Sainted, but shouldn’t be

You know those games where it seems like the goalkeeper can do no wrong? Where everything we do to hit the back of the net seems foiled almost casually by a guy having the best night of his life? Of course you do, because you’re a Liverpool fan and you’ve experienced our troubles with the bottom half of the table in this season and many before it. It would be nice to say that Alisson had one of those matches tonight, but it’s actually not true, since this is the kind of performance that everyone expects from him in every match, whether they’re a Reds fan or not. And even the meme doesn’t hold water, since Alisson almost gifted a goal to Ché Adams in the second half, but made a fine hand save to keep our one goal lead immediately afterwards. The “standing on his head” goalkeeper of legend wouldn’t do something like that. But in the end, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t having one of those mythical games, because he was having an Alisson Becker game and that’s usually more than enough for any side to keep winning.

Similarly, yes, it’s great that Thiago Alcântara scored his first goal for Liverpool and otherwise had an excellent game bossing the midfield alongside Fabinho. This is where the various Football Stats stans chime in, asking why Jürgen Klopp left him on the bench for both legs against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals. Well, maybe it’s because Jürgen is still seeing the problems that had him roaring at Thiago from the touchline in the first half when he was casually letting a ball roll off the pitch for a Southampton throw-in while Mo Salah was sprinting to keep it in bounds so we could retain possession. That’s the lack of intensity that is, uh, not normally a hallmark of Klopp’s teams but has often been a hallmark of this season’s squad. This is why we should be arching an eyebrow at everyone doing cartwheels over a 2-0 win that came over the 16th-place club in the league. You know, the one that everyone was outraged to lose to 1-0 in January and which then went on to lose 13 of its next 16 matches because it’s Southampton (aka Liverpool Reserves)?

I know. We won the match! Why am I getting in such a twist over it? Well, because we looked every bit as disjointed as we have in most other matches this calendar year (First time we’ve kept a clean sheet in a league match since April 4th) and because, despite our litany of injuries that derailed the season, we still have the second-highest payroll in the most expensive league in Europe and are currently (checks notes) seventh and need to win the next four straight in order to qualify for that same Champions League next season. Despite the casualty rate, this is not where this squad should be and, given the expectations of manager, players, and supporters to be competing at the top level of the game, we shouldn’t still be seeing these completely disjointed efforts where it looks like we’re struggling to put away a squad barely above the relegation zone (and also struggling with injuries) because half of our squad looks like they can’t play at the intensity that our manager, now in his fifth year here, requires.

Let’s take a survey: What’s your best memory of this season? Anyone? Is it the laugher over Crystal Palace in December? Because that’s not a memory that I would file among the legends of Liverpool Football Club, still the defending champions of the Premier League until Manchester City gains another point or two. In perfect contrast, Twitter was aflame over the past two days, hearkening back to a day when almost this same squad did put together a performance of intensity and emotion and organization and title-winning football: the 4-0 win over Barcelona… from two years ago! This is still a champion squad that should be doing a lot more than struggling to get into the top 4 of the PL while being out of every other competition. You know what the still-aging squad of Barcelona will be doing over the next couple weeks? Contending for the La Liga title and otherwise looking at their Copa del Rey winners’ medals. What did we get after walking the league last year? Bupkis. Nada. We’re an afterthought to the oil-moneyed, human rights violating machine 45 minutes down the road who are about to complete a treble unless another oil-moneyed club robs them of the prize they most likely deserve as the best team in England and likely the best in Europe.

So, is someone to blame for all of this? Should there be? Do I blame FSG, recent leaders of an effort to derail the broken model that is most of Europe’s major leagues? They’ve spent money for years and reorganized the club from top to bottom from the disaster it was under Hicks and Gillett. But they also had to be pushed to a crisis point to bring in Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies on deadline day in January; both of whom are now on the injured list because, yeah, that’s just this season. Do I blame Jürgen? He may be the best thing that’s happened to this club since Bob Paisley retired. But when we look at players that simply haven’t produced over the past two years, even when we were winning, like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jürgen is saying that he’s not leaving this summer because Klopp thinks he’ll be totally transformed next season. You know what I was thinking when we were holding on by our fingernails in the second half to a 1-0 lead over the 16th-place club? “Please sub in someone. Please sub in someone. Please sub in someone.” Jürgen, to his extreme credit, wants to give everyone every chance possible. But sometimes, it might pay to be more ruthless. Do I blame the players? I have a pretty good idea of who’s willing to work and who isn’t. I also have a pretty good idea of who is genuinely talented and who isn’t. Unfortunately, those two positives don’t always coincide inside the same people. And, again, you can’t ask people to play if they physically can’t play. The casualty list has been ridiculous. Sometimes these things happen because, as always, this is the most random of the major sports.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t appreciate the win or appreciate Alisson and Thiago’s excellent performances. I’m not an excellence demander who thinks every game that isn’t a win is a crisis or that every season that doesn’t produce multiple trophies is a failure. I recognize the difficulty of competing against so many clubs who have enough money to convince spectacular players to sit the bench behind other spectacular players, when our owners don’t have that kind of coin and are insistent that debt servicing is not the way they want to do business. I get it. But I’m also way past the point of putting anyone on a pedestal for simply doing their job. As Klopp has said when talking about the ESL: “You can’t blame the boys who did nothing wrong except not win enough games.” It’s harsh to put it that way, but results-oriented business, yo. I’ll simply reiterate that if they had played with the same intensity that this squad carried for the previous two years, it wouldn’t be in the position where it had to win out in order to keep up with the Joneses in the CL next year. Too many matches have looked like the one today, where the side with intensity and purpose was too often the side wearing the other colors.

When your matches don’t mean anything to the rest of the football world, it’s tougher to find xG maps.

Liverpool 2 – 0 Southampton

So, that was grueling. I’m certainly not objecting to the style of football that was played for much of the game, as the Saints proved willing to bring the game to us as much as we tried to bring it to them. Ralph Hasenhüttl isn’t called “the Alpine Klopp” for nothing. But, particularly in the second half, I’ve found myself reverting to a sensation from seasons past when it seems like a) we can’t hold on to the ball and b) every time the opposition has the ball, it feels like a goal is right around the corner. Part of that lack of control has been the constant shuffling of the midfield and often the lack of our starting #6 in Fabinho. That’s why you’d hope that with Thiago and Gini Wijnaldum lined up with him, things might be different. There’s no denying that the usually redoubtable Gini has shown signs of fatigue in the last few weeks and that was evident here, as well. And, again, there’s no denying the statistical output from Thiago:

That’s some good. But chase down those loose balls, man. On that note, let’s talk about the return of Nat Phillips:

Those aerial numbers just continue to (ahem) floor me. Every time he leaves his feet, he’s winning the ball. It would be hard for anyone to deny that he’s played his way into a spot on the squad, despite not having the top-end speed that we need to play our high line style. His positioning is so good that he often makes up for that (One of the reasons Virg is considered such a great CB is that his positioning is immaculate and he has that top-end speed.) Plus, since we seem to be unable to keep a pair of CBs on the pitch for longer than two matches in a stretch, we might as well stockpile them. On that note, Rhys Williams had a decent game, although he got taken advantage of a few times by the speed that Southampton has in their attack. It seems like they’ve had that trait for a few years, ever since this guy:

One definite positive of the match was getting Sadio back on the scoresheet. He may not reach double figures in the league this year (He’s already noted this as the worst season of his career.) but at least it was an affirmation of the threat he still possesses and why he should be pretty low on the list if we’re talking about letting some attackers go for some new faces.

On that note, as you’re likely aware, I’m a Roberto Firmino fan and I still think he runs the machine better than anyone else who tries to take his place. But among those irrefutable facts is that this season has been far from his best, just like Sadio. When we were struggling to control the game around the 70-minute mark, my “Please sub someone in” was often “Please put Bob in”, since the situation was ideal for him and it was clear that Soton were going to keep pressing as long as there was no one there to disrupt them. Bob can still do that, which is just one of the many things that makes me consider him crucial to the squad. But you also can’t have a forward who basically doesn’t score.

In contrast to much of the above, I should drop a note about Andy Robertson. Robbo has been one of the exceptions to this season’s rule of COVID, injuries, lack of enthusiasm, and so on. This was supposed to be the season where he finally got some relief from his perpetual madman approach to the game. One of the three players we bought in the last summer window, Kostas Tsimikas, was supposed to be that relief. Of course, this year being this year, Kostas also ended up with COVID, got injured, and found it difficult to adapt to the intensity that Klopp demands. But Robbo just keeps plowing ahead in every match… which means every match. I don’t know how long he’s going to be able to maintain that pace, especially since this summer will see him on the pitch for Scotland for a lot of training and at least four games. But it has been nice to have that one spot of guaranteed continuity of both presence and effort.

Also, one last note on Alisson in that the six saves he made yesterday were the most he’d ever made in a PL match, if that tells you anything about what kind of pressure Southampton was creating. In fact, no LFC keeper has made that many saves in a league match since Pepe Reina in 2013 vs Wigan. Weird.

Now it’s the rush to end the season, as we get the rescheduled red Mancs on Thursday (which is also three games in five(!) days for them.) Just like Pokemon, gotta win’em all, but this will be the stiffest test of that requirement.

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