Perhaps you’d heard that the only other times that AC Milan and Liverpool have played a competitive game is twice in the final of the European Cup, now known as the Champions League? That’s about as strange a relationship as you’re likely to find for any two clubs. There are a number of teams across Europe that we’ve only played twice before because it was in a group stage or a two-legged knockout round of either the CL or the Europa League. But to have our only encounters with Milan being the two games we split with them in the 2005 and 2007 finals is a strange phenomenon, especially considering that the two clubs have 13 of those European Cups (and another 8 UEFA Cups) between them. So, the cloak of not-quite-nostalgia rode heavily on the match today, in that it was a great scene simply to see Milan at a packed Anfield for the first time (and, for that matter, to see a packed Anfield for a CL match for the first time in a year-and-a-half.) To come roaring out of the gates the way the Reds did and make it seem like Milan shouldn’t have even come to town was just another treat in the fan basket.
And “roar” is putting it mildly. Liverpool utterly dominated this game for 40 of the first 45 minutes. At one point, we had 10 shots to Milan’s zero in just that first half. Of course, we’d also only scored one goal among those 10 shots and Mo Salah had missed a penalty for the first time in four years. (Driving home yet again the rather ridiculous situation that, in four years and with as much time as Mo spends in the opposition box, that he’s only gotten 17 penalties across all competitions (and, yes, I know that James Milner, Robot Warrior has taken some of them.)) Despite running Milan ragged and having complete command of the match, we were still only 1-0 up. Again. This is a phenomenon that’s totally familiar to Liverpool fans at this point. This side has been so well-constructed and honed by Jürgen Klopp and Michael Edwards that dominating matches is bordering on the routine. What’s happening more often than any Reds fan would like is somehow not ensuring that that dominance is fulfilled until the last few minutes of a match, unlike a certain rival down the road. We’ve obviously been winning (Points for the last three seasons: 265. Man City? 265.) but if this were any sport other than football, you’d be aghast at how often it seems like matches that should be sure wins are those that have to be extracted from the jaws of defeat.
And, of course, it’s not something I should be wallowing in after a great game against one of our historical peers and one of the biggest clubs in world football. The team looked great. I can’t pick out anyone’s performance as truly lacking. In fact, some of them were magnificent, like Fabinho, and others were surprisingly good, like Divock Origi. I’ve thought that Divock had overstayed at Liverpool for the past two seasons and, given the amount of time he’s actually played (only 186 minutes in the PL last season and none so far this year), it would seem that Klopp agrees. But there was Jürgen, defending his selection in the post-match PC, saying that people had forgotten how good Divock actually is. Of course, the easy rejoinder is: If he’s that good, why did he only play the equivalent of two matches last year and less than 8 (717 total minutes) the year before? But- again! -that’s the nagging analyst side, not the Liverpool fan who’s trying to appreciate Divock’s contributions today in a solid win over Milan. We outshot them, 23-7. We had 15 corners to their 2, both of which came in the last few minutes of the game when we were killing the clock (Tangent: One of these days I’ll get back to my rules change suggestion about how teams should begin getting some kind of bonus when they have exponentially more corner kicks than an opponent who’s clearly not able to directly compete (Burnley…)) Stefano Pioli acknowledged that his young side were somewhat overwhelmed, not only by LFC’s talent and pressing, but by the environment of Anfield. That said, they stuck with it and took the lead in the space of 110 seconds in the first half, necessitating another second half comeback by the Reds against the Rossoneri. (The similar attempt in the second of our three matches against them didn’t quite make it. Still love you, Dirk.)
So, yeah. European night at Anfield! Against Milan! Great game! Three points! All positive! Just don’t look too closely at those final stats and everything should be fine.
Liverpool 3 – 2 AC(!) Milan
But, since we’re here, let’s talk about xG models for a moment. I usually use Caley Graphics’, especially because they present them with these great diagrams from Opta. But since xG isn’t an exact science (no matter what the stats nerdz might tell you), there are multiple ways to estimate the quality of shots and assign value to them. Caley has the match at a relatively close 1.7 to 1.4 in LFC’s favor. But I’ve seen others that peg it at 2.7 to 1.5, which more closely resembles the actual match that we watched. I’d be interested to know how they value Trent Alexander-Arnold’s goal (the big pink box on our end) which was inadvertently high value, but which was really an intended cross that was properly assigned as an OG off Fikayo Tomori (who was everywhere in the first half) by UEFA. Looking at the diagram, that looks like the highest of high value shots (inside the six-yard box), but watching the live action, you can see that Trent had started his crossing motion when Tomori got in front of him. But there’s no debating the value of this man:
Fabinho has been nothing short of masterful since the season began and tonight was no exception. Even in a match where we utterly dominated possession and kept the opponent largely pinned in their end for the majority of it, Fab was key in maintaining that control and denying their ability to break out. One thing that really stuck out to me in this match, though, was how far forward he was drifting. I’d picked up on it in a couple of other matches, like against Leeds, and had kind of subconsciously dismissed it as just a few isolated instances. But this is clearly becoming a trend. Both he and Joel Matip have always had license to move forward, but now I get the feeling that it’s something that Klopp is encouraging. With a midfield loaded with guys who can all play the 6 to one degree or another (Thiago Alcãntara, Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson), it’s not exactly surprising that our actual 6 would be able to roam forward and try to contribute to the scoreline more directly, but it showed up today in a fashion that really couldn’t be missed. Oops. I said the word “missed”…
No, really. He’s still probably our best player, even if he did push an easy one at Mike Maignan. Adding to the cited 72 goals is another 24 assists that he’s contributed at home, which means he’s likely going to pass 100 goal involvements at Anfield in just his fifth season here. That does stop his streak of successful penalties at 17, which Jan Molby was quick to point out on Twitter means he falls one short of the record-holder (ahem.) But he’s been terrorizing the left side of defenses in every match this season and was quick to respond to Origi’s nicely-lofted pass into the box for the equalizing goal, despite being once again unimpressed at his own efforts. O Captain, Our Captain was more than willing to celebrate, though.
Fabinho was masterful but Hendo wasn’t that far behind. Part of controlling a match is controlling the middle third and the captain, along with Fab and Naby, did just that. Alongside those three key passes were another five through balls that weren’t converted. He and Trent still have their magic on that right side and I’m happy to say that this was another contract extension signed this summer that I fully supported. As Jordan mentioned after the match, there was no yelling at halftime. They just examined what went wrong and came out determined to change it. Great leadership will make that happen.
One somewhat strange situation did emerge when the substitutions began in the second half. Divock for Sadio Mané is a straight swap (with Sadio taking up the center spot far more often in the first few matches this year), as is Naby for Thiago. But then Curtis Jones came on for Diogo Jota, which meant that either Jones was playing in the wing spot that Diogo usually takes or we were shifting to a 4-4-2, which isn’t normal. In the end, it looked like Curtis was simply playing forward, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would do for Mo a few minutes later, but Ox has done that before. I don’t recall Curtis playing that far forward, except in a game that we were just killing off and where Jürgen was trying to get the front three some rest however we could. I mean, technically we were just killing off the game when Curtis came on, but we still had 20 minutes to go at that point, which is longer than our usual clock-killing exercises and it’s normally not happening against a club as big as Milan. But, again, we were totally dominating the match, so…
Alrighty, then. That made us the only member of our group to get the three points (Horrible luck for Porto when Chancel Mbemba picked up a straight red in the last minute of extra time against Atleti and, thus, won’t be available for our visit to the Estádio do Dragão next week) and kept us on the path you always want to be on in the group: win the home dates and get what you can from the road. Saturday we face London’s version of the blaugrana which, actually, might be a better side at the moment than the real Barcelona. And Simon Mignolet held PSG to a draw while facing down Neymar, Mbappe, and ex-blaugrana legend, Lionel Messi, none of whom scored PSG’s lone goal. What a weird timeline.