It’s all in the game, yo

We lost a great one this past week, when it was announced that Michael K. Williams, Omar of “The Wire” and Chalky White of “Boardwalk Empire” fame, had been found dead. Williams didn’t have a huge film career, but he brought gravitas and panache to his two most famous roles on HBO. Every time Omar, especially, walked on the screen, you knew something interesting was going to happen. Part of what made him that intriguing was his ruthless pragmatism. Another part was his hypersensitive awareness of what motivated people. But yet another part was his clear recognition of boundaries. The game was the game, but that didn’t mean that the game didn’t have rules. We were confronted with that nebulous viewpoint again today while watching Liverpool’s imposing victory over Leeds at Elland Road.

In the 61st minute, Pascal Struijk slid into Harvey Elliott from behind and scissored him; with his leading leg in front of Harvey’s ankle and his trailing leg closing the vise. Harvey will now be having surgery on a dislocated ankle that will likely keep him off the pitch until December, if not beyond. This after starting Liverpool’s first four matches of the season as an 18-year-old and performing well. When a prominent LFC blogger mentioned how they couldn’t imagine how teammates of someone who’d been injured so badly could keep playing as well as they did, my response was that old Omar line: “It’s all in the game, yo.” But the real question that emerges here is: Why? Why is it that Premier League officiating is notoriously poor and lenient toward this kind of dangerous play? Why is it that managers’ complaints about the leniency toward tackles of this kind fall on the deaf ears of “tough guy” pundits who think that that risk of serious injury is just something that millionaire athletes should put up with? Why is it that the PL is almost unique in its application of the foul rules, such that it’s notorious for being the “faster and harder” league? Both Mo Salah and Sadio Mané were fouled in the box during this match, but referee Craig Pawson let play carry on because that’s just how things are done in the PL. Similarly, Pawson didn’t even consider Struijk’s scissor tackle from behind a foul and play carried on until a frantic Mo waved the medical team on to the pitch while the ball was still moving. Only after being notified from Stockley Park that he was about to be exposed as even more of a fool than he’d already been did he reach for the straight red card.

Immediately, the complaints began. On top of some Leeds fans’ execrable “Always the victim” chant, the opinions started to swirl around Twitter that the red card was “harsh” because Struijk didn’t “intend” to do any harm. That’s not the point. Let me restate that for emphasis so that even the ignorant blowhards in the back might possibly hear it:

That’s. Not. The. Point.

Tackles like that have been specifically outlawed because they’re the very definition of serious foul play, defined by FIFA as “the player has far exceeded the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent.” There is nothing about “intent” in the rule because there doesn’t need to be. No one thinks that Struijk intentionally tried to injure Harvey. Anyone could see how mortified the Leeds player was over the result of his actions. But this is what officiating and general attitudes in the PL are creating. This is why Jürgen Klopp and other managers have been saying that someone is going to get seriously injured because of the level of violence that is being permitted by PL officials. And here we are. (My other favorite in this vein is “But he got the ball-!” FFS, it doesn’t matter if he got the ball if he engaged in reckless play!) Athletes are faster and stronger than they used to be. The ball moves faster. Everything is faster. As a matter of physics, greater velocity tends to bring with it greater force. In contrast, bones did not get stronger nor ligaments more durable in the past 30 years. Hit them with enough force and they will break. Overlook enough dangerous plays like occurred in this match and others and players will tend to instinctively consider that part of the game, yo. It’s not and it shouldn’t be. And here, despite an absolutely commanding victory over Leeds, I’ve had to trot out the first few hundred words of this piece talking about anything but. That’s ruining the game, too.

But, yeah, it was a commanding victory. Despite the Bielsa-infused threat that the Whites present, there was never a string of said threatening moments that Leeds were able to put together. They were always intermittent and usually handled masterfully by the spine of the team, represented by Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip and, especially in this match, Thiago Alcãntara and Fabinho. What’s even better is that spine was also crucial on the offensive end, especially Thiago but Joel was not to be forgotten there, as well:

You can hear the surprise and elation in Arlo White’s voice as he cited Joel twice in the build-up to that excellent goal. This was the kind of play on evidence all day as we picked Leeds’ defense apart and controlled the passage of play through the middle and final thirds of the pitch. Despite great moments in our first three games, this was clearly our most impressive outing of the season, which means we’re growing stronger just as the schedule begins to ramp up. And just as we’ve suffered our first major injury. So, yeah, downsides to a series of upsides. That’s life. That’s football. That’s the game, yo.

Leeds 0 – 3 Liverpool

I’ve seen that xG number assessed as high as 4.65 and Caley pointed out that it was still 2.6 for LFC even before Struijk was sent off, so it was a dominant performance no matter how you slice it. (I had yet another mild dispute with a numbers guy about the importance, but not dominance of xG in this past week.) That was easily visible to anyone who watched the match, as well. Leeds has had a bit of a rough go in the opening weeks (2 points out of 4 games) and they’re appearing to be a bit of a Norwich (who now can be used as a label, given their status as the most promoted/relegated club of the PL era); willing to run with the big sides and able to score, but with the Championship-level talent starting to show through. That said, it doesn’t detract much from our performance, since we did control the match and didn’t, for example, give up a draw like some neighbors did [raised eyebrow emoji]. The list of plaudits is long but the one that stands out first for me is Thiago:

I keep using the phrase “This is the Thiago we expected” and we should just be actually expecting it by now, but his performances are consistently standing out in the first weeks of this season. Those numbers also include 2 key passes and 4/4 on long passes. As noted he and Fabinho

completely bossed the midfield, basically removing Patrick Bamford, among others, from the game. You can still see a bit of the cloud hanging over Fab’s head from his father’s passing and it certainly wasn’t helped by this week’s snafu with the Brazilian FA. He’s a bit more somber, but he’s still neck-and-neck with N’Golo Kanté as the best #6 in the league. But a lot of the shine through those clouds came from the wide areas, too:

He didn’t really slow down during the second half, either. That assist, of course, came a couple minutes after the crowd at Elland Road was singing “You’re just a shit Kyle Walker”, which is why you can see Trent turning to the stands and holding his ear to hear what they were saying after his perfectly-placed ball into the box for Mo’s 100th PL goal. It was also the 20th chance Trent has created this season, most in the league. The next-highest total is 13, from Jack Grealish and… Mo Salah. That was also Trent’s 35th PL assist. Only Cesc Fabregas, Wayne Rooney, and Ryan Giggs have reached that total at a younger age and Trent’s a right back. And despite the finishing troubles, the entire front line played really well, like Diogo Jota:

He doesn’t quite provide what Roberto Firmino does in terms of moving the ball through the middle and link-up play, but if Thiago is there to play that role, he doesn’t have to and that means he has time to create openings in the box, which he clearly did. Several of those openings were created for Sadio:

Yes, he’s still having trouble in front of goal. Yes, he should’ve had the one that Diogo delivered to him in front of an open net, even if it was a little behind him. But he’s still a danger that every defense in the league has to respect. That’s the most shots he’s ever taken in a PL game, BTW, and he’s only the 5th player to reach that total in the last 5 seasons. So, yeah, plaudits all around, despite the feeling that we should’ve won this one 5-0 or more. Yes, another goal would’ve left us in first alone on GD. It’s only the fourth week of the season. Relax. Plus, citing Diogo and Sadio is absolutely no slight to Mo, who was his usual amazing self, stretching Leeds’ defense into all kinds of places that they didn’t want to go. Again, a masterful performance by basically everyone on the pitch.

So, now the ramp-up begins. We have AC Milan coming on Wednesday for their first ever competitive game at Anfield. On the one hand, that’s really cool. OTOH, it’s also a hugely competitive game two days before we play Palace who seem at least competent under new manager, Patrick Vieira, since they just demolished formerly league-leading Tottenham. Of course, it could just be Vieira picking up where he left off from his playing days… Regardless: Milan! (Side note: I had someone who’s more recently gotten into the game nitpicking my references to “AC Milan”, saying “I think they’re commonly just known as ‘Milan’.” I was all: “Yeah. They are. But the full name of their club is actually ‘AC Milan’ and I was speaking to someone who might not know who they are. You know, the full name of their crosstown rival is actually Football Club Internazionale Milano, but some people call them ‘Internazionale’, some call them ‘Inter Milan’, and some people just call them ‘Inter’. Is there a point to all this or are you just trying to demonstrate what you thought was superior knowledge to everyone else in the room?” I’m losing my patience with people, in general, I tellya.)

YNWA, Harvey. Get back as soon as you can.

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