Slaying goblins

I don’t dread playing anyone in the Premier League. Sure, there’ve been many moments over the past couple decades that I wasn’t entirely thrilled about playing a loaded Chelsea under Mou or a masterful Arsenal under Wenger. If we were obviously outmanned, it wasn’t exactly going to be a thrill to see us go out there and not even compete (similarly to how Arsenal currently looks under Arteta, just to pluck a casual example from today…) But most of the time, I was pretty confident that we at least had a good chance and part of that chance was the opportunity to see Liverpool play football. That positive feeling has ramped up in the last five years under Jürgen Klopp, of course, where the expectation has gone from “good chance” to “confident of a win” in most circumstances. But that still doesn’t change the distaste I have for matches with Burnley. I don’t want to just beat Burnley. I’d rather just not play them at all. It’s like dealing with the little monsters in a game. They’re annoying and I’d really rather just face the big things that are more interesting, but this is what’s in the way, so you have to get through it.

It’s not just the monotonous approach to the game. It’s not just the ridiculous challenges and subsequent injuries that often follow. It’s not just the constant whining that Sean Dyche does to the fourth official about the match at hand or the media about what should be considered “real football” or to opposing managers. It’s all of those things and the fact that manager, players, and supporters all immediately become the victim whenever anyone questions any of that. “We don’t spend big money so we have to play this way! Our club still has a connection to the community!”, blah, blah, blah. You know what? Every club has a connection to its community, even the massive ones. You know… the ones that play modern football and have achieved some success by doing so? Yep, Them, too. It doesn’t all have to be about the 4-4-2 and crunching tackles that sprain ankles while wailing “But I got the ball-!” There’s a reason that football is known as “the beautiful game” in other corners of the world and it sure as hell isn’t because of clubs like Burnley or managers like Dyche. Even that whole “little guy” angle is disingenuous. Just last week, we played a smaller club with a close connection to its community that’s even more “out in the sticks”, as it were, in Norwich City. But they were still willing to play the modern game with us, run all over the pitch, and not whine every time the official blew his whistle as if he were “ruining the game.” You want to play up that angle in the Championship or League One? Be my guest. Be as little guy/traditional football/camp out on your side of the midfield line as much as you want in the lower divisions. But this is the Premier League, the most-watched league in the world, and it’s grating to keep having to put up with all of that twice a year, every year for the last five.

Now, that rant having been given, it’s fair to say that Burnley have slightly evolved in the last couple years in that they actually even try to press the issue against the larger clubs just like they attempted against Liverpool yesterday for about 10 minutes in the first half and ten minutes in the second half. Is that because new majority owners, ALK Capital, want a more rapid return on their investment or because it’s become less and less likely over the past three years, since finishing 7th in 2017-18, that Burnley will stay up and then they’ll really be questioning what they bought? Couldn’t tellya. I just know it was a mild surprise to see them engage with us, rather than playing like that notorious game from the 16-17 season, where LFC had 83% possession and yet lost, 2-0, because the two shots of any kind Burnley had all game actually got past Simon Mignolet. Granted, it wasn’t hugely better yesterday, as we still outshot them 27-9 and had a greater than 2-1 edge in possession, but part of that is simply because we’re the better side and the end result reflected that as it should have (but often doesn’t, this being football.) I was still gritting my teeth halfway through the first half when Mike “I Forgot My Yellow Cards On The Way to Anfield This Morning” Dean decided to spread the PL’s new “let them play” dictum from the penalty box to every corner of the pitch. But, at the very least, we were comfortably outplaying them even before we went up 2-0 and started the “kill the clock” motions.

Part of that picture of outplaying was Kostas Tsimikas, who has been markedly better in stepping in for the now-recovered Andy Robertson than I ever would’ve expected, given his limited experience and lack of sterling play last season. One of the most “idealized Burnley” moments of the match was this sequence, which came from a Liverpool player:

That’s amazing and it has nothing to do with what club you’re playing for and what style of football it plays. That’s just hard work and he accompanied that kind of effort with some really solid numbers, as well, which I’ll get to in a moment. This was akin to Robertson’s famous press against Man City in 2018 and it makes one think of how Kostas will likely be on the bench next week against Chelsea with some chagrin. Do we have room for two left backs on the field? I’ve seen as much hemming and hawing about his performance as I have accolades for the really bright parts. It’s encouraging me to continue to draw a line between the people whom I know understand what’s going on in front of them and those who may not. In some ways, it’s like playing Burnley. Yeah, it’s football. But is it the kind of football (discussion) you want to have or just something you want to get through?

I mean, come on. Does that look like a competitive game to anyone?

Liverpool 2 – 0 Burnley

We didn’t vary that much from the usual formula. Since Fabinho was out for personal and quite tragic reasons, Captain Jordan Henderson came in to play the 6. That means that we were going to be moving up even higher than normal, since Hendo has a tendency to drift forward into his natural 8 spot. I think Jürgen may have been trying to pour fuel on the fire of that strategy by playing Harvey Elliott again, since his speed and guile would be really useful in trying to break down the usual Burnley bunker and his lesser possession game than, say, Curtis Jones wouldn’t be as much of an issue against someone determined to actually bring the ball forward. As noted, Burnley did continue the seeming trend from last season where they tried to play the game in the opponent’s half without having to be on the counter, so there were a few moments that seemed like they might be trepidatious, but as the diagram above displays, none of them really amounted to much. Their best chance came off a failure to clear and was turned off the line by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Harvey showed some real guile and his perfect throughball to Mo Salah for a goal (called back for being inches offside) demonstrated just what level of skill has seen the compliments following him everywhere he’s gone. That said, I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see Henderson, backed up by Curtis, in that spot on the right side against Chelsea’s far more dangerous attack. On the other side of midfield, the grand experiment continues apace with Naby Keita putting in excellent work and the kind of consistent play that all of us expected three years ago. Will it continue? Your guess is as good as mine. I’d need to see it for at least a month to be reassured that he might be someone we can rely on. But any discussion of player performance should start at the front.

Dude’s a goalscoring machine. I still think our attack looks less fluid with him replacing Roberto Firmino, but you can’t really argue with the results that he produces. 11 in 21 is stupid good and he’s shown a willingness to grind things out and play the Bob role, as his most tackles for our side yesterday shows. But given how packed-in Burnley usually plays, it’s not overly surprising that a lot of the action came from the usual wide spaces.

Speaking of machines… Those numbers in greater detail also include a dozen crosses, 9 ball recoveries, and 5 entry passes into the final third. His chipped assist for Sadio Mané’s excellent goal was a brilliant piece of both awareness and timing and reminds everyone of how he began his career as a midfielder and his potential to return there in devastating fashion at some point in the future. He’s only one behind Kevin DeBruyne in PL assists over the past four seasons (and three ahead of Robbo.) He’s also tied with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane in that category. And, yet, ManU fans are still claiming they’d prefer Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Whatevs. But, again, his opposite number was great, as well.

That includes 9 crosses, 6 recoveries, and 6 penalty box entries. He played great, not unlike the other irregular starter:

That’s some solid work for an 18-year-old, especially against a side as experienced as Burnley. Combine that with the players we already have on the roster and you can imagine many of the opposing sides doing a Col. Kurtz when thinking about just who they’ll see on the pitch at any given moment: “The depth…! The depth…!”

But that’s a reflection of the squad performance on the whole. As noted, the back four didn’t put a foot wrong and, as predicted, the return of Virgil Van Dijk and his precision long-range passing does wonders for opening up our attack. Sadio’s goal was a direct product of that. It was also great to see Sadio open his account this early and he easily could have had a couple more with just a bit more luck and/or timing. Plus, we can’t forget the greatest backstop in the league:

He still has great distribution and he dusted Chris Wood in the penalty box to pass out to Hendo early in the game. I’m fine with his adventures with the ball, as he’s been doing it almost without error since he arrived here. It’s just one more threat in our toolbox if he’s able to dump someone in the box and basically leave the opposition with nine outfield players because one is chasing the play from the other end of the pitch. That’s part of why we bought him in the first place.

So, anyway, yeah. Good stuff all around, once you ignore the opponent. Next week is the first major test, as the current European Cup-holders come to Anfield. Just as with Burnley, here’s hoping we change tack from the last time the Blues came to town.

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