There’s a couple different ways to look at what happened at The Hawthorns today.
The hopeful view: I watch every Liverpool match from beginning to end, no matter the scoreline and no matter the relevance in the broader picture. I do it, in part, because I’ve been a Liverpool fan for 40+ years and, in part, because I simply enjoy watching football. But there’s a third part to that that has been generated from any number of games over the past five decades where situations turned in our favor simply because the team, like many of its supporters, didn’t give up. Certainly, the 94 minutes prior to the above event were frustrating and not what I’d call entirely enjoyable to watch. But one goal is one goal. All it takes is that one moment to elevate a dire scenario to one of joy that no one watching will soon forget; not only for its unique circumstances (Alisson Becker becomes the first Liverpool goalkeeper in the club’s 129-year history to score and only the sixth keeper in the Premier League era to do so) but also because of how it continues to be emblematic of not just the club at large, especially since Jürgen Klopp’s arrival, but of the city that the club represents. This is what Mo Salah’s famous shirt from two years ago- Never Give Up -means and this is why Liverpool is beloved by so many across the globe. It’s not just the winning. It’s the spirit and the meaning of the endeavor that runs far deeper than what the score says or where we finish in the table.
The cynical view: As I’ve said many, many times before and will say many, many times again, football is the most random of the major sports. Weird things happen and seemingly unbeatable sides will fall to opponents who barely have any business being on the same pitch, to say nothing of actually winning. That’s the aspect of competitions like the FA Cup that endears them to many; where the Little Guys can sometimes beat the Big Guys, meaning that all hope is somehow not lost in the world. Liverpool has been providing many opportunities for the Little Guys this season, given that we’d accumulated a grand total of 8 points in our encounters with the bottom five clubs in the Premier League. This afternoon’s game looked like it was shaping up to be yet another one of those frustrating matches, where we utterly dominate possession of the ball (76%) and spend most of the match in what looks like a training exercise: “Ok, lads. Defense in a low block. Let’s see how long it takes you to break them down… if you can.” It’s really awful football for the neutral fan and is pretty awful for the team that everyone expects to win, yet is held up as a shining beacon of courage by much of the English media for the smaller club simply being able to last in the game, rather than, you know, trying to actually win it by, say, moving the ball forward. To that end, the final result is cosmic justice of a sort.
I’ve wavered back and forth between the two and did so during the match. Watching Alisson trot forward, I had the same thought that Robbie Earle had in NBC’s studio: “That never works.” I had almost already resigned myself to the Europa League next season, thinking about how the loss of money and prestige and excitement would impact what are already going to be limited signings this summer and how it impacts the continuing blowback from the European Super League and all of the other business and pragmatic downsides. But Alisson coming forward is also a sign of a squad and a player taking every opportunity to succeed and in this one time making it pay off. This is the old cliché: It’s why they play the games. You can’t fault West Brom’s players, having already been relegated and having “nothing to play for”… except that there’s everything to play for because winning the match is why they’re out there in the pouring rain. If this is your life’s calling, then you pursue it to its limits (or be Eden Hazard) and treat every chance for any little success as the most important thing in the world. As supporters, that’s part of who we are, as well. I may not care about the League Cup and the FA Cup, but I’ll watch every time Liverpool plays because I want them to win every match that they play, even if the watching of said matches is less than enjoyable, not only because of what the opposition are doing but because I and we expect so much more from LFC.
This season, of course, has not been easy for that expectation. We came into it thinking about the beginning of another dynasty. We’re going out of it clutching our hands in the hopes of squeaking into the Champions League for next season. But that’s the key word: “hopes.” We stay and watch because the glory is there, right on the edge of our field of vision. We can reach out and try to grasp it or we can cloud it with resigned disgust about what might have been. I know what side of that decision I’m going to end up on, eventually. It just might take a little longer to get there. (Say, 95 minutes?)
West Bromwich Albion 1 – 2 Liverpool
As with almost every match that involves Big Sam, this one was kind of a slog. I tend to look at clubs managed by Allardyce as something similar to perpetually awful American teams or franchises. How does one become an Indiana football fan? Similarly, how does one endure regularly watching the sham that Allardyce presents as soccer? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Give me all your “perfect possession vs counter” matchup nonsense that you want, as Caley Graphics did for the above diagram. It’s not true. It’s clinging to an outdated version of the game that used to prize the idea of a 0-0 draw as some kind of “good effort.” When Hal Robson-Kanu scored, West Brom immediately retreated to the midfield line and bunkered in at their own end. Again, that’s not a game. That’s a training exercise. People were aflutter about Mike Dean’s odd decision to give a free kick when he’d interfered with Fabinho, rather than a drop, as if that somehow contributed to Mo Salah’s equalizer. But if you watch the sequence of that stunning goal, you’ll see that even taking the free kick quickly saw WBA have five men and quickly eight men behind the ball. Once we’d equalized, it didn’t really change. Spiteful Sam could get the same result (“We want to cause Liverpool some pain.”) with a draw that he could with a win. You could try to argue that that kind of setup is the only way those small clubs can compete with the big ones, but you’d be wrong. Every time West Brom came forward, they proved that there was danger for our inexperienced CBs. That’s an opportunity for any manager who’s not like Sam Allardyce. But to him, it must be like supping with the devil. Better to stay over here and grind out something decent, rather than reach for something great. As the English media won’t hesitate to remind you, it’s his first time being relegated from the top division. Good riddance. In the Championship, I guess he’ll be surrounded by other English managers whom he feels must be as disrespected as he is.
On a more positive note, aside from Alisson’s MotM performance; not only for his resplendent goal (Jürgen is right that any forward would be lauded for his technique on that header) but for a couple key saves when WBA actually came forward, there’s also the player that would easily have earned that award on any other day:
Thiago Alcântara has earned plaudits for his play in this space several times before during this season, but they’ve become increasingly regular and, uh, better in the past few weeks. That 91% passing (96/106) was the best of any player in the game. The five chances created were tied for first with Trent Alexander-Arnold. 120 touches was first. 5/5 in tackles was first. Oh, and he made 5 key passes, 2 dribbles, and won 7/9 ground duels and 3/4 aerial duels, too. To say that he bossed the midfield in this game is underselling it. He was brilliant and, if this is a sign of things to come for next season, it looks very, very bright. Speaking of bright…
That assist, of course, was the perfect inswinger that landed on Alisson’s head for the winner. But the key there is 5 chances created in each of the past three matches. That goes along with 5 assists and a goal in the last 7 matches. He’s really bringing it home for us this season after his COVID-impacted start and it’s getting mildly ridiculous to add the usual trailer: “And he’s a fullback/defender.” because this is just the way we play and most other clubs would also play this way if they had a player of his talent (except Sam Allardyce, of course.) Also, take nothing away from our star forward
since it’s been his constant pressure on the opposition that has picked the lock of the bunkers we’ve been facing. There aren’t that many strikers in the world who could place a one-touch goal in the far corner amidst a swirl of defenders, but Mo has been doing that for us since he got here. That’s 31 goals on the season and ties him with Harry Kane in the PL Golden Boot race yet again.
Also, Alisson’s was Liverpool’s 38th 90th+ minute goal in the PL since its creation, which puts us 13 ahead of any other club. This is that “why we watch to the end” phenomenon in all its glory.
A couple downsides. The fact that we put only 6 of our 26 shots on target remains a concern and what is basically the telling detail of this season. We created remarkably easy chances for Sadio Mané, Gini Wijnaldum, and Trent and all of them sailed wide or over the bar. Roberto Firmino also had what looked like a nailed-on goal bounce off the post. All you can do about that is just shrug and hope that a full pre-season and a return to games that aren’t do-or-die will sort out whatever part of that isn’t just poor luck.
Speaking of which, we were also informed before the match that not only is Diogo Jota out for the last two matches with a broken bone in his foot, but there will also be no return from anyone currently on the long-term injured list, which includes Ozan Kabak. That means we’re riding Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams the rest of the way and praying to whatever powers one believes in that they make it. Rhys was directly responsible for Robson-Kanu’s goal, but he’s also still only 20 years old and is, effectively, learning on the job, so there’s not much to be done about it.
Anyway, we’re off to (ugh) Turf Moor to face the Burnleyest team in England on Wednesday. I guess you can say that the one upside is that with Chris Wood up front, Sean Dyche isn’t quite as bad as Allardyce. But that means Chris Wood against our young CBs so, yeah, not so much. Still, we have Alisson. I leave you with the appropriate sounds from Brazil, Mexico, and Elvis Costello: