I’m not fond of focusing on officiating problems and that’s why the lead image of this piece is of Diogo Jota’s excellent header for our first goal of the match. The officials often seem to be just one of the random aspects of the most random game. Sometimes they go your way and sometimes they don’t, but usually in minor aspects. They don’t control what you do with the ball. They don’t control how you’re set up. They don’t control whether you finish properly in front of the net. But they are part of the “key moments” that make up matches. You can usually point out a couple events in every match that change the way the rest of the game progresses. The most common event pointed out are goals because that’s just how important they are in a low-scoring game like football. These days, officials on the field aren’t usually the ones that interfere in goals. That’s up to the guys in the VAR booth and their inane lines. But other key moments can still have ripple effects out in the universe of potentiality, because of what could have or should have been the case if Premier League officials were, say, competent.
Paul Tierney is usually forgettable as an official. He’s not as much a personality as someone like Jon Moss or Neil Atkinson and doesn’t have a reputation that follows him around the league as being particularly inclined to a type of play or wanting to be involved in the big moments like Mike Dean. He does, however, seem to have a bit of an issue with Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool. From denying a goal on an inadvertent handball and cutting extra time(!) short against West Brom a few years ago to blowing the halftime whistle with time remaining and Liverpool on the attack at Old Trafford last January to the ludicrous display in London yesterday, it’s become an increasingly obvious trend that Tierney is more willing to play fast and loose with the rules in a Liverpool match than he is otherwise. This is why sociable, jovial Jürgen Klopp, laughing and socializing with the opposing manager and players after the match, was also shouting at the lead official: “I don’t have a problem with any officials! Only you!” and then continuing to elaborate at length on that issue in his post-match press conference.
And if it were just those little things like blowing the whistle too soon, that would be one thing. But the issues yesterday were not just Tierney doing his usual, but also the VAR official, Chris Kavanagh, refusing to get involved in a studs-up, ankle-breaker but immediately jumping in on a clearly excessive leg sweep by the guy who almost had his ankle broken in the first half (Ironical!) There were no excuses made for Andy Robertson’s foul, by either him or Jürgen. It was a card-worthy offense and he was justifiably punished for it. But somehow the foul by Harry Kane wasn’t. Tierney had obviously decided that things were going to happen in full English football-style… except when Kavanagh decided to do his job in Robbo’s case. That job also wasn’t done when Diogo was plowed into from behind by Emerson Royal (the same guy Andy would get his card for! Ironical!) in the first half which would’ve given Liverpool a penalty in any league in the world. Except the Premier League, officiated by Paul Tierney.
And perhaps the worst part of all of this is that the contemptible officiating marred what was otherwise a pretty exciting game that could’ve been won by either side. Most won’t remember the great plays or significant mistakes by the players because everything is now overshadowed by the failure of the officials. I’d like to be able to say something like “Despite playing a patchwork midfield and giving up many more big chances to Tottenham, Liverpool managed to extract a point from the match, keeping them three points off the pace.” Instead, I’m here writing a screed on just how poor two guys who weren’t even playing happened to be on the day because they changed the nature of the entire encounter. Again, this is why I usually don’t like going into detail on officiating problems. They’re part of the game. But the manner in which they’re coming to dominate the English game is becoming a syndrome. I have little hope that it’s going to change anytime soon.
Tottenham 2 – 2 Liverpool
Despite playing a patchwork midfield and giving up many more big chances to Tottenham, Liverpool managed to extract a point from the match, keeping them three points off the pace. You can see from the visual aids above that, despite outshooting Spurs by a 2-1 margin (18-9) and getting more touches in their box (34-25), they had a vast margin in big chances (6-1), most of which were foiled by Alisson Becker, either by getting a literal fingertip to a shot by Dele Alli or cutting off shooting lines for Heung-Min Son. This is where we come back to the frustration of “key moments.” Part of our problem with their attack was the makeshift midfield we were playing with, including Tyler Morton on his PL debut. The latter kept getting isolated and missed chances to reposition so that our CBs weren’t constantly in footraces back toward our box with Spurs’ duo up front. They were using a 5-3-2 which is the most obvious shift from Antonio Conté’s preferred 3-4-3 and it wasn’t presenting a huge number of problems except when we’d get outnumbered in the middle third with three guys (Tyler, James Milner Robot Warrior, and Naby Keita) and then the ball would get launched forward to a streaking Son or Captain of England Football. Many of those streaks were intercepted by a once-again brilliant Ibrahima Kounaté whom, alongside Alisson, definitely saved us from getting buried on the scoreline and simply being forced to play out the 11v13 match. Speaking of Naby:
He did really well trying to corral an unusual situation. While both he and Millie were in the 8 slots, they both kept having to circle back to deal with gaps behind them. They ended up operating in kind of a double pivot, leaving Tyler to float back and forth between the lines, which had mixed results. Millie’s four tackles were second to Naby’s eight. That consequently left the midfield a bit more narrow than usual, which only emphasized the greater freedom that Andy and Trent Alexander-Arnold have enjoyed this season. To wit:
That’s a Diego Costa treble, yo (one goal, one assist, one red card.) As noted previously, Robbo’s been on fire since his return from injury and today was no different. He needed a little less fire in his encounter with Royal, but that’s just how these things go sometimes. It’s the club’s first straight red since Alisson’s for handling a ball outside the box against Brighton in November, 2019. It’s also only the fifth red card of any kind for the squad since Jürgen’s arrival. Given Tierney, we also ended up with four yellow cards, three of them in the last six minutes once he’d decided that he was just tired of the match. Or something. But Robbo’s opposite number was also making waves.
We’ve really been emphasizing the wide play in recent matches, which is unusual to say for Liverpool, since that we’ve been doing for years now. But it’s becoming more prominent as opponents have tried to adjust to the plethora of attacking options that, until the last two matches, have been showing up in the middle. Trent’s advantage, of course, is also that the red-hot Mohammed Salah is on his side and opponents regularly try to double him up (as they did in this game), which has been giving Trent more room to roam. It has certainly paid off, as we notched our 50th goal of the season in our 18th match; the fastest we’ve ever reached that threshold in a top flight season. It was also Trent’s 10th assist across all competitions this season, leaving him second to Mo in the PL with 8.
I can’t leave without mentioning Alisson’s superlative play, once again. There’s no way we come out of this with a point without his performance, which includes the one error he made against the onrushing Son. Those things are going to happen (kinda like… normal officiating!) but he kept us in this one and, consequently, kept us in second in the table. Also on the “shouldn’t be forgotten” list are Diogo, who reached 10 goals in a PL season for the first time, and Sadio Mané, who although he hasn’t scored recently, was excellent for disrupting Spurs’ defense, putting balls into the box and generally harrying people everywhere he went.
OK. Enough of that. We supposedly have the WITSBP cup quarterfinal with Leicester on Wednesday, but considering the precarious situation of England in general and English football in specific, I’m not sure if that’s going to happen or not. My suspicion is that many in the game are going to start exercising the “stiff upper lip” routine and say that things have to go ahead even with U23 players or something equally stupid. But it’s the WITSBP cup, so things will be stupid. After that, the tailspinning Whites from Leeds are back at Anfield. Maybe some of our initial COVID casualties will be back?