Playing in the shadows

So there’s been football news in the last 24 hours. Perhaps you’ve heard? When I first saw word of the European Super League, my first thought was that this was yet another rerun of Project: Big Picture; the nascent Manchester United and Liverpool concept that was shot down last summer. After all, the bigger clubs in England have been thinking about changing things for their benefit since the inception of the Premier League. That point deserves some reemphasis:

This has been going on for thirty years now.

If you’re ranting today about how “Football is only about money” and “They’re ruined our game with their greed”, my first instinct would be to ask you when exactly you woke up from your coma that’s apparently lasted quite some time. The old political aphorism rings true here: It’s about the money. It’s always about the money. This confrontation between 12 big clubs and UEFA (and, largely, the rest of the football world) is one group of rich guys fencing with another group of rich guys. The big clubs want more money than UEFA is giving them, whether because the latter are extending participation in European play to more clubs or giving too much to “smaller” clubs or because of basic corruption or all of the above. So, they found a willing bank (no one can possibly be surprised that a contemptible entity like JP Morgan is involved in this) to front the cash and now they’re trying to do away with qualification for Euro play, which is just a small sidestep from the removal of pro/rel that a lot of the big club owners want, anyway. In the shadow of this, a game was played today.

Leeds 1-1 Liverpool - As it happened - Liverpool FC - This Is Anfield

Nominally, the match was really important for Liverpool, since a win would’ve put us into 4th place in the Premier League (which we may soon be expelled from), which would mean we’re one step closer to qualifying for next year’s Champions League (which we may soon be banned from.) Leeds United, under the somewhat legendary Marcelo Bielsa, are a team to be taken seriously, as we found out back in September when we only narrowly slipped by them at Anfield. Based on the way we played the first half, it seemed like that threat was, indeed, seriously considered. And then the second half happened and we looked like Scouse Burnley trying to hold on to a lead against a determined attacker. So, y’know, things could’ve gone better. Leeds certainly deserved their equalizer and it’s a wonder that that’s all they got, in the same way that we really deserved the lead from the first half and it’s the old refrain from 2021: “How didn’t we get more?”

That last line probably closely mirrors the thoughts of FSG whenever they think about the fact that they own one of the biggest clubs in the world. It’s also been similar to the refrain of Leeds fans for the past 16 years when they wondered how they ended up in not only the Championship but all the way down in League One. One wonders when enough is enough. In the case of Leeds, they’ve had basically two successful periods in their history and, yet, because they’re the only major club in one of the largest cities in England, they think they “deserve” to be somewhere. In the case of FSG and the other owners of the 12 clubs (how long until a “dirty dozen” handle is applied by the imaginative hordes on Twitter?), there’s really only so much money you can accumulate before it’s more than anyone will ever be able to reasonably spend in a lifetime. They just sold 10% of their business for a half billion pounds and, yet, they apparently think they should be making more of a return on one of their two major properties. This is, of course, a problem with society at large and not just football.

But, again, football has been like this for a long time. If you’re only getting outraged at this latest salvo, I admit that it’s a big one, but anyone who paid attention could see this coming. I realize that’s a bit like wondering why we couldn’t play the second half like we did in the first half (Focus!) but that’s the way these things go sometimes. This is, of course, still football and nothing stays the same for very long.

Would’ve liked to have my usual xG diagram here, but Caley is slacking off. Best numbers I’ve found were Leeds 2.85 to Liverpool 1.55, which sounds about right.

Leeds 1 – 1 Liverpool

It’s been a while since I’ve seen us give up that much possession (61%) and largely because we just couldn’t hold on to the ball. Leeds lived up to Bielsa’s reputation as a relentless attacking force. That’s been evident all season and kind of was in our first match, but it’s a far clearer picture now. What’s not normal, of course, is Liverpool having the attack taken to them unless we happen to be sitting on a 2+ goal lead and there’s 10 minutes left in the match. Even then, the usual process is that we sit on the ball by taking our time moving it up the pitch. In this case, we couldn’t keep it long enough to do much of anything with it in the second half. In the first, it was a literal back-and-forth game, which are the best games to watch, as both sides are going hell-for-leather and there are chances galore. But we couldn’t keep pace in the second and James Milner, Robot Warrior, mentioned that perhaps the Madrid game took enough out of us that the first half was all that we could give. That’s a reasonable supposition, but not exactly what you’d expect out of a Jürgen Klopp side. These are the moments when the intensity of Captain Jordan Henderson and the stability of Virgil Van Dijk are sorely missed. But that’s been the case for much of the season, so here we are.

I can’t say that it felt like a great idea to not start our leading scorer (Mo Salah) in a game where the opposition was much more likely to score than not. NBC cited the fact that Leeds are the first Premier League side to both score and surrender 50 or more goals in the same season, so perhaps Jürgen’s thought was that the latter half of the equation was more important and even allowing for Leeds to get past us wouldn’t outweigh the fact that we should put away more than they did. It was certainly great to see Sadio Mané get off the schneid and both Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota played well. Even retreating in the second half, we still ended up with more shots and shots on target for the match, so it’s not as if we were bunkering up and afraid to come out to play. Admittedly, once Diogo came off for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, we shifted into the 4-2-3-1 to try to slow them down as much as possible, but with that much pressure, it can’t have been a surprise to anyone when they finally broke through. I admit to feeling a pang of regret at seeing the lineup when it was apparent that formerly forgotten man, Nat Phillips, would not be joining us, forcing Fabinho back to CB. That’s a loss not only for Nat’s aerial prowess (and Leeds dropped in a lot of long balls) but also because it means that our midfield is less adept at slowing attacks with Fabinho out of his normal #6 slot. The strange thing was that it was essentially middle block vs middle block, as Leeds were largely unconcerned about balls going past their back line as we often are, and in that space you’d expect that Thiago Alcântara, Gini Wijnaldum, and Millie could hold their own. But there was a disconnect between that back line and the midfield that led to a lot of errant balls that were pounced upon by white shirts. You could hear Klopp growling in frustration as this wore on. That odd scenario was perhaps exemplified by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s play:

I mean, that’s a solid outing for anyone. But the number of both touches and passes is somewhat low for Trent (despite that assist giving him the most for any LFC player this season and tying him all-time with Ashley Cole (31); Trent is still just 22 years old.) We just couldn’t seem to generate the flow down that side of the pitch in the same way that we often could on the left, between Andy Robertson and Diogo, or up the middle, where both Fabinho and Ozan Kabak made more than one lengthy charge up the field with the ball. So, in the end, that means we missed an opportunity to be tied on points with the Hammers, despite them having a game in hand. Instead we remain two points back in sixth place while trying to decide whether it matters what place we’re in for next season’s Champions League.

On that other thing. Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, has apparently been telling the press that the ESL is a necessary step for football because of the economic impact of COVID. What he really means is “the economic impact of going so deeply into debt that losing match day income is just as much of a crisis for a club the size of Real Madrid as it is for Preston North End.” The Spanish giants (all three of them) have spent so much in the last few years that even their revenue was basically only meeting routine costs. Pull away the 10% that was match day income (in truth, a significant hit for most businesses) and it’s not hard to see the cliff’s edge. But like most of the words that come out of Perez’s hole, his argument is mostly self-serving. Madrid’s problem is that the Spanish TV deal isn’t as big as, say, the Premier League’s, so spending like they have been would soon become unsustainable as they strove to remain competitive with English teams in the CL (which they still are, obvsly) and with their Catalan neighbors, who were also tossing money away at random. The other thing that he was trying to maintain is what he thinks buttresses his argument for the ESL, in that the two Madrids and Barcelona (and, in truth, mostly Real and Barca) have dominated La Liga for so long that there’s little chance of dislodging them, so being one of the permanent members of a European tournament, regardless of what happens in their domestic league, only makes sense to him. This is the same perspective taken by Juventus and the two Milans (the Serie A TV deal is even worse) and likely would be the same perspective taken by Bayern Munich, if the latter, like all German clubs, weren’t still majority-owned by their supporters… who are, of course, going berzerk over this prospective change to the natural order like almost all other fans. At this point, I’ll give the floor to Leeds striker Patrick Bamford for a moment:

Yeah, it is amazing and shameful, isn’t it? This is Anfield actually condensed his statement a bit because he actually said “things that are actually important, like racism.” Those things are important to everyone but the millionaires and billionaires who own the big clubs and run UEFA, of course, which is why you’ve never seen anti-racism efforts against clubs in European competition that would actually affect their mutual bottom lines. That is, of course, what all of this is about and always has been (See again: It’s about the money. It’s always about the money.) Again, this has been going on for quite literally decades now. The Premier League was formed so that the bigger clubs could take advantage of the greater money supplied by TV and no less a rich guy than Rupert Murdoch made that call with a then-massive offer from nascent Sky Sports. Ever since then, the cash flow has only gotten larger and the men who control it have only been more interested in increasing it on the regular. The influx of American owners to the PL, with their American ideas about what sports leagues should be (aka constant flows of cash, regardless of team performance) only heightened this disconnect between what they wanted and what they got. This doesn’t, of course, exclude the non-fan “victim” in this, which is UEFA, who despite now bleating about how this is “about the fans” still managed to keep 50% of the tickets for recent Champions League finals to distribute to politicians, UEFA board executives, and other CEOs and/or gladly accept payoffs from organizers in places like Baku to stage said finals. There are no good guys in this fencing match between wealthy types, but it’s certain who the losers are: most of the football pyramid and most of the fans if UEFA and FIFA and various governments carry through on their threats to reduce the 15 permanent members to their own JP Morgan-financed island by expelling any members from their domestic leagues and banning them from all UEFA and FIFA competitions, including the World Cup for any participating players. Oh, and on the topic of those 15 permanent slots, Perez is also insisting that it’s not a “closed league” because there are a whole five spots open for qualifiers. You just lose the words to describe this guy.

Anyway, enough of that for now. I’ll most likely have more thoughts about the ESL in the next couple days before we end up meeting Steve Bruce’s resurgent Maggies at Anfield for the early match on Saturday. Incidentally, in case anyone doesn’t remember, I already wrote a few thousand words about a European Super League last fall: Part I, Part II, Part III. It doesn’t contain any mindblowing solutions, because there really aren’t any.

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