Heavy metal redux

Remember those days in ’16-’17 and ’17-’18 (the ones that seem like a century ago) where we’d be playing like we were shot out of a gun from the moment a ball was kicked? Those were the ones that everyone bemoaned in the two seasons following when we weren’t beating sides by 4-3 scores routinely because Jürgen Klopp had adjusted his “heavy metal football” approach for more of a controlled possession game. It also helped to have Virgil Van Dijk and, later, Fabinho on the pitch to excise the defensive errors that often required us to keep the pedal to said metal in order to win matches. Well, for one night in this otherwise completely forgettable 2021, we shined a light into the past and played like our lives depended on it, helped along by plenty of defensive errors on the other side.

I mean, all good, right? Roberto Firmino picking up a brace by being in the right place at the right time twice, plus Diogo Jota with the insouciant flick in a goal mouth scramble, and Mo Salah with what used to be a standard breakaway goal for LFC. That’s great. It’s the most we’ve scored in any one match in 2021. It’s a most welcome sight for Bob to be back among the thing that forwards are supposed to do (i.e. scoring goals.) It leaves Mo tied with Harry Kane for the Golden Boot (How often has the Boot winner been on a fifth-placed side this late in the season? Not often.) But you can look at all four of the goals and point out mistakes on the other side that this time- FINALLY -we were able to take advantage of. Goalmouth scrambles happen because of poor clearances, which was the case here. Bob was right under Trent Alexander-Arnold’s perfect free kick because Paul Pogba couldn’t stay with him. ManU was so determined to play out from the back that Luke Shaw decided to try to dribble past three opponents in the middle of the pitch and Dean Henderson let Trent’s decent shot bounce right off him into Bob’s path. And then no one can be quite sure if Henderson knew what end of the pitch he was supposed to be on when trying to square up to Mo.

But those are the kinds of mistakes that we’ve been unable to punish for most of this season (and it’s questionable to call Pogba’s inability to stay with Bob a “mistake”, since Bob just beat him and Trent’s pass was inch-perfect.) Plus, that narrative plays right into the hands of Manchester fans complaining that they were without their best CB for this match… You don’t say…? I don’t know anyone who’s had that problem… four times over like we had, um, today, in fact! So, no. I don’t care for the excuses. We came into this match knowing that it was must-win. Scratch that. We came into the Liverpool-Manchester United derby which is always a must-win match and got the win; Klopp’s first at Old Trafford and our first since 2014, incidentally. We got it because we were the better side which has been the case for the last three seasons, no matter what the current point totals say. If Diogo hadn’t hit the post with a clear shot, we would’ve won by more.

But now comes the big question: With our revived heavy metal intensity brought out against one of the Big 6 clubs and one of our fiercest rivals, can we maintain that intensity on Sunday against already-relegated West Brom? Not getting points against the bottom half of the table has been our main issue for this whole season and we have 19th-place West Brom, 15th-place Burnley, and 13th-place Crystal Palace to finish this season. Win out and yesterday’s bizarre loss by Chelsea means that we’re assured of a top 4 finish unless Leicester manages to beat Spurs by three or more. That means the Champions League next season with what is hopefully a fully-operational battle station, especially given that Virg has decided to forego the Euros in order to be ready for next season, leaving only Trent and Andy Robertson as potential risks in the summer nationalist exercise. Given that Trent has been LFC’s most-consistent and often best player since January (MOTM today) and, as I noted last time, Robbo’s superlative performance often goes unsung as he bombs up and down every touchline in the PL, those are still big risks. But the fewer we have to worry about, the better. Now’s the time for locking in and finishing this disappointing season on the highest note we can reach; kinda like Nat Phillips in the air or Tom Morello on guitar.

Manchester United 2 – 4 Liverpool

The diagram above indicates us actually outperforming our xG, which has not been a frequent occurrence in this calendar year. Hooray for rivalries? We’ve been on the “win or else” train for quite a while now and this is the first time we’ve seen this kind of explosion of intensity but, again, this is the Liverpool-ManU derby, so you’d like to expect something like this as opposed to Newcastle or Southampton (or West Brom… sigh.) There weren’t really any significant changes in terms of operation or formation, other than Diogo operating on the left which is where I think he truly excels, as opposed to trying to fill Bob’s role in the center. The one thing lacking there is Sadio Mané’s almost telepathic connection with Robbo, as Diogo and Andy had several instances of mistimed runs or balls played into a corner that the other wasn’t expecting in the initial 10 minutes that it took us to wake up(!) and start really playing (sigh.) But once we did kick into gear, there were several stars of the show, foremost among them this man:

That’s five chances created, four shots, and an assist from your fullback, sir. It’s funny how charged up Trent seems to get whenever he knows that Gareth Southgate is in the stands, as he was tonight. As I’ve stated before, I’d almost prefer that Southgate do the “I was right in the first place!” proper English lord thing and leave Trent home this summer. But I know TAA really wants to play and the tabloids would go berserk and hasten what will be Southgate’s inevitable ignominious departure. But almost as important was Thiago Alcântara:

Stats Twitter is working very hard to pat themselves on the back now that he’s settled in and become the star performer in midfield that everyone expected. They’ll gloss over the fact that it took most of the season for that to happen, which likely was delayed by the injury in the first Everton match. Developing a good working relationship with Fabinho and Gini was also key and sometimes these things just take time. Time has also been weighing heavily on Bobby Dazzler:

In that the lack of goals, not only by him, but by others around him that he’d helped create was the most prominent feature of much of our post-Christmas play. He’s still the engine of our machine and various sources have stated that LFC is determined to hold on to him, Mo, and Sadio; likely in the hope that a fresh start next season will signal an overall return to form. OTOH, someone who likely won’t be seeing much time is Nat Phillips:

which is kind of a shame, given the solid service that he’s provided for the club. I note with some degree of shock that he actually lost an aerial duel in this match, which is demonstrative of just how good he’s been; opinions of various idiot Redditors aside. Is he a superstar CB? No. Would he start over Virg, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, or possibly even Ibrahima Konaté when he arrives? No. But given the clear need for us to keep five CBs on call (just waiting until the next time Joel goes out…), I’m perfectly happy with him being the fifth.

A word about the King. No, not Kenny. The Egyptian King. This was Mo Salah’s 200th appearance for Liverpool. In that time, he’s had 166 goal contributions (124 goals, 42 assists), which is insane. Of course, the vast majority of those have come in his 143 appearances in the PL as a Red. This is why it boggles the mind to see people squawking about how he’s “selfish” or how we could get someone better if we sold him or all of the other idiocies that seem to follow his name around and/or seem to get him ignored in most of the “team of the season” lists. I’m not a huge fan of those, since I’ve always been of the opinion that football is one of the most teamy of team games. But it’s hard to deny the really standout performers in that team game and Mo is definitely one of them.

On that same note, I have to once again sing the praises of Robbo. It’s not just about his tireless efforts, but the real shining moments that sometimes go unheeded. The above clip is demonstrative of that effort. Rashford gets an edge and Andy just runs him down and takes the ball off him. He was limping a bit after that sprint and there was brief concern about an injury, but he shook it off and kept going, just like the last three years. The team-wide intensity has been lacking recently, but never for Robbo.

Alrighty, then. West Brom and first-time-ever-relegated Big Sam on Sunday. On paper, this should be a walk, but knowing how vindictive Sam is against the clubs whom he thinks don’t show him enough respect, there’s no way to predict anything. Heavy metal, boys. I leave you with Trent’s picture-perfect cross to Bob’s head.

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