The last match, the win over West Brom, was about perspective; viewing the same thing positively or negatively, depending on how one wanted to approach new circumstances. I’d argue, at this point, that Liverpool’s form in the past month can’t be seen as anything but positive. It’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to be happy about finally rounding into form this late in the season, just in time to secure a CL spot. Granted, I was as frustrated as any Reds fan in the first half, watching chance after chance after chance left wanting; from Sadio Mané’s poke wide of a perfect Trent Alexander-Arnold delivery to Mo Salah twice coming in on goal alone, only to be tackled by Ben Mee in the first instance and lofting a shot over the bar in the second. But, like many things, football is a multi-faceted gem. It is possible to play beautiful football and win precisely nothing like, say, Atalanta, while being equally possible to grind out points in the most dreary, Sam Allardyce style. Appreciation for either approach can depend on the time in the season when it occurs. Football, again like many things, being a results-oriented business can mean that even Big Sam’s trash can be appealing to those who simply want to keep watching their club knock heads with the biggest kids on the block. Likewise, football being a form of entertainment, there’s probably only so much of that you can watch before the shine comes off. Liverpool has been in the odd quandary for much of the season of actually playing really attractive football but not getting the end results. That’s all changed in the last quarter of the season, as we’ve accumulated 7 wins and 2 draws out of our last 9 matches; putting us on a 97-point pace stretched over a whole season. It may be a measure of just how valid the concerns of the minds behind the European Super League happen to be to realize that Liverpool has been winning, but simply not winning as well as many of its supporters would prefer, while playing sides that, on paper, are outmanned from the get-go.
That follows on with the interesting situation presented by Liverpool’s centerback pairing for the past several matches. One real upside, in general, is that we’ve been able to play Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams for five whole matches in a row. As anyone should understand, having players on the pitch that are familiar with each others’ tendencies, especially those defenders charged with keeping a high line against any potential counterattack, is of real benefit. Of course, what you really want are regular assemblages of players that are of a skill level appropriate for the environs. While it’s fair to say that Rhys may still be a couple years shy of Premier League quality, I think we’re well past that debate with Nat. While he doesn’t have the top end speed that we’re more accustomed to with Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez, his positioning is excellent, his aerial prowess is irrefutable, and his physical presence is more than sufficient to mix it up in PL penalty boxes. And, yet, even after a game in which he scored his first goal for the club, cleared yet another goal off his line, had 9 clearances (more than anyone else on the pitch), and won the Man of the Match, there are still “respected” accounts on Twitter that were insisting in the first half that Nat wouldn’t even be able to play for Burnley if they had their usual roster available; to say nothing of Liverpool. Just as with politics, there can be no greater declaration that a speaker doesn’t have a clue than to see one cling to their predetermined conclusion in the face of all evidence to the contrary. I use the term “Twitdiots” for a reason.
And despite all of this feeling like it’s a last stand scenario, having to win every match to even qualify for the Champions League next season, when one looks at the entire season, LFC actually has the second-most days in the top 4 (135) behind Manchester United. NBC was crowing about the fact that we’ve returned to that level for the first time since February, but that ignores the fact that we were there since August and that we wouldn’t be in the position to squeeze back into CL consideration if we hadn’t been leading the league all the way into January. On the one hand, that’s an argument for how good this squad still is and why it may be justified to not break the bank this summer. A corollary to that is how good the remainder of the squad has been with an injury list, long-term and short-term, that would’ve completely crippled most sides’ ability to make something out of this season. OTOH, one can argue that having to beat Crystal Palace on the last day of said season to simply qualify for the CL is the only thing that makes this season worthwhile in the first place. Again, we’re back to that debate about perspective, as well as timing. In a similar vein, when asked about both his first goal and the later clearance, Nat immediately favored the latter, saying he’d much rather have the clean sheet because “That’s my job.” That’s a defender.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to invalidate anyone’s feelings of frustration. I’ve had them and had them again today. We know what this squad is capable of and we know there are any number of matches where a couple small mistakes cost us the chance to contend for another Premier League title or another European Cup. But that’s football, yo. At this point, the best result is the one that we’re hurtling toward: getting a win over Palace (and The Hodgson) on Sunday, being in the draw for next year’s CL, keeping almost everyone home for the summer to rest and heal, and then getting back out there in August to show everyone what Liverpool Football Club is about (hopefully with a much smaller casualty list.) In this case, the timing for all of that rest and recuperation is almost right on schedule.
Burnley 0 – 3 Liverpool
The match was typical Burnley. By that I mean that they were all about Route 1 football, albeit with a slightly more aggressive stance (if that’s possible) than typical low blockers like West Brom because they have so much power and speed up front in the form of Chris Wood, Josh Brownhill, Dwight McNeil and, usually, Ashley Barnes, although the latter started on the bench today. They were clearly targeting Nat and Rhys with long balls, trying to release Wood, and they very nearly succeeded on a few occasions. Their defensive approach was actually a mid block transitioning to a low block based on certain cues, as I think Sean Dyche understood that, this late in the season, the sustained pressure created by allowing us all day on the ball would wear out his guys and negate the chance of a draw or stealing a win. So, unlike Big Sam’s disciples, the Clarets actually moved up and tried to mix it up with us in the middle third before trying to launch the ball down the center of the pitch. So, y’know, high-end wrinkles for someone like Dyche. Playing them this late in the season probably reduced the risk of the normal battering that Burnley like to inflict, as well, since high-speed impacts are often just as dangerous to the initiator and no one wants a season-ending injury this late in the season that’s likely to carry into the next. Burnley was playing a 4-4-1-1 that kind of morphs into a 4-3-3 with McNeil coming forward on the left and Brownhill on the right. That continued until Jack Cork went off for Matej Vydra and they shifted into their customary 4-4-2 to try to put more offense forward, being down 0-2.
Given that we’ve been playing games two or three days apart for the past couple weeks, there wasn’t going to be much in the way of variation for our exploits, since most of what’s been happening in the interim is probably recovery and ensuring that everyone is continuing to be comfortable with each other at the back. By “everyone” I generally mean Rhys, since Nat doesn’t really need that kind of reinforcement anymore:
Can’t even play for Burnley. Yeah. OK. Those 13 duels won were the most in-game, as well, to go along with a couple blocks, a slick interception late in the second half, and three shots. Another thing that often goes unmentioned (including by me), is the quality of Nat’s progressive passing. Most of them are very sure, very swift, daisy-cutters that leave their intended target with options, rather than cornering them in front of a defender. Nat’s also shown a regular ability to get forward at pace (as with Joel Matip’s occasional mildly surprising ventures) so we know that he understands the offensive role that Jürgen wants his CBs to play. At the moment, without the Ibrahima Konaté deal completed, this is our fourth-choice CB. Period. Given Joel’s fragility, he might end up being third. When we come to the topic of offensive confidence, though, there’s one name that’s turned up in the last quarter of the season with more prominence than almost any other.
Yeah, man. Ever since he and Fabinho began playing regularly, the midfield has been remarkable. With Fab at the 6, Thiago Alcântara has more freedom to move forward from his career-typical deep-lying role. That’s enhanced the ability of the front three to make their runs past an opponent’s low block which is, of course, exactly the idea that Jürgen had when be brought him here. It took more than half the season to get there because of COVID, his own injuries, and those of others, but for the past half-dozen matches he’s been, as Jim Beglin noted, a passing machine. (Despite Conor McNamara repeatedly mispronouncing his name. It’s T(h)ee-AH-go.) Among those completed passes were 5/7 long balls, plus a half-dozen ground duels won, too. But this is Liverpool, so we can’t look past at least one of the guys in the wide spaces.
He’s been falling into Trent’s shadow lately, stats-wise, despite his always superlative effort. But not today. You kind of knew that he was going to try to be “on” in this match as Trent was last week, just by his first pass to Mo in the 2nd minute. Killer. He had a few of those, as you can see by the “chances created” above and, of course, by the assists.
But we can spread a bit of the praise around. Alisson Becker once again had an excellent game, as he needed to be very active against Burnley’s and Wood’s constant forays into the box. Fabinho was as dependable as ever in controlling much of what came through the center of the pitch. And it was nice to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ring up his first goal of the season with a really nice bit of play in the Burnley box. This is the kind of stuff we’ve been hoping to get from Ox that has been all too rare since the first leg against Roma three years ago and even moreso in this weird season. There’s a good chance he could be moving on this summer, but if he stays, we can only hope for more of this.
It’s finale time, not only for us, but for Roy Hodgson as Crystal Palace manager. It gives them something to play for, which is not what we wanted. But they had that in their home finale today, as well, and were thoroughly outmanned by a fairly average Arsenal side. It doesn’t mean we should let our guard down, but our motivation is at least as strong as theirs and it will be at a partially-filled Anfield for the first time since January, which we can usually think is advantage us. Any kind of win plus Leicester not winning by 5 or more goals means we’ve done the business. Time to show the guys what YNWA really means.