Even the shadows were better

It’s pretty rare that you can see someone score a hat trick and not be named MotM. It is, to give mild credit where it’s mildly due, a measure of those handing out those match awards, since they’re at least aware that just because someone is scoring goals doesn’t automatically mean they were the best player on the pitch. In truth, even though Mohammed Salah claimed the award for another wonder goal, a brilliant assist to Sadio Mané, and a series of moments that left the fleeting memory of Danny Rose as a PL player even harder to believe, this match was just one more shovelful widening the chasm that exists between the “big clubs” and everyone else. From the opening kick, this was not a contest and you’d be hard-pressed to discern it from any match in the domestic cups that sees a League 1 side desperately chasing the shadows of the PL club’s benchwarmers. It’s not uncommon for Liverpool to dominate possession, especially against a club determined to bunker in and play on the counter. Matches against the lower half of the table often end up seeing LFC with 65% or even 70% possession. Today’s match saw 83% in the first half, before settling to a more mundane 73% which would be exceptional even against a side like, say, Preston North End whom we’ll be seeing in about 10 days. Now, normally time of possession is a stat that’s at least mildly irrelevant, in the same way it is in American football. Yes, your team holding the ball means that the other side can’t do anything with it, which is relevant, but it’s not normally a definitive indicator of who’s winning the game. But the shadow it does cast is one that can often reveal which team is controlling the match, regardless of the scoreboard, and this was every bit the indicator here.

Watford are not a good team and Watford are not a stable club. Claudio Ranieri, understandably interested in the money and spotlight that is currently superior in the PL to Serie A, signed up with the Hornets as their 18th manager (15th permanent) of the last 10 years. They haven’t quite reached the yo-yo status of Norwich City, since their recent stays in either the Championship or the PL have been lengthy (5 or 6 seasons at a time), but it’s pretty apparent that they’re a Championship-level side trying to compete in the not-Championship. When all anyone talks about is ‘survival’ rather than, say, ‘competing for Europe’, you know you’re in over your head and that was never more obvious than today. I tweeted at one point that you could more clearly hear the players on the pitch than you could when Vicarage Road was empty. That was a completely demoralized crowd watching Ranieri’s worst-ever defeat in the top division and it happened because the Reds were playing their game like the home side were a bunch of yellow cones to bypass. The fact that the Hornets actually got 2 shots on goal (the first of them coming with less than a half hour to go in the match) is actually kind of surprising, considering the utter dominance of the rest of this game by Liverpool.

On the one hand, that’s a great thing. This is what we’re hoping to see from LFC more often, considering the disparity in talent with almost everyone but the other title contenders. It’s also a sign of the tremendous depth that the squad has, given that we made four changes from our last match, as we were short a few midfielders to injury, plus our starting keeper and usual #6 to a hotel in Madrid thanks to annoying international play. If they had any level of introspection, the transfer window fans might recognize that, once again, we didn’t really need to spend like an oil state this summer. On the other hand, it’s also a non-competitive match against an opponent in our division. That happened fairly often back in the glory days of the 1970s and 80s, too, but usually not to this degree. However, we’re the first English side in top division history to go seven consecutive away games in all competitions scoring 3+ goals and not everyone we’ve been playing has been as underwhelming as Watford. We’re also undefeated in 20 straight matches (14 wins, 6 draws), which is our longest undefeated run across all comps under Jürgen Klopp and the longest since 1996 under Roy Evans. That says just as much about where this squad is as it does about the structural problems that all of the big leagues in Europe are currently facing; some more than others (defense of the Bundesliga by Derek Rae in 3… 2… 1…) But, at the moment, we only have to think about how we’re doing which is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, spectacularly.

Watford 0 – 5 Liverpool

5 goals and it could’ve been a lot more. Clean sheet. No injuries. Got to rest both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson for much of the second half. Naby Keita played a full 90 minutes and did well. And, oh yeah, that front three.

That pic was from three seasons ago and they’ve only gotten better. Roberto Firmino became the first Brazilian player to have multiple hat tricks in the PL. Sadio scored his 100th PL goal (none of them penalties, BTW) and moved into third place for goals by African players, behind Didier Drogba and, uh, Mo who is just the best player in the world at the moment. No biggie. Detractors will slip in the fact that all three of Bob’s goals were tap-ins, but a big part of the game of football is positioning (aka being in the right place at the right time) and that has always been a part of Bob’s game. It’s why he plays the false 9 role in the first place, as his field sense is so good that he knows where to be to keep the ball moving and is really good at moving in those spots.

When others have the ball, you need to know where to be to receive a pass and score a goal and that’s where he was in all three instances; once on a rebound from Ben Foster, once on a great back pass from James Milner, Robot Warrior which was set up by a perfect feed from Sadio, and once off a great cross from Neco Williams. That adds up to a goal involvement (GI) every 34 minutes this season. That was also LFC’s 41st hat trick, most in the competition (because football started in 1992…) But speaking of that perfect feed, despite not getting the headlines from either hat trick or wonder goal, you have to give Sadio his due. Yes, Mo is tied atop the golden boot race with Jamie Vardy at the moment. You know who’s tied for third (with Michail Antonio)? Sadio. He’s been stretching play on that left side in the same way that Mo does on the right and he’s every bit as deft a passer, especially in tight situations in the box, like for that second goal. But, yeah, Mo…

Best. Player. In. The. World right now. One of the best parts about this is that it’s remarkably similar to his goal against Watford at Anfield almost four years ago, when he dropped another Hornet to the ground and slotted it into the far corner. That’s also at least a goal in eight consecutive appearances; the longest such streak by a Liverpool player since Daniel Sturridge in ’13-’14. But the reason for the MotM award comes from the entirety of his play.

Somehow, I still see the label “selfish” applied to Mo by supposed Liverpool fans, as if he’s a poacher like Ronaldo who does little other than lurk in the box for crosses. It leads me to wonder whether they’re just football idiots who are continuing with a preconception they decided on a couple seasons ago or if we’re veering into other issues, like subconscious racism. The guy even gives post-match interviews completely waving off his feats and talking about how the team’s success is the most important thing. How can any reasonable person look at what he’s been doing and still used a label like “selfish”? Incidentally, today’s results also mean that Sadio has 6 goals in 10 games, Bob has 6 in 7, and Mo 10 in 10 but, y’know, depth and finishing issues. That certainly doesn’t make me look forward to the Africa Cup of Nations, but it’s also a measure of who’s “washed” and who really isn’t. But it was a full-squad effort today.

As one Twitterer suggested, this move should eventually be called “the Virg” like “Panenka” or “Cruyff turn.” Smooth as glass even against an onrushing opponent, deep in the corner. His passing was also on point today, with our first big chance of the game starting from a long ball of his that dropped in front of Mo. We also can’t leave out the constant machine, as Millie created more chances (4), won more fouls (2), and made more interceptions (2) than anyone else for LFC. It also became his 18th(!) consecutive season with an assist. The midfield was a point of concern before the match, as we’re currently beset by injuries (which was worsened by Curtis Jones picking up a knock in a U23s match for England) and we had no Fabinho. That meant Captain Jordan Henderson at the 6, which is fine, although we lose a bit of Fab’s short-range touch and distribution in that situation because Hendo’s passing, like his overall game, is more aggressive. That meant Millie and Naby Keita starting on either side of him, which a lot of people would like to see more of, in the case of the latter. Naby was quite good on the ball today, although he didn’t produce any key passes. And the deadly wide duo of Robbo and Trent were their usual selves, lobbing things in with abandon and generally unnerving Watford players for most of the game until they were subbed off.

On those substitutions, I thought initially that with Kostas Tsimikas coming on for Andy and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Trent that it might be a direct swap and we’d see Ox try his hand at RB, perhaps as a way of expanding his repertoire and seeing more minutes. But instead, Millie, ultimate utility man, went to RB and Ox dropped into his usual midfield spot. I think that’s mostly about just getting Ox on the pitch and seeing if he can produce something against an obviously inferior squad to keep his confidence up. There’ve been a few rumors about Ox leaving, maybe as soon as January, if a really good offer came in (Saudi PIFC, come on down!) I kinda doubt that Jürgen would be willing to sign off on that, especially given recent injury troubles, the specter of last season, and the number of competitions that we’re trying to stay relevant in this season, but stranger things have happened.

It’s a big week, as we go back to the Wanda Metropolitano to face Atleti on Tuesday and then head to Old Trafford to visit Ole’s oxen that are not so free at the moment. My heart bleeds.

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