Sisyphean

I sat on this one for almost a week. On the one hand, it was my first time back at Magee’s since September or so. OTOH, it was, as James Pearce later put it, Liverpool’s entire season in 95 minutes. As I’ve noted several times before, in marked contrast to last season, where the mental durability of this squad was fully in evidence to pull out a number of wins in the last few minutes or close out wins with narrow leads, this season has been the exact opposite. Too often we’ve found ourselves not finding a way through in those last minutes or surrendering a lead and dropping points. All told, LFC has given up 15 points from winning positions this season. 15 points back would mean that top 4 would barely be a concern and we’d instead be gnashing our teeth about having to compete with ManU this weekend for second place behind City. Instead, we end up with expressions or lack thereof like this:

Instead, the back of the net refused to ripple after Mo Salah’s stunning opener in the 3rd minute and we gave up the equalizer in the 95th minute. And Pearcey is right. That’s been the story of 2021 for this club. No matter how hard we keep pushing that rock, we end up with it sitting at the bottom of the hill again, having made no progress toward any of our season goals and, indeed, threatening those of next season, as well. And, just as with Sisyphus, it’s not like the effort wasn’t there. We had more shots on target against Newcastle than we did in the 7-0 laugher over Palace in December. Continuing the trend, we had an xG of 2.8 and outshot the Maggies, 22-7. But the majority of their 7 shots came in the last 20 minutes of the match, when we failed at the most basic element of Jürgen Klopp’s strategy: possessing the ball or winning it back immediately after losing it. If you can’t do the basics, then your chance of success drops markedly. (Obvious things are obvious.)

What this means, in the end, is that something has to change with this squad. I know that some are predicting that Jürgen’s statement about how not making the CL won’t change the club’s transfer plans this summer means that nothing will happen because nothing was going to happen. But that doesn’t jibe with reality at all. Spending almost nothing in the 2018-19 summer window, spending relatively little in the ’19-20 window (the deals for Thiago Alcântara and Diogo Jota were heavily back-loaded), and Jürgen signing an extension specifically to lay a foundation for his successor means that FSG has been focused on the coming window to rebuild what elements of the squad need rebuilding for some time. At this point, the areas of concern are two-fold: The first is reliable depth in midfield, with James Milner, Robot Warrior, nearing retirement, Naby Keita never having panned out and being injury-prone, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s career having stalled since the serious knee injury three(!) years ago, and Gini Wijnaldum on his way out the door. Add to that Captain Jordan Henderson turning 31 this summer and it’s obvious that changes have to be made. The second, and even more obvious, is the front line. As famed as the front three have been for being one of the most feared in European (and, thus, world) football, this simply can’t go on. Other than Mo and a brief spell in the fall with Diogo, the scoring output of our forwards doesn’t approach what a club like Liverpool should be fielding.

So, I’m pretty sure that FSG’s plans were to make changes this summer and the fact that we’re struggling so badly the season after running away with the Premier League title only adds fuel to that fire. Combine that with the recent ESL debacle and the return of fans to Anfield next season and there’s almost no way that FSG could countenance sitting on their hands this summer. Sisyphus was doomed to roll the rock for eternity as a punishment. Liverpool’s supporters, at this point, won’t tolerate returning to the bad, old days of coming close but still running second to some club in Manchester. (It also wouldn’t mesh very well with that deal they signed with Nike for the club to be an also-ran in most of its competitions.) The only thing I’m certain about is that change is coming.

Liverpool 1 – 1 Newcastle United

We have the second-highest xG in the league behind Man City, but have the fifth-most goals scored. Given that we’re now assuredly competing in a six-team mini-league for the foreseeable future, that’s just not sustainable. We have two goals from 54 shots in the last two matches. We’ve also only collected 5 points from 27 in 2021 at Anfield. Certainly, the lack of the crowd has impacted our squad moreso than many others who aren’t used to playing in front of such vociferous supporters (see: Man City), but there’s still a problem aimed squarely at most elements of the attack outside of this man:

For all of the ridiculous criticism that Mo receives about being “selfish”, the facts have become apparent in this calendar year: He’s the only one scoring goals. And one can certainly point at the lack of delivery from the CBs with the absence of Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. Once can also point to the lack of Fabinho in midfield and the lack of Hendo for the past two months that enables Trent Alexander-Arnold to get forward (5 assists this season, compared to 13 the year before and 12 the year before that.) Yes, there’s no doubt that the injury troubles have impacted this squad. But Mo has 20 PL goals again, with five matches to play, with another 9 in other competitions. We have front line issues, but they don’t start or end with him.

Midfield is more of a mixed bag. Thiago took some heat after he returned from the Richarlison injury for seemingly not contributing to the flow through the middle third in the manner that Liverpool usually like to play. I was one of those questioning whether his style of play might not be what should be working for us, no matter his blatantly obvious level of skill. But a few games with Fabinho back in midfield proved the disclaimer to that theory and it has only continued in the matches where the former was forced back to CB:

You just can’t look at those numbers for a match and say that he’s a problem. He’s doing everything you’d ask from almost any midfielder in the world (except, you know, scoring goals occasionally…) But it’s not just one match.

Those are exactly the kind of numbers that most would’ve expected from Thiago when we bought him from Bayern. We just haven’t been able to make it pay off in the offensive third of the field.

One more note on that ESL thing. So, again, Michael Cox was not wrong. The major European leagues are broken. That doesn’t mean the solution was something like the ESL. It also doesn’t mean I’m interested in labor restraints (i.e. salary caps) and cartel activity, which is how the above-referenced American leagues establish that level of equality (for the rich.) But ManU spending almost 10x more than Sheffield United and expecting them to compete on the same pitch is farcical. It gets even worse when considering the jokes that are La Liga and the Bundesliga. And the impact of that kind of money is playing out in front of us as the usual suspects continue to make up the knockout rounds of the CL on a regular basis and, this year, three oil institutions and the world’s most annoying (and Euro-successful) club are your final four. Something has to change. I’m just not sure what.

Sunday, we’re at Old Trafford, desperately needing a win. Unfortunately, we haven’t won there, league or otherwise, since 2014. Here’s hoping Bob or Sadio find their shooting feet before then?

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