Remember that comment I dropped into the Arsenal match post about Jürgen Klopp being the “best manager in the world”? Well, he still probably holds that status, with one very debatable flaw. As much as I appreciate his man management that drives players around the world to want to play for him and his positive reinforcement of his players and the club and the fans, there’s a limit to all things and today may have been one of those points in time where that limit was reached. When I saw the lineup today, my instant reaction was: “Wait… No Thiago AND no Bob?!” I had kind of expected Roberto Firmino to be left out in the hope that Diogo Jota’s scoring form would still be in full stride and we could get an early lead on Real Madrid and then try to control the game with Firmino afterward. Unfortunately, that means controlling the game beforehand sufficiently to, y’know, get that early lead. One of the other comments I made about Arsenal was about Thiago Alcântara and Fabinho working wonders in the midfield together. Instead what we got today was Diogo not doing any of the work that Bob does to link up play between our front and back lines and with an extremely rusty Naby Keita not only not filling the space left by Trent Alexander-Arnold, but also not winning possession in the way that, well, Bob and Thiago do on the regular. Jürgen said before the game that he “couldn’t avoid Naby Keita after all the training performances I’ve seen in recent weeks.” Unfortunately, most of Los Blancos could avoid Naby fairly easily and both Trent and our midfield play suffered for it. We can probably count the number of times that Klopp has made a non-injury, first-half substitute on one hand in his time at Liverpool. This was one of the most deserved of those times.
But it’s wrong to lay the blame completely at the feet of Naby. Our entire side looked disjointed after the first 10 minutes of the match and never really recovered until Thiago came on. We were losing the ball in the middle third every time Madrid challenged for it and, when they couldn’t make a challenge, they just dropped nine back (everyone but Karim Benzema) and camped out. What usually happens when teams do that is something akin to assault, as Liverpool press at every opportunity to regain possession in the final third. Instead, we milled around in the middle of the pitch, not looking like we really understood our own tactics. That’s what allowed Toni Kroos to have all day on the ball before lobbing a Route 1 pass forward that both CBs were a step behind and which Vinicius Junior turned into the opening goal. Then, when Trent got stranded without midfield support again, he made a poor header which turned into the second. But even beyond those two moments, we often looked like we didn’t deserve to be on the same field with them in that first half. That’s not a personnel or tactical mistake on Klopp’s part. The manager can only do so much to motivate guys playing in the Champions League against Real Madrid. If you can’t get up for that match, then why are you here?
However, when you compared what happened on Saturday with what happened today, the obvious mistake is obvious. There’s no way we could play a side with Kroos, Casemiro, and Luka Modric in midfield without someone like either Bob or Thiago to help out. Once again, it seems like we simply don’t function well without Bob to keep the engine running, but this was also a game where Jordan Henderson would’ve been essential for a win, since he could’ve snapped the guys out of whatever funk they were in, kept things organized, and, oh, covered for Trent’s expeditions forward. And despite the Thiago sub coming at the appropriate moment, with five minutes remaining in the first half, the next subs were way, way, too late. That’s often been a criticism of Jürgen’s approach and, again, I think it’s an expression of his belief in his players, whom he expects to play their way out of problems. Part of one problem with those subs were that not only were they too late, but they also took the wrong forward off the pitch. Sadio Mané has been having a bit of an issue for a while now. He’s not been the same player this season and has been trying way too hard to get back to his previous level. A majority of the time that he gets the ball, he tries to go solo in a team game, and usually to poor results. As good as he is, he’s no superhero and would be better served to shift the ball to any of his three options when defenders descend on him, rather than thinking he can play through and around all of them. Bob should’ve come on for Sadio, leaving the goal threat of Diogo available. But, at that point, with Madrid happy to sit in their 4-4-2 and play on the counter, it was probably too late, anyway. It, of course, didn’t help that Sadio seemed to be taking an extra dose of abuse from said defenders and had already been carded for expressing his frustration with the official. Had I been in Klopp’s place, I would have pulled him right there because it was obvious that they’d gotten into his head and he wasn’t climbing out of it.
So, here we are, once again, playing from behind to a Spanish side in the knockout rounds. Unlike Barcelona two years ago, we can’t even feel frustration at having largely outplayed the opposition and going home, 0-3. Unlike Atletico Madrid last year, we can’t feel frustrated that a fluke goal played right into the hands of Diego Simeone and his obdurate defense. And now we can’t rely on Fortress Anfield anymore, since the atmosphere there is as sedate as any other empty stadium and our home form of late has reflected that in the worst possible way. We do have the away goal, which means that winning 2-0 will tip it in our direction, but it’s an open question in this most wayward season (a 10th defeat in all competitions is the most we’ve suffered since 1954, when we were relegated) as to how the squad will respond to being up against it in both competitions.
Real Madrid 3 – 1 Liverpool
That xG diagram tells you everything you need to know. Caley’s comment was “Surprisingly comprehensive by Real Madrid.” Getting outshot 15-7 from every angle across the box because you can’t control the midfield will make it look that way. Appearances were not deceiving in the first half. As noted, it was a pretty poor performance by everyone, so it’s not fair to blame one player for it. Klopp said that his substitution of Naby was “tactical” and that he could have made other changes then, so that everyone talking about how it was Naby’s fault is wrong. That sounds half like Jürgen covering for his guy and half the basic truth of the matter. One guy does not lose a football match (except very occasionally a keeper… Not going there.) But it’s hard to argue away from the fact that one guy either forgot how to play football or simply wasn’t capable of executing the plan, such as it was, from the manager; the two major parts of which are “control possession in the middle third and fill the spaces that our offensive fullback leaves.” You know… the way we’ve been playing for four years now?
But there’s plenty of criticism to go around: The ever-reliable Gini Wijnaldum coughed up the ball far more often than is normal. Both centerbacks lost their man more than once. Alisson Becker probably should’ve done better on that third goal, despite being screened by Nat Phillips. If we were only down a goal with an away goal in hand, I’d be feeling a lot more confident about our ability to take the tie. As it is, we’re basically in the same situation we were two years ago, which is needing a shutout of at least two goals to continue in the tournament. But certainly no matter what happens over the weekend against the Villans, we can’t go into next Wednesday with the same lineup as today. It’s simply not workable, which is something that we might have to consider in the off-season.
And, I couldn’t go without mentioning that the criticism extends to the lead official, Dr. Brych. We normally get a pretty fair pull from him, not least because he seems to understand the difference between English sides and other European sides and is willing to turn a blind eye to a lot, as Sadio found out to his chagrin. But when said official calls every foul in the game for the entire second half against one side, there may be a problem. Seriously. Every free kick for the entire second half went to Real Madrid. Brych was clearly favoring the defense in this match, which served the Spanish side’s interest, but it’s usually not so blatantly slanted.
The Naby problem. I’ve touched on this before, but I think it may be time to simply cut bait on a €54 million expense. I realize that his numbers generally seem to indicate that he’s one of the best players on the pitch when he actually plays, but it rarely appears like that’s the case, especially when we end up losing matches and the most glaring problem unit on the pitch is the midfield. The other part of it, of course, is that whole “when he actually plays” thing. In some conceivable fashion, you could argue that the fact that he hasn’t played regularly for the past two seasons impacts his form whenever he actually gets game time. That’s totally fair. But the other thing you could argue is that he does get game time against minnows in the cup competitions, where it’s almost a given that one’s numbers are going to look really good, and the reason he doesn’t get regular game time is because he’s been injured for what is now the majority of his time at the club. What reinforces this are moments like tonight, when he’s on the pitch but apparently has no bleeding clue about how our gameplan is supposed to function. Granted, that’s been a running issue since Hendo went down, because almost no one in our midfield understands how to cover for Trent as well as the captain does. And, certainly, you can still see glimmers of the form that he showed for a season at RB Leipzig. Tonight was no exception when he picked up the ball, skated past Casemiro, and was suddenly in acres of space, looking for targets. And that is, of course, exactly why Klopp said that he played him, because Madrid generally man-mark and Naby’s an excellent dribbler. But he also seems to lack field awareness of anything that’s behind him or not in an attacking position (which is really weird, since Leipzig occasionally used to play him at the 6.) We won’t get anything close to the money we paid for him, but at this point it simply seems like an inordinate sunk cost and easily the worst purchase of the Klopp era, based on the money paid and the amount and quality of play we’ve gotten for it. I know it kind of seems like piling on (and if any of football stats Twitter paid attention to what I said, the howls would be deafening. Strangely, they’ve all gone quiet tonight…), but the end of the season is fast approaching and the squad needs changes, so this is probably the time to start thinking about big ones.
Also, let me be clear. As much as it’s the right midfielder’s responsibility to cover for Trent, the latter may have dug his hole with Gareth Southgate right back (ahem) into the ground tonight. Yes, Vinicius is a big ask, but Trent wasn’t beyond the criticism leveled at everyone. Having the most touches for the team and yet completing a grand total of zero crosses and making zero tackles as a fullback will get you the bad spotlight right quick. This game was the polar opposite of what happened on Saturday and that may reflect the quality of the opposition more than anything else, but to go from hero to zero in the space of two matches is kind of incredible.
The one tiny positive?
Since he joined Liverpool, Mo has more goals than anyone in Europe but the usual suspects (Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski) in all competitions. He’s a star, but not one that can rescue an entire squad from torpor (He also has the most goals scored in losses of any player for LFC since the mid-50s. Sigh.)
Anyway, now we get to hear about the “historic” loss to the Villans for four days before Saturday and confront yet another “your season depends on this” match. Good times.