Meeting expectations (finally)

I was almost tempted to title this something akin to “A Tale of Two Halves” or something like that, but that usually implies an exchange of control, with one side dominating in the first half and the other dominating in the second. But, instead, just like last month, Puskás Stadium was Liverpool’s home away from home (and, uh, a lot more pleasant than Anfield lately…) and we conducted a fairly methodical evisceration of RB Leipzig to the same result, 2-0. Just like last month, there were brief moments where they threatened and agonizingly long stretches where we should have been seeing the net ripple but were somehow denied by a last-ditch tackle, a post, too much water on a patch of grass, or a sudden neutrino burst. In fact, the first half this evening was even more frustrating than anything that had taken place on our first trip to Budapest. As Rio Ferdinand mentioned at halftime for Sky: “This match should be dead and buried.” But instead we continued to suffer the problem we’ve had for most of the last two months, in which it seems like we’re dominating the match, but still can’t score enough to confirm that domination. But Budapest was originally two cities: Buda and Pest (OK, really three cities, including Óbuda. Shut up.) Just like football, there’s always a second part that gets added to the first. In this case, just as with the first leg (See?), we scored a pair(!) and will be proceeding into the Champions League quarterfinals for the third time under Jürgen Klopp.

But the title I did decide on has a wider meaning than just the result. This was also the first time we’ve seen the squad perform in the manner we’d all come to expect over the last three years since Christmas. Part of that involved personnel; most notably Fabinho’s return to his customary DM spot, with Thiago Alcántara and Gini Wijnaldum ahead of him, and Diogo Jota lining up at center with Mo Salah and Sadio Mané on the wings. That meant that we were playing two actual centerbacks, in the form of Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips, while Fabinho got to fulfill the role that we bought him for three years ago. And fulfill it he did. Gini and Captain Jordan Henderson are capable at the #6. They can handle the role. But it doesn’t come naturally to them the way it does with Fab. Nat put on a spectacular display of defense this evening and was considered by many to be the MotM. But part of the reason he was able to be in the right spot so many times is that he wasn’t as concerned about chasing through balls going behind him and Ozan. Why? Because Fabinho was intercepting them. The other bonus was how fluid the center of the pitch looked with our Brazilian DM distributing the ball from his favored position again, allowing both Gini and Thiago to get forward and fully utilize their offensive skills. All of the clunkiness that has embodied our deep midfield in recent times dissipated and we basically controlled the middle third; often without challenge. The loss of Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez impacted our game across the pitch, but one of the most significant side effects of their absence has been Fabinho not being present in the midfield. This is what our game looks like when he is.

I’ve seen opinions on Twitter in recent days comparing this season to Man City’s previous season, when they, as we will, failed to defend their title. The suggestion was that injuries also led to City’s problems. One statistical note here: This season, we exceeded the total player-games lost to injury in City’s entire 2019-20 season on December 28th. We’re in uncharted territory, if someone is trying to argue that we’re somehow “failing harder” than the UAE’s PR tool. As I frequently mention to people that ask, I’ve been following and/or a member of this club for 40+ years and I’ve never seen anything like this. So, being able to watch a match that at least approximates what our squad has looked like for the previous 2.5 seasons is becoming quite a treat. If we can maintain this through the rest of the CL and even extend it to the domestic league, things could get really exciting and we’d at least come close to meeting the sky-high expectations that everyone entered this season with.

Liverpool 2 – 0 RB Leipzig

I’m honestly surprised that Caley has that xG at only 2.5 for Liverpool, as it felt like we should’ve come out of that first half with something like four. The size and number of the red blocks on our side of the diagram seems indicative of more. And, indeed, the combined xG for the two legs

seems to demonstrate that we weren’t kidding ourselves when thinking that LFC basically controlled this tie. Indeed, Caley’s caption to that second diagram was: “whatever’s going on in the league, Liverpool just dominated a tie against one of the best teams in Germany.” Now, that could be a condemnation of our form in the PL, a compliment to the PL as a whole, or indicative of just how subpar the Bundesliga has become (Bayern Munich and the Seven-teen Dwarfs.) The most positive perspective is that it’s finally… finally… FINALLY a sign of things turning around for this squad (which is what some of us thought against Sheffield…) Again, I can’t understate how important I think it is to have this man

at the 6. The stats won’t blow you away, but the key one is that “interception” line, as it’s indicative of a controlling presence right in the middle of the pitch, protecting the back line. On top of that, having an adept presence in that back line

makes that defense as sound as it should be. On top of those numbers, Nat also had 9 recoveries and won 3 ground duels, as well. Those stats also don’t highlight his positioning, which was excellent. Probably a third of those touches were him getting under the ball every time Leipzig tried to cut out the middle third and just bomb it forward. One of those moments where he got to the ball twice in the same sequence was in the first half where it hit five heads before it touched grass again, with a brilliant volleyed pass from Thiago to Mo that our equally-brilliant right winger somehow didn’t put away. But Thiago was doing stuff like that all night.

I’m sure it helps that he was pretty familiar with these guys after playing against them with Bayern for four years. But it also helps to have a presence like Fabinho behind him. This is the control of the ball in the center of the pitch that Thiago was bought for, so that defenses spread wide to protect against our fullbacks make themselves vulnerable to attacks coming right at them.

It was also, of course, somewhere between weird and pathetic that both Naby Keita and Divock Origi came on for their somewhere between cameo and actual game experience periods together. Both of them, of course, did spectacularly well, with Naby creating the most chances of any Liverpool player (2), despite coming on in the 71st minute, and Divock providing a genuine moment of brilliance, with his pinpoint cross to Sadio after a give-and-go with Naby. This doesn’t quite make up for all the times that Divock has come on the pitch and provided exactly nothing, but I suppose it will certainly add to his cult hero status among a certain segment of the LFC fanbase.

Little things:

  • Mo’s not only leading the PL in goals. He’s also scored more than any other PL player in all competitions.
  • Sadio’s goal was LFC’s 100th in the CL under Jürgen in just 44 games. It was Sadio’s 12th in the knockout stages since his debut in the CL in 2017-18. Only Ronaldo has scored more in that time.
  • Alisson has more clean sheets (16) than any other keeper in the CL since he debuted in the same season.
  • That’s 12 of 13 two-legged ties under Jürgen, as well.

I mentioned that last note because there was some furor after the Fulham loss, with some people even suggesting that maybe it was time for Klopp to go. Might be just me, but it strikes me that speculating that one of the best managers in the world, whom almost any other club would die to have, has somehow forgotten everything he knows because of the first truly bad run we’ve had under him could be an unintelligent train of thought. But football fans are not immune from the stupid, so there it is.

So, mighty sigh of relief. Now we just wait for the draw and hope that City pulls Bayern. That matchup would be what the word schadenfreude was invented for. Meanwhile, we gotta play Wolves on Monday. I went in for the first dose of Moderna today, so it shouldn’t be too long before I’m darkening the doorway of Magee’s once again…

Liverpool 2 – 0 RB La

Liverpool 2 – 0 RB Leip

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