for Alisson, hey, it happens. He’s still one of the top keepers in the world and there’s nothing to suggest that that’s going to change anytime soon. The save he made on Foden’s shot before the second goal was textbook: single hand, diverted at an angle away from goal. The problem is that Gündogan was sprinting past Robbo right on that angle. That’s a team breakdown in the same way the first goal was (giving Sterling and his colleagues way too much freedom to move in the box) and the same way the Brighton goal was. That’s what can happen when you have midfielders, even excellent ones, playing CB.
One note of criticism I will raise is with Jürgen’s substitutes, as while I can see the rationale for swapping Xherdan Shaqiri in for Thiago to change the focus of the attack (and guard against the possibility of removal, since Thiago decided to go in for his fourth yellow card this season on a slide tackle in the first two minutes…), I can’t see the point of removing Curtis Jones for James Milner whatsoever. Nothing against the robot warrior, of course, but Jones was probably the best player on the pitch for Liverpool today. Every offensive spark we got from the midfield was generated by Curtis and he was excellent in possession, as well. Gini was also his usual stalwart self, shrugging off Foden’s attempts to pester him more than once. So, I don’t see how removing Curtis benefited us at all, but I’m not the manager. Also, on the Thiago note, there’s been some rising criticism aimed in his direction in that Liverpool’s downturn in form has largely been with him on the pitch. While I don’t think that’s entirely fair, as he has played well in several matches and I don’t look at him as any kind of weakness, I’m starting to wonder if his approach to the game is really suitable for the rest of the squad. It’s all well and good that he can make those spectacular, incisive passes, but when they’re to players that are immediately surrounded by packed-in defenders, unless the target of that pass has the time and/or skill to perform a miracle, it’s often going to come to nothing, which is precisely the opposite result for which he was brought in. OTOH, it’s somewhere between hilarious and astonishing to see people on football (idiot) Twitter suggesting that the current run of results is a consequence of Liverpool’s “arrogance in last summer’s transfer window.” You mean the one where we bought Thiago and Diogo and Kostas Tsimikas? OK.
Anyway, we have a week off before playing the Foxes at King Power Stadium. That’s probably enough time to get Ben Davies and Ozan Kabak ready so that we can go back to our “full power of this battle station” midfield, yes? Maybe? I’m going to stop typing now…