This did not start well. Presented with three or four brilliant chances in the first half that last season or the season before would have been locked-in, net-rippling goals, we came up empty. That, unfortunately, has seemed to be a recurring theme of this season, despite having the third-most goals in the division and the leading scorer in Mo Salah. We come up against the very definition of a bottom three side and, despite having total control of the game, are foiled by bad bounces or a keeper standing on his head (to use the ice hockey term) or simply an inability to put the game away. Taking just the first half, we were winning the xG by a pretty wide margin, but still were looking at a scoreless draw. At that point, we’d taken a grand total of 7 points from 8 games against teams in the bottom third of the division. This was shaping up to be our eighth, if we weren’t going to chalk up a fifth straight league defeat for the first time in 68 years. And the genuinely frustrating thing about this period has been that we haven’t been playing particularly poorly. We just can’t get the ball to go in the goal which is, of course, the whole point.
What further compounds the frustration in this case is that, of all the other PL clubs, Sheffield United are the one who could make an argument similar to ours about just how derailed their season has become because of injuries, especially among the back line, where much of their strategy (the famous “overlapping centerbacks”) is rooted. So, an injury-depleted Liverpool squad who walked the league last season is playing an injury-depleted Sheffield United squad who finished mid-table and are now setting records for the number of losses in the top division? Should it be this difficult to get the three points? You’d think not but, then again, this is football and sometimes this is how this works. Or doesn’t. The upside, of course, is that once the second half started, what had been a steady assault on the Blades’ goal became a relentless one. Just before and after Curtis Jones’ goal, Aaron Ramsdale was an umbrella in a downpour, so it showed that the team wasn’t interested in grinding one out but instead determined to force things over the line, quite literally. That’s the kind of backbone we saw a lot of last season and the kind of belief that Jürgen Klopp has become famous for. (This was the 20-year anniversary of his first game and first win as a manager with Mainz.) But it’s often up to the players to respond, as well. During the game, you could hear Jürgen yelling to his squad: “You’re not talking to each other! Talk to each other! Please!” Most of the squad has been with the club for at least four seasons, but no matter how good the system, for a team to function as a unit, everyone needs to be on the same page and communicating. This is where the absence of Jordan Henderson is often catastrophically obvious, but it’s compounded by the lack of Virgil Van Dijk and that our two centerbacks, where our attack and coordination are normally kickstarted, are a journeyman who’s been on loan for the previous two seasons and a 20-year-old who’s on loan to us right now.
So, yeah, for those asserting that this is not the same team as last season, you could not possibly be more right. But it’s still the same boss and still the same club and this is the same message as last week that still needs to be heeded: It’s going to be a step back to three years ago, where we end out the season having to win every match to make it into the top 4. Twelve games left. Stretch run starts now. Hopefully, this time was the actual turning point.
Sheffield United 0 – 2 Liverpool
(Just a side note about the Blades: Last season when they came up, the Sheffield Wednesday fans were swarming r/soccer, constantly berating people for using the term “Sheffield.” To wit: “Please don’t just say ‘Sheffield’. There’s more than one club in Sheffield. They’re Sheffield United.” This went on for a couple weeks. I mentioned it to my girlfriend because of how absurd it was, so today when she walked in to see what the score was she frowned at the team abbreviations and said: “Who are they playing?” I said: “Sheffield.” She responded: “Ohhhh. Sheffield United, not just Sheffield.” That’s the upside of us having a totally different club name than the one we share a city with, I guess, but Wednesday fans are still welcome to piss off.)
There was nothing especially notable about this match, tactically. Sheffield(!) came out in their typical 3-5-2 but switched to a 4-4-2 after we took the lead to try to push forward more. It’s still kind of wild considering how long Klopp has been here and Roberto Firmino has been excelling in the same role that commentators who’ve seen the squad many times still marvel at how deeply he’s dropping, as if we’re playing a diamond. That’s what a false 9 is and does. It was also nice to see him get on the scoresheet again, even if it was chalked off as an OG. As Klopp said, it counts for him because he created it, no matter what the FA says. (Was our 7000th goal in the top flight, too, behind only Everton (7108) who have 10 seasons on us.) It was pretty much all of his creation, too, with some excellent dribbling past two defenders and then a give-and-go with Curtis before an exchange with Sadio Mané, and then more good dribbling to set up the shot in the box. By the same token, Curtis’ goal was about three things: 1. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s willingness to pursue what seem to be even lost causes into the corner. 2. Curtis’ calmness and confidence with an open goal in front of him, making sure he put it on target and still away from the keeper. 3. The Blades not playing to the damn whistle, as they made that shot much easier by stopping in their tracks when they were sure the ball was over the line, which it wasn’t. But, yeah, Trent
had a monster game. It’s taken him a while to shake off injury and post-COVID effects, but I think he’s finally there and just in time. Similarly, Andy Robertson kind of rampaged up and down his side and probably should have put away two easy looks. But I’m betting it’s harder for the excitable Scot to keep that level head that Curtis had:
His control in the midfield was a perfect complement to the similar touch of Gini Wijnaldum and Thiago Alcántara. The midfield played well today and Gini should have been in the running alongside Bob, Trent, and Curtis (the eventual winner) for MotM. But the back line did work, too.
I think that Ozan Kabak is still occasionally playing in the Premier League at a Bundesliga pace, given his occasional rushes to adjust his positioning and/or casual placement of the ball. The most notable in this match was the ball he tried to lay off to Thiago with three Blades around him. It immediately was intercepted, tossed out to Oliver Norwood who had drifted right, and then perfectly crossed into Oli McBurnie, who somehow didn’t put it on net (Liverpool curse!) I think Ozan is getting there, but right now I’d put the likelihood of him being retained at the end of the season in the 50/50 range. Nat Phillips also played well and remains a complete monster in the air. Also, due credit to Adrián. Dude hadn’t played since October and came right in and operated like normal, including a really solid save in the first half and a great tackle on Oliver Burke (How many Olis can you fit in a Sheffield?) to deny him an easy opportunity.
So, yeah, victory. Weird. Next chance is back at The Anfield Non-Scoring Conservatory against immediate competitors for top 4, Chelsea, and new manager, Thomas Tuchel; twice the heir apparent to Jürgen at his previous stops. I have no idea what to expect from this game, since Fabinho and Diogo Jota are due back and Naby Keita has demonstrated a lengthy span of health this evening (10 minutes.) Nothing like late season tension against one of the more hated rivals of recent decades…