The 12th (but down to 10th) man

There are a lot of “other” clubs in the constellations of Europe. They’re the club that usually can’t escape the shadow of the more well-heeled rival with whom they share the same city or at least the very near vicinity. Think of Everton and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Torino in Turin, dwarfed by the power and success of their crosstown rival, Juventus, is another good example. Atletico Madrid is technically the “other” club in Madrid, as they’re often outshone by the accomplishments of Los Blancos, but Atleti is a step above in that category. Unlike most of the other “others”, they’ve continued to be something of a force to be reckoned with, especially in the recent past, when they’ve proceeded to make two European Cup finals, losing both, and have won three UEFA Cups. On top of that, of course, they’re the reigning Spanish champions and have made a good effort toward retaining that title in the beginning of this season. So it’s more difficult to label them as the also-ran that pales (ahem) in comparison to their white-suited neighbors, even if the title they won last year is only the second time in the last 18 years that a club not named Real Madrid or Barcelona has won that title. That first time? That was Atleti, too, eight years ago. While it’s not playing Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, it is still Liverpool playing Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. They’re two of the best clubs currently in Europe and the two largest reasons that Group B is considered this year’s “group of death”; a group that Liverpool currently sits atop, with three wins out of three.

The win tonight is something to be thankful for, as the (yellow) Reds didn’t actually play that well past the first 15 minutes and Atleti’s 12th man- the raucous crowd and their exclamatory manager, Diego Simeone -almost made up for them being reduced to 10 men early in the second half. After getting outplayed for much of the first half, Liverpool continued to be pushed back by the 10-man Spanish side and it felt an awful lot like LFC were clinging to the win in the closing minutes, even with the man advantage. This wasn’t us failing to break down a squad determined to dig in, as with Chelsea, although the difficulty in dealing with a back 5 was quite similar. Atleti was giving us all we could handle whenever they took possession of the ball. The noise and menace of the crowd weighed on the game, as did Simeone’s usual histrionics on the touchline. It definitely affected lead official, Daniel Sibert, which is part and parcel of Simeone’s usual strategy, as he directs his players to be extremely confrontational with the official and to be as flamboyant as he is when it comes to performance on the pitch. But that strategy also got the better of them when Mario Hermoso clattered into Diogo Jota, leading to Mo Salah’s winning penalty kick, and when José Giménez tried to draw a similar penalty at the other end, only to have it overturned by VAR as a dive. After a while, the official will begin either tuning you out or looking at you with suspicion, especially when you look tempted to bite said official as Luis Suárez did while arguing over what was, in fact, a foul on him by our own Virgil Van Dijk. Complain too much and you become the red-and-white boy crying wolf, while the official is just trying to finish the match.

In the end, our boys had to tune out the baying Wanda crowd and just finish the business, as well. Again, we didn’t play especially well, but well enough to get the three points, leaving us one more win away from guaranteeing progression into the knockout rounds. It was also the first time Atleti had lost at home since last January, the first game they’ve lost at home in the last 40 games, the first time they’ve lost in European play at home for four years, and the first time a Simeone side has ever given up three goals at home to a European opponent. So still a decent accomplishment. Like the boss said, sometimes the dirty three points is the best three points and that perfectly describes tonight’s game in a lot of ways. Here’s to staying more on the front foot when the rotes blancos have to come to an equally enthusiastic crowd at Anfield in two weeks.

Atletico Madrid 2 – 3 Liverpool

As usual, when the team overall isn’t that great, you need at least one savior to keep you in it and tonight that savior was Alisson Becker. That xG diagram above is no statistical obfuscation. They did have the better chances and he made some major saves in order to deny them and get us the three points. Man of the match, indeed. Part of the reason he was facing so much pressure was because, just like against Man City a couple weeks ago, our pressing was off. We kept responding to the triggers too slowly, leaving gaps that could easily be played into. Time and again, you could see Madrid players almost literally camped out between our midfield and back line, just waiting for the ball to be played into them. Some of the criticism for this comes Naby Keita’s way, as he clearly wasn’t able to handle João Félix and Thomas Lemar on that side of the pitch. That’s no particular shame, as both of them are spectacular players, but it’s a step below what Klopp wants out of his midfield, which may explain, despite all of the statistical glories (and glory hounds who extoll him on Twitter regularly), why Naby still hasn’t become a fixture in Jürgen’s midfield, even when he’s not injured. We needed a Gini Wijnaldum tonight and we had to reshuffle the midfield at the half to approach that.

On that note, the biggest surprise when the lineup came out was that Fabinho wasn’t included and we’d be duplicating the setup we used so successfully at Watford on the weekend. That’s fine… against Watford. But the same tendencies that I mentioned in that game were evident in the Wanda. Captain Jordan Henderson, while capable at the 6, does have a tendency to drift forward, which often leaves him chasing the play. Fabinho’s instincts are different and, indeed, as soon as he came on to begin the second half, the change was evident. Not only did he immediately intercept a ball and generally keep things moving at a more secure pace in the middle of the pitch, but Hendo was much more capable in obstructing Lemar in his usual right side position. That shows up here:

Jürgen said later that he was concerned that Fab hadn’t had a chance to train with the rest of the squad, but he also recognized that a change had to happen. Atleti continued to apply pressure, but it usually came from breakdowns elsewhere and, of course, once Antoine Griezmann was sent off, Lemar and Félix basically ceased to be crucial elements in the game. Just as a side note, it amazes me to see some Madrid fans refer to that straight red card as “questionable.” That’s usually the half-assed disclaimer that means the person knows that doing a Bundesliga logo to Roberto Firmino’s head is wrong, but they don’t want to admit it and look like they’re not loyal fans of the team and end up being castigated by the ultras. Believe me, you’re not piling on. You’re just being a decent human being and acknowledging that Griezmann did the Diego Costa hat trick (two goals, red card.) Keeping the Atleti tradition alive, yo. But not everything was sturm und drang.

Atleti’s skill and style of play kept him quieter than we’d like, but he’s still the best in the world at the moment. With those two goals (James Milner, Robot Warrior already tweeted that he’s not claiming the one that it really looks like he turned in…), Mo also becomes Liverpool’s all-time leading scorer in the Champions League and, I’m pretty sure, European play overall, with 31 goals in just 48 games. Insane. Those two goals (and Naby’s second worldie this season) ensured that we’re still undefeated in our last 21 matches; the longest run we’ve had since 1989 under King Kenny, which went to 24. It also meant that he added to his club record for scoring in consecutive matches (9). Incidentally, that was also Bobby’s 176th win in his 300th appearance for the club. That’s the most wins outside of names from the glory years of the 70s and 80s like Kennedy, Rush, Whelan, and Dalglish.

But, otherwise, it was kinda sloppy. We gave away way too many balls in the middle of the pitch (4 turnovers by Andy Robertson alone) and we often looked like we were the circling challenger to the Spanish side that was in control. Trent Alexander-Arnold had something of a subpar game under the radar, although it was thrilling to see Can’t Defend(!) Trent make a brilliant clearance of a ball dropping right into our box in front of Félix in the 19th minute. Unfortunately, the corner conceded from that clearance led directly to Atleti’s first goal when Naby failed to contain Lemar. Circling back again, though, one can’t say enough about Alisson’s performance. It’s not like he was under constant assault and was holding Thermopylae, but Atleti did get some great looks and he got us all three points when your average statistical analysis (see above) would’ve said otherwise. Speaking of analysis, though, it’s always mildly hilarious to hear commentators who aren’t really familiar with Liverpool ramble on about the shifts they see on the pitch. It’s not really that remarkable to see Bob come all the way back to the corner to retrieve a ball or to see all of the front and middle three freely exchange positions (“Now Firmino is out on the right and Salah is in the center-! I’m not sure if they’re trying to confuse Atletico or-!”) It’s like these guys never heard of total football before (I mean, given that they’re usually English, maybe they haven’t…?) But, y’know, newsflash: We do this in every single game we play! That’s why Bob is a false 9 and all three of them score from left, right, and center. Astonishing, I know. That’s what happens when you have the greatest manager on earth. Or something.

So that’s that for another couple weeks. Oh, wait. I think there’s a trip to some podunk manufacturing town coming up this weekend. Maybe it’s a Norwegian club…? Or is that just the manager? Whatevs. Gotta win this one to keep up with the oil clubs. And get back on our perch. Meanwhile, enjoy some Simeone humor.

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