There was a time last season when there were mild complaints raised about 2-1 wins. I guess it’s exaggerating to call them “complaints” because it was still three points, no matter what the goal tally was. I guess you could consider it a complaint when 2-1 is one less goal difference than the 2-0 win (or greater) that most felt it “should” be. That, of course, was during a period of time when we thought that goal difference might actually be important in the race for the title, given the events of the previous season and the last time we were that close, in 2014. Last year, GD didn’t turn out to mean anything and this year, it certainly doesn’t for a title. But it is possible it’s going to be a thing for that 4th place spot that four clubs have an active interest in. But it’s more interesting to note that 2-1 this season doesn’t bring with it any sense of mild disappointment, but instead enormous relief. Way, way too many times this season we’ve seen our side utterly dominate a match, only to make one mistake and fail to break down a packed-in defense and lose by some utterly forgettable score. With almost a half hour to go, this was feeling like another one of those 0-1 matches. Seconds later, Mo Salah put in the goal that at least gave us a point.
Interestingly, that brought up another memory from last season, where we stole a late win at Villa Park after trailing for most of the game and when Roberto Firmino had a clear goal in the first half reversed by VAR as “offside” because of his armpit. This time it was the depth of the Premier League badge on Diogo Jota’s sleeve that apparently was the offending presence before Bob scored what any normal fan would consider a normal goal. Perhaps that’s why it was appropriate that the PL patch on Trent Alexander-Arnold’s jersey was upside down, which is usually a sign of distress and there can be almost no argument that the PL’s use of VAR is distressful (Liverpool now has the most goals reversed of any club in the division this season, with 7) to football fans of any affiliation or none. But that one instance also didn’t cause Mo to attempt to slide the ball past Emi Martinez when alone in front of him, rather than taking it around and getting a clean shot. It didn’t cause Diogo to knock a free header over the bar on a corner. And it didn’t cause the Reds to waste another half-dozen excellent chances that one feels like would’ve been easy goals in the past two seasons. This has been the story of this season and it’s something we’ve had to adjust to while we find ourselves struggling for a Champions League spot, rather than contending for another domestic title.
And there are positives to be taken from the match, in addition to the obvious points. Just looking at the stats can tell you that. It’s not often one can dump a bunch of criticism on a side that outshot the opposition, 23-9/10-5, and outcornered them, 7-0. The match was there to be won. But at one point, I felt quite confident that the most frequent single action of a play-by-play recount would be “Phillips with the header”, as Nat was once again constantly in position to blunt most of the searching balls that the Villans were tossing to their front line. It was also a restoration of more consistent play by Trent and others from Tuesday, although I question the replacement of Thiago Alcântara in midfield once again, especially since Gini Wijnaldum has been having a (for him) consistently subpar run for the matches he’s played since his return from international duty. I think fatigue is an issue there, but I’m assuming that LFC’s medical staff is saying otherwise. But Jürgen’s substitutions and lineups have often been a source of criticism, just like they were in Madrid, and it’s fair to say that his changes today led directly to the winning goal, as the attacking presence of both Thiago and Xherdan Shaqiri was important in keeping Aston Villa pinned back and open to the final strike by Trent that got us the three points so important to keeping as close to Chelsea as we can. So, credit where credit is due all around. People are making a thing about this being the 100th victory for Jürgen at Anfield (which we expected three months ago) or how it’s three PL wins in a row (which we haven’t achieved since the first three games of the season) or how LFC have scored 37 goals in the 90th minute or later in the PL era, 12 more than any other side (Opta), but those things are ephemeral compared to the final results, just like the scoreline. At this point, there’s nothing else to do but stay positive and keep striving to win out and turn the season into at least a minor success, like any other 2-1 win.
Liverpool 2 – 1 Aston Villa
Tactically, the game wasn’t particularly remarkable. Without Jack Grealish on hand, the Villans were a little less prone to working the ball forward on the ground, which is why they were lofting so many balls through the air to Ollie Watkins to avoid our press and the middle block. I think they, like many clubs, are still interested in trying to test Nat and Ozan Kabak as the “inexperienced defender” duo. Thankfully, not many clubs have the precision of Toni Kroos and LFC shouldn’t be giving anyone that much time on the ball, either. And, again, credit to Nat for being under the vast majority of those through balls. He won 10 aerial duels in this match, which is more than the rest of the entire squad combined and the most by any Liverpool player in a single match this season. The credit for being “the most annoying opposing player” goes to Matt Targett, whose name kept coming up as the guy getting in the way of a good attack or a potential scoring chance. That did often leave Villa’s shape rather uneven, though, as they normally employ a 4-2-3-1 but Targett roving all over the place meant that Trent and often Mo had a lot of room with which to operate. That’s why we didn’t hear Andy Robertson’s name called that often in the first half. And Trent made that pay off.
Again, people are getting in a twist about the whole Southgate drama and I still couldn’t care less. My only concern is: How does he play for the club that pays him (and who happen to be his hometown club and the only professional position he’s ever had; hence, the badge kissing)? OK? Then that’s all that matters. He came up through the Liverpool system and we’re going to benefit from that for years to come. Speaking of being in the system
That’s most completed passes. That’s most chances created. That’s most aerials won (obvsly.) Thats… pretty damn good play from a guy we were trying to sell last summer. In the same way I said that I’d be fine with FSG dropping the coin for Ozan Kabak, I’d be equally fine with signing Nat to a longer-term contract at this point. He doesn’t have the speed of Virgil Van Dijk or Joe Gomez, so it does force us to alter our midfield play somewhat, but he’s a monster in the air and has the whole positioning thing down pat.
And now a word about everyone’s least favorite topic. Once again, the absurdity rears its head in the PL’s use of VAR. I continue to find it fascinating how utterly ridiculous they make this situation in every single match in which a close offside call is made. No other national league has this problem because no other league is using the pretty lines or deciding that this particular frame is the moment when the ball was kicked, despite even the technology’s inability to confirm that, to say nothing of the instances where the player kicking the ball (in this case, Trent) was obscured by another player, which was what happened here. It’s not just a farce of rule implementation. It’s also effectively a reversal of a rule that was put in 30 years ago. Back in the early 90s, the offside rule was changed so that attackers could be level with defenders, rather than behind them, in order to be considered onside. The PL’s use of VAR is now annulling that rule change, because it’s apparent that being level with a defender is automatically considered offside. Again, Hanlon’s Razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”) should apply here, but the outrage by fans of both sides and every media source that views these incidents with zero PL response makes it that much more likely that this is simply a determination by PGMOL and, consequently, the PL to make VAR so distasteful that fans will finally reject it as the “real” problem. Meanwhile, every other major league seems to be going ahead with it relatively smoothly. English exceptionalism, indeed.
Wednesday. The whites come calling. A 2-0 win puts us back in the semifinals for the third time in four years. It’s certainly not infeasible. After that, we get the other whites on a trip to Elland Road for the first time in 17 years. Meanwhile, here are French commentators for Trent’s goal, since they’re always so good with these things: