Ham-fisted

I lose a lot of impetus for the game during breaks. Part of the tension of the season is knowing that next week or in the next three days, you have to go again. Now, the latter case is becoming a real issue, as Robert Lewandowski said the other day: “We’re not machines.” But it’s true that the machine-like repetition of the Premier League season is part of its attraction. Win, lose, or draw, you have to pull the boots on again next weekend and try to make it happen. That’s just one part of why I find international breaks annoying and they’re especially so in the first couple months of a PL season, when your team is often still trying to find its rhythm. The contrast with the game against West Ham, which I am now finally writing about 10 days later, is that Liverpool had already established a rhythm. On the offensive end, it was brilliant. On the defensive end, a little less so. That latter part is what largely manifested against the Hammers.

I think it’s safe to say that no one had a really good game that day except Trent Alexander-Arnold. Notable among the poor games was Alisson Becker, which is pretty unusual for him. According to The Athletic’s goalkeeping writer, Matt Pyzdrowski, he had a hand in (or really off) all three goals ($) against because of positioning or a bad first step. But part of what led to those goals is the tendency we’ve shown to give up the middle of the pitch to anyone who drives forward with intent. It happened against Brighton. It happened against Brentford. In both cases, we dropped two points that would now have us sitting tied with Chelsea (and ahead on goal difference) instead of four points back. That loss of control in the middle of the park is clearly a midfield issue and it leaves one wondering if there’s anyone on our current roster who can really duplicate the one missing element from the past five years: Gini Wijnaldum.

Despite his many critics, Gini served a valuable function in this squad. Not only was he insanely durable, being unavailable for less than a half dozen games in his entire time with us, but he was the best recycling midfielder we’ve had since Xabi Alonso (yes, I know Xabi was mostly a DM.) If the ball came near him, he held it, moved it, and got it to someone else, just like he was supposed to. We’re missing that in our currently injury-hampered midfield. Fabinho is a DM who shields the back four. In most cases when we’ve given up the middle of the pitch, the problem occurs higher upfield. He can often compensate for that, but he didn’t have an especially great game at Taxpayer Boondoggle Stadium, either. (The reason he was subbed for Takumi Minamino wasn’t just the need for more offense.) Captain Jordan Henderson is prone to moving forward, not recycling. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, likewise, is an attacking player. But Thiago!, I hear some of you say. Yeah, Thiago Alcãntara can be great in that recycler role. Unfortunately, he’s not great in the Gini role of “always being available.” He’s having exactly the problem that I was concerned about when we first signed him, which is an inability to stay on the pitch… just like Naby Keita, who is also a great possession-based player, when he’s rarely available. Certainly, the problem is heightened at the moment with the number of injuries we have in midfield, but these issues have been evident since the beginning of the season and I’m not sure exactly what the tweak should be.

There’s also probably a mental side to it. Virgil Van Dijk mentioned that we had control of the second half and, instead of continuing that control, we rushed too much to try to get the 2-1 lead and lost control of the ball. That was evident with the number of times I cringed at someone trying a one-touch pass from a ball in the air that went nowhere but to a purple shirt, when the proper thing to do would’ve been to bring the ball down and control it… kinda like Gini always did. He’s not wrong about the control, either, given that we had almost 70% of the ball for the match. And the thing about Thiago is that he isn’t normally a guy who produces instant results. He usually needs time to warm to a game, so subbing him on with 20 minutes to play isn’t ideal. Just to note what may be a coincidence, both of West Ham’s second-half goals came after Thiago came on the pitch. But another aspect to that mental thing may have to do with the “dirty” side of the game. When Jarrod Bowen went charging up the center of the pitch with two LFC shirts harassing him but not fouling him, we ended up behind again; literally and figuratively. There wasn’t a better moment so far this season for a “tactical foul.” Don’t get me wrong: I generally detest that approach to the game and wish that teams that liberally engage in it, like Manchester City, would get called (and carded) for it more often. I appreciate that we’ve won the Fair Play award in the PL for five years running. But I also appreciate knocking someone on their ass sometimes when you simply get beat, rather than giving up a goal that allows David Moyes to switch into that preferred 4-5-1 (part of why we had so much possession) and sit on the lead for the rest of the game (earning him his first ever PL win over Liverpool in 15 tries, incidentally; also West Ham’s first win against in 11.) This is where we really miss James Milner, Robot Warrior.

But it’s not a crisis. We’re through to the knockout rounds in the Champions League already. We’re only four points off the top spot in the PL. We’re still in the WITSBP Cup if anyone really cares. The wheels are not coming off. More than one pundit out there has been lauding the Reds as the best side in the PL by the numbers, regardless of what the current table is saying. But we’re about to enter the most trying part of the season and it would be a great thing to shore up these little numbers issues (like, say, in the center of the field) that have been keeping a good season from being a great one so far.

West Ham 3 – 2 Liverpool

Due credit has to go to the Hammers (and to Moyes, I guess) for not only being a capable side so far this season but also in correctly identifying our preferred modus operandi of recent times and trying to shut it down. We’ve been doing a lot on the right side this season, with Trent’s side being the focus of the attack, both because of Mo Salah and because of Trent’s increasing skill with the ball. As noted earlier, he’s been moving inside a lot more and any number of our goals have come from the interplay and switches between players on that side. West Ham essentially tasked Pablo Fornals with preventing that from happening and he did a solid job of it. Some of that emphasis on the right may also be a reaction to the generally lesser play by Andy Robertson so far this season, with some people calling to outright replace him with Kostas Tsimikas, who has looked more capable in his minutes on the pitch. I don’t think I’d be quite that ruthless, but it’s certainly not a crisis for us now that the Scot looks to be limited by injury for one of the rare times in his Liverpool career.

The numbers are a little shakier in the big picture, as we haven’t won a match in the PL without it being a clean sheet and we’re already in double figures (11) for goals allowed on 8.93 xG. Six goals off 6.2 xG were created right through the center of midfield, just by the by. It also means we’ve dropped 11 point from 11 matches, creating an obvious average of 2.0 per match, which won’t win a title, especially considering the current GA for Chelsea (4) and City (6), despite LFC having scored more than either of them or current third-place West Ham, who are a point above us with more than a quarter of the season gone. Howevah, City was in basically this same spot last year and went on to win the league handily and get to the CL final, so it’s not a disaster as all of the transfer window warriors would have you think. We’re just having some issues and this past match was kind of a consolidation/exposure of a number of them, including poor games by players who aren’t known for them. As noted, that included basically everyone but this man:

Even with Fornals and Said Benrahma working to try to shut him down, that’s a pretty solid stat line, as well as another brilliant free kick goal. Now if we could get even something close to that production on the other side, we’d be in ’19-’20 form. That said, Robbo did have more touches in the opposition box in this match than the entire West Ham squad did in ours in the first half, so it’s not as if he’s been slacking and it’s not like we were utterly outplayed. On the other hand, he also put in 8 crosses, only one of which found a teammate, which has been something of a trend. He’s going through a dry spell and a few weeks on the bench to recover and hopefully watch Kostas tear it up should be all the motivation necessary for the irrepressible Scotsman.

Officiating. Yeah, OK. Craig Pawson was poor. There’s no two ways about it. Not only was the above somehow not deemed a foul or, for that matter, impeding/obstructing the view of a goalkeeper, but the Aaron Cresswell tackle on Hendo ten minutes later was essentially the same move that got Mason Holgate tossed from Everton’s match an hour earlier. Granted, Pawson probably wasn’t watching the Everton-Tottenham match but the principle is the same: studs up, over the ball, and even sweeping in with the other leg. Yet, somehow, Cresswell’s move was deemed not even a foul, to say nothing of a card of some kind. That said, I’ve never been a fan of blaming the officiating for a game in which we simply got beat. Jürgen Klopp is correct, though, in pointing out that if Angelo Ogbonna’s move above is considered legit, then everyone can simply charge the keeper on any corner. I agree with many who say that keepers get a bit too much leeway in what they can do in crowded situations, but there’s a limit to what can be done to them, as well. But- surprise! -PL officiating is poor. This is not news.

And there it is. We’re back in action at Anfield against the resurgent Gooners, which would be a great moment to get back into overall form. After that, we get Porto in town, where they’ve always played much better against us than they have at the Estádio Dragão, which admittedly isn’t setting the bar very high. Forward, then. A little highlight to end my tardiness:

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