Set in stone

Considering how many set pieces that we end up with from game to game, it’s hardly surprising to hear complaints when another one amounts to nothing. If you get 15 corner kicks in a game and don’t get anything from them, it’s natural to think that the team’s execution is lacking. But that, like all games, is a single data point. Then you have other single data points like today, where we received 10 corners and scored on 3 of them. That makes 16 goals off corners (and I don’t know how many off free kicks near the box) since the start of last season, which is far more than any other side (next closest is Man City with 9; if a corner goal happens and no one’s there to see it, did it happen?) In fact, that consistency on set pieces has been a factor of Liverpool’s performance since Jürgen Klopp arrived on Merseyside and it’s just one more factor that contributes to being one of the best squads in Europe for the past few years. Focus. Attention to detail. Hiring Thomas Grönnemark as a throw-in coach. These are the little things that Jürgen has emphasized and which FSG have supported him on at every turn in order to maximize what we have and who we are as a club and a team, even if we don’t spend the GDP of a small country every summer.

But that’s the thing about perception, right? Once someone has decided on an opinion, they often won’t change it even when the statistical or visual evidence is, quite literally, right in front of them. People groan about wasted corners and free kicks right into the wall, but we still score more from them than anyone else. People moan about squad depth and FSG not spending enough to buttress it. We made four changes for the Milan game on Wednesday. We made another six(!) changes from that game for today’s match against Crystal Palace, including the entire back line. Everyone was reassured at Kostas Tsimikas’ presence after his excellent contributions last month, but there was unease at the redoubtable James Milner, Robot Warrior subbing in for Trent (Trent is sick (non-COVID) and Neco, the usual replacement, is injured.) But “redoubtable” means exactly what it means. Milner has played the spot before and knows how to handle it. There was commentary on Twitter about being gimped on offense without Trent, but that’s an opinion from people who clearly haven’t seen Milner put the ball in the box. Five minutes in, he dropped one right on to Jota’s head as cleanly as Trent might’ve. (Apparently a lot of people don’t remember the Dortmund game, either.) He had what Jürgen labeled a “man of the match performance” by stepping in for Trent after breakfast this morning (i.e. almost no notice.)

And then there’s the straight skill comparisons. Sadio Mané became our second 100-goal scorer in as many matches, as well as setting the record for consecutive goals against an opponent in the PL (9.) We’ve lost all of 8 matches of the last 100 that Virgil Van Dijk has played. Mo Salah is, once again, the leading scorer in the PL with 4 in 5 matches. We’ve allowed 1 goal in those 5 matches, which is the joint-lowest ever for a Liverpool squad at this point in the season, tied with the 1977-78 unit which, as you may recall (or at least have read about) was pretty good. When opposing managers sit down in front of the press and mention that their team just lost to “one of the best teams in Europe”, as Patrick Vieira did today, they’re not just trying to CYA with their own fans. We’re one of the best teams in Europe. We didn’t spend like an oil club this summer because we’re not one and because we didn’t need to. In fact, we’re so stacked that we score on set pieces almost at will; just like today against a rejuvenated Palace. We’re competing for the title in every competition we’re playing this season. You can chisel that in stone.

Liverpool 3 – 0 Crystal Palace

First off, it was really a breath of fresh air to play against a Palace that wasn’t the same, stodgy, 4-4-2 that The Hodgson so loved. This new side under Vieira clearly came to play, even if they did have to retreat for a bit when we started racing past them on the flanks. In the first few minutes, they were charging our penalty area and put in what seemed like a couple sizable chances, although Caley’s diagram above puts the lie to that to some degree. Also, Wilfried Zaha is still Zaha (like Zlatan will tell you he is still Zlatan.) He’s an enormous threat and the biggest task for Millie wasn’t going to be emulating Trent on offense, but making sure that Zaha didn’t get behind him. In the first few minutes, Millie was clearly playing the destroyer role and the yellow card for turning the winger head-over-heels only seemed a matter of time. (Zaha has been the recipient of enough Milner tackles to have our vice-captain sent off twice.) However, Millie managed to avoid the booking and generally closed down his side of the pitch, in tandem with Captain Jordan Henderson. The bulk of Palace’s chances actually came from our left side, where Jordan Ayew and the now-quite-annoying Conor Gallagher were trying to create openings in the spaces in front of Virg and to the middle of the pitch. Speaking of Virg and his partner, Ibrahima Konaté, it was a pretty solid start for the newcomer:

He had a couple moments on the ball that were a little questionable. I found myself saying things like: “Joel probably would’ve made the turn there.” or “Joe would’ve taken than in stride and turned it back upfield.” But there were no major errors and he did have a couple really nice long passes to the front line, in true Virg style.

And, yeah, any suggestions that he’d lost a step since the injury have been proven to be wildly inaccurate. As you can see, he won every ball in the air that he went for, which includes the assist that he knocked down for Mo for our second goal. He’s a rock. A flying rock. And speaking of flying:

One of those shots would’ve been a nailed-on goal without a great save by Vicente Guaita. As it is, it became a pseudo-assist, since Guaita was only able to parry it into the six-yard-box and Sadio was right there to clean up and keep his streak against Palace alive. Something that doesn’t show up in the easy stats for Mo has been his far greater willingness to track back and really work defensively, especially with Roberto Firmino out. There were a couple moments in the second half where Palace was pressing hard and Mo was the one who showed up in the box to clear the ball or carry it out to start another attack. Similarly, I don’t have any ready stats for Sadio, but his work on the left side, defensively and in dribbling, was the equal of Mo’s in many ways. He’s always been a very determined guy and occasionally too much so, in that he tries to take on two or three opponents when passing to the open space might be better. But in this case he repeatedly tied up those two or three guys trying to contain him along the touchline and still made progress with the ball. Obviously, he does this all the time, but there were a couple real highlights in this match. The greater intensity in the final third might be a contributor to the mildly eye-popping stat that this was our fifth consecutive match with 20+ shots (we had 25/10 to Palace’s 13/2.) The only match this season where we haven’t had 20+ shots was the first, against Norwich, where we had 19.

Have to drop a note here about the keeper, as well. While he didn’t face any huge changes from Palace, he kept total control of the box and did turn aside a couple decent shots, including the first one of the game that he repelled onto the post, and one midway through the second half when he was 1-on-1 with Odsonne Édouard. There’s a certain confidence that comes from knowing that, even if the opposition does manage to get past the defense, Alisson will always be there and, more likely than not, either claim the ball or make the save that keeps us in the lead or level and, thus, still in control of our own destiny in the match. Prior to Alisson, we hadn’t really had that kind of confidence since Pepe Reina left and while we’ve all come to take it for granted, it really needs to be highlighted more than it does (and more than I do.) This match was a great example of what he does for the club.

Also a small note about Naby Keita. While it was really unfortunate to lose Thiago Alcãntara to injury, since he’s been playing so well, it does give Naby more time on the pitch which he desperately needs. He can often serve the same function as Thiago, which is great when we’re in a position to easily trade like-for-like (depth!) and I couldn’t leave this match without mentioning the worldie of a strike that put us up by 3. That one was so good that his confused expression became an instant meme. As with Kostas, we’ve had the depth to deal with the usual problems as well as rotate more so that the starters are more rested. Now we just have to hope that it lasts.

So, that was fun. Next up is the WITSBP Cup on Tuesday against- surprise! -Premier League competition (almost) in Norwich. After that, we go to visit the Brentford Bees for the first time in 75 years or whatever it’s been. They, OTOH, actually look pretty good.

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