Look to the heavens

This one was all about balls in the air.

You know that feeling, dedicated Liverpool fan. That feeling that emerges after games like Burnley or Bournemouth in 2016 and Brighton or Fulham last year. It’s that feeling where Liverpool is in control of the game and clearly outperforming the opposition for long stretches of it (if not all of it, as with that Burnley match) and, yet, somehow can’t contain them and eventually gives up the points in some fashion. Unlike the rest of those noted matches, we didn’t give up all of the points in today’s draw with Brentford and the one point we did extract puts us top of the league after six games. But it was a significant departure in character for a defense that, until today, had given up all of one goal this season and had rarely been seriously threatened in the rest of the minutes they’ve played. In a lot of ways, it was reminiscent of last week’s throwdown with Milan, in which we were the obviously superior side on the pitch, but ended up trailing at the half before finally putting the game away.

Now, due credit to Brentford here. They played really well, stayed organized, and stuck to their 3-4-3 approach that was clearly giving us problems in the early going. For the first 20-25 minutes of the match, Fabinho was basically absent from the pitch because they were simply bypassing him as they outnumbered us in the middle third and one or two attackers raced forward with abandon. Once we’d adjusted to that particular approach by having our forwards drop deeper to gain a number advantage again, they simply started launching balls down the pitch (i.e. Route 1 football) and… we didn’t handle it well. One thing that stands out about Jürgen Klopp’s teams is that they usually are very conscious of positioning, on both offense and defense. That includes dealing with balls in the air. For the first time in years, we simply were outfought or were in the wrong spot for a majority of those long balls. It got to the point where I was wondering if there was a serious wind in the stadium, despite no evidence otherwise, because I couldn’t recall the last time we’d simply ended up short or long or nowhere in the neighborhood for long balls arcing into our defensive third. This wasn’t just stuff fired from inside David Raya’s box, either. All three of Brentford’s goals came from easy crosses from some distance away on the pitch and which we simply didn’t adjust to, ending up in a Keystone Kops routine with yellow shirts falling over each other, as opposed to our usual control in the box.

It’s at that point that you simply roll your eyes to some unknowable power above you; in either a silent plea that a shining light would come down and clear our collective vision or perhaps in the hopes that one of those balls wasn’t descending and you, like the squad, were largely unprepared for it. The pessimist would talk about what this loss of points kind of spoiled; a major accomplishment from Mo Salah (fastest LFC player ever to 100 goals for the club (151 games)) and a thunderbolt of a strike from Curtis Jones. The optimist, OTOH, would point out that it’s still a point, we’re still undefeated, and we’re still top of the league, which is exactly what both Virgil Van Dijk and Jürgen did after the match, with the latter adding that he thought a draw was a fair result and credited Brentford for their play and approach to the game. Neither of them are wrong. Its just almost as frustrating as the draw with Chelsea because, even if the Bees could have had a couple more, we could’ve had more than that (Diogo Jota 1v1 with Raya in the six-yard box in the first half; Mo 1v1 with Raya in the second half; etc.) That would engender a different kind of eye-rolling intended for the opposite number on both sides of the optimist-pessimist divide. But they’d still be looking to the heavens and wondering what, exactly, happened. As I say here so often: Sometimes, that’s football, yo.

Brentford 3 – 3 Liverpool

The Bees like to use a 3-4-3/3-5-2 system that’s become increasingly popular in the last three or four seasons across Europe. Today’s centerbacks are generally swifter and better on the ball than those of the past, so it’s possible to utilize them in positions that wouldn’t have been normal in the past. One of the standout examples of this was Chris Wilder’s “overlapping centerbacks” scheme at Sheffield United a couple seasons ago. If you have wingbacks that are fast enough, they can drop into 5 on defense or move forward, often with one of the centerbacks playing a DM role, in order to outnumber the opposition in the middle third and generate easy through balls for the front line. We’ve seen this before and we’ve dealt with it before. Brentford is, if anything, even more aggressive in their attempts to move the ball forward in this system, as anyone could’ve noticed that one of their frequent offensive threats in this game was Kristoffer Ajer and their first goalscorer was Ethan Pinnock; both CBs and both of whom were regularly charging the box like midfielders when Brentford had the ball. But, again, we’ve dealt with that kind of approach before. The real problem in today’s match was our inability to adjust to balls in the air.

When’s the last time you saw Virg lose almost half of his aerial duels and still be best on the squad for doing so? They weren’t afraid to go to the air, even if it meant that we might come down with the ball and immediately launch a counter, which did, in fact, happen multiple times, with Raya saving them from more than one score that, on most other days, would’ve occurred and would’ve sewn up the three points for us (presumably…) But I disagree with the assertion by LFC Stats that Virg was the only one to show up.

Most recoveries, tackles, and interceptions is not the sign of a defender who didn’t show up. Where he actually had some trouble was on the offensive end, as his usual precise touch on those crosses was often lacking (as was Andy Robertson’s.) Trent has been given a different role so far this season, in that instead of always taking the wide role, he’s been dropping into the center near the box much more often and leaving Mo or Jordan Henderson (or Harvey Elliott before his injury) to go wide. It’s funny to see him playing more of a midfield role after playing exactly that for England and having Jürgen wonder why anyone “would take the best fullback in the world and put him in midfield.” Trent did begin his career as a midfielder and I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see him move back there at some point in the future which, given that our midfielders have been dropping like flies, might be sooner than we think. But as long as have players like CuJo, I don’t think we’re in the crisis point that all of the usual naysayers on Twitter are wailing about.

Curtis had a great game; certainly in the running for MotM honors. Given the noted injuries, this is definitely his moment to shine for us and he seems to be taking full advantage of it. The question as to why he was taken off is because Roberto Firmino was already ready to come on when Curtis made his blast from outside the box. Klopp did that because he wanted to switch to a 4-2-3-1, which means that he wanted Bob in the #10 role with Diogo still on the pitch. That not only tends to generate more chances against a defense already prone to backpedaling (with three CBs), since the 1 (Mo) will be even more forward than before, but also is a decent answer to their midfield tactics, since we’d equal their midfield numbers by default with a deeper presence by the 3-man line. That also means a double pivot deeper in midfield, which I’m thinking Jürgen was hoping would more easily interfere with their presence outside the box to try to get more people in front of the crosses they were launching. In the end, not so much.

Some mention has to go here to the entire front line, as well. They’re going to take a lot of heat for the brief moments when they “should have scored”, but all three of them played really well and went the distance in the game, with Sadio’s pace, Mo’s footwork, and Diogo’s willingness to bang around in the box all very present in this game. Likewise, Bob did produce a couple great chances in his minutes, which is exactly what he was supposed to do. It may seem like they should’ve done better in the same way the whole team “should’ve” done better. But the reality is that this was our first semi-questionable result on defense against a club that’s in the top half of the table, newly-promoted or not. It’s also our fifth straight game of scoring 3 or more goals, so it’s hard to say that the offense is overtly malfunctioning, even with the big chances that were left wanting. Draws are almost always more frustrating than losses because if you lost, it’s usually because you were outplayed or just didn’t show up. When it’s a draw, the game was within your grasp and… Anyway, we’re in Porto on Tuesday to continue the Champions League fight and then we “welcome” another oil club to Anfield next Saturday. There’s no time to dwell on this one.

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