Routine struggle

I sat on this one for a couple days, as I often do when there’s about to be a large wait before the next match (Three weeks!), not only to space out content here a bit more but also because the game itself was a typical Premier League grind. There was nothing particularly special about it and, unlike in recent seasons where it was either a tight race for the top or another impressive display of dominance on the way to a title, this encounter with Wolves was kind of overshadowed by the squad’s performance in 2021. To say that it hasn’t been pretty is something of an understatement and this match was no different in that respect. We still struggled to create good opportunities and the flow that has become emblematic of a Jürgen Klopp team was still largely absent. In that respect, it was the kind of English football that a lot of people still (ahem) lionize, but it’s never been one that I particularly enjoy. If you’re a Burnley fan, this game was probably a treat, but even with the return of Fabinho to midfield and the emergence of Ozan Kabak as what seems to be a viable option, you’d still look at this match and think that, on paper, things should have gone more smoothly. But that’s not the story of Liverpool Football Club in recent times, so adjusting one’s expectations should, by now, be as routine as the struggles on the pitch. I’ll still always be in front of a screen when the Reds are playing, but it’s been difficult to draw a great deal of pleasure out of the majority of recent contests.

As noted, one significant upside of this match is the reformation of something closer to what the squad had been during the previous two seasons, with Fabinho intercepting everything that came near him, which freed up Thiago to be his more forward-thinking self (albeit, not without the now equally-routine yellow card for his various search-and-destroy missions that even English officials can’t let slide (except perhaps Martin Atkinson.)) There’s an adjustment that Thiago has only gradually been bringing himself to in the English league that is akin to the one that Liverpool fans have had to make about expectations for the season. I think that will be greatly helped by Fabinho’s presence at the 6, since it means that Thiago no longer has to function as much in a holding mid role and can instead do more of what he was bought to do, which is facilitate traffic forward in the middle third. Also, it has to be said that, in contrast to his typical appearances, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was something of a breath of fresh air when he came on the pitch for even just the last 10+ minutes. He’s shown himself to be best in the midfield when operating centrally, even though that doesn’t suit our normal gameplan at all (unless we move back to the 4-2-3-1 regularly, which has been a rare beast this season for obvious reasons), so when he came on to replace Diogo Jota and Mo Salah and Sadio Mané remained in their wing spots… there was actual excitement there for a bit! Ox looked totally comfortable in that roving and harassing role. I’m not quite sure that he has either the stamina or the field sense to replace Roberto Firmino in that role, but that’s not quite what Jürgen was asking of either him or Diogo at Molineux. Perhaps the idea is that, with Thiago further forward, we can attempt to contain play in the opposing end with the front line again? That would be a welcome return to the past and an equally welcome deviation from the routine.

Wolverhampton 0 – 1 Liverpool

The flip side of winning games like this, of course, is that the measure of the defense has been taken and found to be sound. That big yellow hexagon up there was the late chance that Fabio Silva had and those xG numbers will tell you all you need to know about relative chances. But that hexagon was repelled by Alisson Becker and the continuing duo of Ozan and Nat Phillips (in consecutive games!) showed the kind of performance that Jürgen has been waiting for in order to move Fabinho back to his normal spot. It’s fair to point out that this was their third clean sheet as a pair. It’s also fair to point out that those performances have come against Sheffield United, a somewhat gimped Wolverhampton Wanderers, and the second-best club in the Bundesliga, which is a few steps below the current level of the Premier League. That said, their performance in the last two games (Leipzig and Wolves) has spoken loudly of two things: Nat can play at the top tier level and is kind of great at being in the right spot for one of his monstrous headers and Ozan has definitely adjusted to our pace and rhythm and, if he maintains this level, could be in the argument for an exercise of his buyout clause at the end of the season. The only time he was out of position was when Adama Traore fed Morgan Gibbs-White a nice lead pass and Gibbs-White was in on goal alone. Ozan ran him down and cut in front of him to leave the ball for Alisson to clean up. That’s the kind of response speed we normally expect from our starting CBs and I admit to being surprised that he showed that kind of swiftness, which is something that you can’t teach and which we hadn’t seen much of since he arrived.

That’s a game, yo. Those clearances and interceptions were the most for Liverpool on the night and he added the most successful tackles (2), as well. But, keeping in theme, there were some mixed messages, as well.

Sadio had more shots (5) and won more fouls (5) than anyone else on the pitch that night… but he also didn’t score, again, despite being presented with what looked like a golden chance in the first half (the bright red triangle in the diagram above.) Like Bob, he does so much work all over the pitch that often goes unnoticed, so it’s not like anyone should be campaigning to play someone else (although, y’know, it would be nice to have a capable backup or two…) But he just can’t seem to find the net this season; at least not in the manner that he has in the previous couple years. Again, weird year, no feeds from Virgil Van Dijk since October, etc. We still have to hope that he can find his form again, kinda like this guy:

I wouldn’t call it a trademark effort by Trent, but he’s been steadily improving since his rocky start to the season, especially given that the turbulent situation at CB and in the midfield has tasked him with operating in a more restrained fashion, while Andy Robertson apparently has a bit more leeway to bomb forward (albeit still not like the previous couple seasons, either.) I still think the “not dribbled past” label is something of a meme, but there should be no doubt for anyone but blinkered ManU fans that Trent can actually play defense, while still enabling options in the offensive third as well as he ever has.

Also in the category of “random but still possibly significant stats”:

It’s hard not to think how different our fallow period might have been with Diogo on hand. Injuries have obviously laid waste to our season (a friend recently described the situation as “some injury issues”; yes, and Gallipoli had “some casualty issues.”) but, given our struggles on offense, among the worst may have been the absence of this man. Yes, the roots of it go much deeper, but it’s difficult to deny that Diogo may have been quite the steal from the club that we just took three points from. Also in trivial statistics, that was James Milner, Robot Warrior’s 158th appearance as a PL substitute, which ties him with former Red, Peter Crouch. (Crouchie!)

So now the long wait begins. No, not summer. But almost three weeks until we play the Gunners in London. By that time, we’ll at least know what the quarterfinal draw in the CL is and the first step in the battle to qualify by winning our seventh. Is that a cause for hope? Maybe.

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