If you’ve ever met up with an old relationship and been overcome with conflicting emotions, you’ll know what today felt like for a number of Liverpool fans. There’s that moment when you see each other and you realize: “Oh. It’s them.” Maybe the first thought is of regret that things ended or how they did. Maybe it’s irritation that that person whom you once cared for so much has come back into your life after causing you so much pain. Maybe it’s something like: “Hey. They still look pretty good.” which is then followed either by the aforementioned regret that things ended or in considering ways that you could score for old times’ sake. (This often has much to do with one’s blood alcohol level when that first thought(?) occurs.) So, yeah. I’m sure there were any number of Reds supporters who looked down at the touchline and thought: “Stevie G. Liverpool legend. Finally back at Anfield… but leading another club.” with some degree of pain or regret. Nostalgia, after all, is a composite word from ancient Greek words meaning “homecoming” and “pain.” I, however, am not one of those fans.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Stevie. He’s one of the all-time greats for Liverpool Football Club and I will never regret one moment that he was on the pitch for us. Well, maybe that 38-second red card against ManU but, no, really. He was one of our greatest players and certainly probably the greatest modern one up to the point where Mo Salah first stepped into Anfield. But I’m also not interested in anyone who’s not playing for or managing Liverpool when it comes to watching our side out on the pitch. I wish him all the success in the world except for the two times (plus cup games) that he’s squaring off against us. At those points, he is ‘the other’ just like any other manager or player. Just like Pellegrino at Soton or Souness at Soton and Newcastle or Keegan at Newcastle and Man City or any of the rest, Steven Gerrard is now the manager of Aston Villa, a club that I’ve spent most of my football-watching life rooting against. I have no plans to change that now.
That’s especially true if he continues to play that Rafa Benitez-style of bunkering in and trying to live on the counter (something I often refer to as the worst kind of football) and, even worse, encourages his players to waste time from the 30-minute point onward, which is exactly what they were doing today. At that point, you’re just like any other claret-and-blue side in the league (Burnley) and you’re wasting the time of not only the game clock but everyone who’s sitting in front of the game expecting to be entertained. Yes, Liverpool is vastly more talented than this version of the Villans. Gerrard even acknowledged both the disparity in quality and that of play (“Their style is better than ours.”) after the match. (Yes, Stevie. It is.) He’s trying to keep Villa in the league and dig them out of the unfortunate spot that Dean Smith left them in and Gerrard’s “new coach bounce” has run right into the two best clubs in the league in the past two matches; both of whom beat his side by only 1 goal, it has to be said. So, it’s not like they’re not well-organized. But Wolverhampton was well-organized last week and they didn’t end up getting warnings from the official for time-wasting in the first half, either. (I’ll, uh, get into the officiating a bit later.)
So, this is the point where those memories have come flooding back about all of the good things in that relationship and you communicate easily like you did back in the day and it takes a few minutes before you realize how much that person still really aggravates you and you’d rather not waste anymore of your time wishing for things that can’t be reality any longer. We’re past that point. We have fond memories, but that’s all they are. After dealing with a frustrating 12-man side, we got the three points and that’s the end of it. Time to move on.
Liverpool 1 – 0 Aston Villa
One of the strange things about this match is that the players to be cited for really exceptional performances are mostly the defenders. Granted, that will happen when the opposition is stubbornly refusing to play the game when your side is on offense and when the lead official is only too ready to slow the game down at every opportunity (Something something “Let the game flow” something?) So while we had a ridiculous amount of possession for all but the last 10 minutes and pretty much kept the Villans pinned in their end for, again, all but the last 10 minutes, two of the players who really stood out in a statistical sense were the twin towers in the middle:
You know when one of your centerbacks is third in the game for total shots that you were attacking from, quite literally, all possible angles and probably had a significant edge in corners, which we did (11-3.) Joel went on a longer-than-usual adventure, carrying the ball almost to the edge of Villa’s box before dumping it off. This is why Virgil Van Dijk calls him “The Dribbler.” Joel Matip’s play has been even higher than his usual standards, which just goes to show how good it is that we’ve been able to regularly rotate him and keep him rested. Speaking of Virg:
91% accuracy, including 11/12 on long (more than 30 yards) passes! And, yes, you’ll notice that his 100% record for aerial duels is the same as Joel’s (e.g. the two of them won all of their duels in this match.) We already knew that Virg was the best CB in the world. Now we have the best CB pairing in the world, as well. That’s 10 clean sheets in our opening 16 matches; only behind 2005-6 (under Rafa…) with 13(!) And there was still one bright spot on the front line:
That’s 30 G/As this season. It’s December 11th. It also means he’s either scored or assisted in every Premier League game that we’ve played since the Chelsea draw. The only game in which he didn’t contribute to a goal was against (sigh) Burnley. That was also the best penalty you’re ever going to see: hit with power, low and away from the keeper, just inside the right post. You literally cannot hit it any better than that. That’s 15 successful penalties in a row, putting him second in the PL record book for consecutive scores, behind only Matt LeTissier (23.) Villa was also content to give us the entire left side of the pitch for most of the game, which means that this man was deeply involved:
Andy Robertson’s play has definitely stepped up since the few matches he had to sit out in favor of Kostas. Again, it might’ve been fatigue or a nagging injury left over from the Euros, but he’s completely back in form, at this point, and took full advantage of the Villans focusing on the Trent/Hendo/Mo side of the pitch and had free reign to both run in the box and work several combinations with Sadio Mané. But I can’t entirely ignore the midfield, either, as this was another match with the lineup that most consider to be the top of the heap: Captain Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, and Thiago Alcãntara. Hendo was all over the field, putting in challenges and keeping the ball moving as much as possible. And Thiago was, well, Thiago.
That’s how you keep the ball constantly on the attack, which is what we did for 75 minutes, including 8 minutes directly after the penalty, where it looked like we weren’t going to settle for just one goal. But then the Villans got their feet under them and we relaxed a bit too much (according to Virg.) Thiago and his passing brilliance were replaced with midfield destroyer, James Milner, Robot Warrior, who immediately started getting in clearances and issuing hammering tackles in the middle of the pitch. That was enough to get us by, but it’s clearly a switch in play when Thiago isn’t present to control the ball.
Officiating nightmare. Yeah, OK. This is beyond the usual complaints about PL officiating being subpar. At one point, I was tweeting at the Liverpool Offside that this was the worst officiating performance I’d seen since Jon Moss called a penalty for the ball hitting someone’s armpit. Oh, wait. But, seriously, this was atrocious. Midway through the second half, we had 100 more touches than Villa but had been called for five times the number of fouls (10-2.) At one point, he awarded a free kick to Ezri Konsa for injuring himself attempting a bicycle kick in his own box with no Liverpool player anywhere near him. We’re setting all kinds of scoring and attacking records this season and are, once again, leading the league for touches in the opponent’s box, but that’s only the second penalty we’ve been awarded in the last 12 months. It was also the first one we’ve ever gotten from Stewart Atwell. This was farcical. I’ve been watching this game for 45 years. I’ve gotten used to officials missing stuff that the TV cameras don’t. Consequently, I don’t normally bother yelling at the game in frustration. It’s all just part of English football. But this was above and beyond. This is the most watched sporting league in the world and somehow, with matches like this happening, someone can reasonably tell me that Mike Riley and the rest of the PGMOL are the proper stewards for the game? Pull the other one.
Four whole days until we welcome(?) Saudi PIFC to Anfield. And, since we were talking of nostalgia, I leave you with a glance at history for not just the PL but the top flight as a whole. You can make that 1,999 wins, 7,044 points and a GD of 1,977 now. It’s a testament to not only the dominance we had in the 70s and 80s, but what we’ve been doing for the last 4 years, as well; not to mention the upper-half consistency of the club’s performance on the whole. My favorite comparison is having played almost 400 fewer matches than the Ev, but having almost 400 more points and twice the GD…