Can’t escape the hammer

You know those moments when things seem to be going your way but there’s that little guy with the hammer, pinging away at the back of your head with a Morse code beat that says: “This can’t last.” (Feel free to imagine this guy as a classic quasit with a spiked warhammer twice the size that he is. It’s what I always do.) The match at Stamford Bridge on Sunday was a great example of that. Part of it was the departure from our usual style of play- the high press, maintaining possession, and so on. It looked like we came into this with an intent to play on the counter, which meant that we spent a lot more time out of possession hanging back around the midfield line. That, to me, signals that we’re essentially surrendering the initiative to the opponent, which means that they will often dictate the pace. It’s not a style I’m especially fond of, despite its potential for success (see: the Rafa years) and it’s really unusual for us to be playing that way in the Klopp era. But if you’re going to play that way, you’re either going to have to play in a low block (something we don’t do at all) or you’re basically assigning your front line to helping to control the midfield, rather than pressing. Unfortunately, in this case, our midfield was totally outplayed for long stretches of the game and we largely didn’t control anything in the middle third. So that little guy’s rhythm was right.

But regardless of strategy or style (or inner demons), the bottom line is simple: we gave up a two goal lead in a match that we desperately needed the three points from if we were ever going to approach Manchester City’s dominant lead. Without that, we’re 11 points back at the midway point of the season and it’s almost impossible to imagine City dropping 11 more points and the Reds winning out, given that City have won their last 11 straight. Of course, it has to be included in the context of the game that it’s ludicrous that two of what are assumed to be among the best sides in Europe are utterly out of their domestic league race at the halfway point. What’s even more absurd is that one of them is run sustainably, like a normal club (waves flag), and the other is subject to some of the same largesse that enables Man City (e.g. an oil-funded billionaire who frequently tosses piles of money in all directions come transfer time.) It’s just the scale that’s different. Of course, in the Time of Covid, one would assume that among the things that aren’t going to last would be keeping one’s entire squad on the pitch. It’s just different when you can field two complete starting XIs with virtually no change in quality.

But coming back to things that were in our own hands: We had a two goal lead and we lost it in three minutes. We’ve taken the lead in the PL 17 times this season, but only won 12 of them. City have also taken the lead 17 times and have won all of those matches. That’s 10 more points… which is just one off the lead that they currently enjoy and us with a game in hand. Two of those failures happened in the process of us taking two points from the last nine available. This is what players mean when they talk about “taking care of our own business.” One assumes their own little guy with the hammer shows up when they haven’t done it.

Chelsea 2 – 2 Liverpool

Straight up, Chelsea’s 3-4-3 is designed to dominate the middle third. They want control there to then feed in their striker (until Sunday, The Player Also Known As Romelu Lukaku) and get their wingbacks running forward when control is achieved. And, boy, was control achieved by the double pivot of N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic. They didn’t lose a take-on for the entire match, successfully completing seven of seven tackles without conceding a foul. In contrast, neither Captain Jordan Henderson nor James Milner, Robot Warrior had games to speak of, with the former especially looking out of sorts and unable to control the ball in his usual fashion. What we were really missing was someone with the kind of tight control like Thiago Alcãntara has, who’s out for an indeterminate amount of time with a hip injury. We, of course, knew his injury history when we bought him and it’s rapidly approaching Naby-level as a problem. Speaking of Naby Keita, he was among the substitutes (including Curtis Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; all midfielders) that, for the second match running, failed to generate anything upon their introduction in the second half, which is an absurdly small sample size and affected by any number of other factors, but still sticks out when thinking about how we might have been able to change the game and were finally unable to do so. Once again, all of our top play came from the wide spots.

I mean, Mo Salah continues to prove that he’s an amazing player, news at 11? This hardly qualifies as a notable observation, although it is nice for him to get back on the scoresheet after a couple match absence and in such a brilliant fashion:

Arlo’s comment in that video is pointed, though: “And Liverpool dominate… on the scoreboard.” That’s Mo’s 23rd on the season and 16th in the PL alone, more than anyone else. That was also Trent’s 11th assist of the season, more than anyone else in the league, and 9th in league matches, more than anyone but… Mo Salah. 52 goals in 20 matches. One end is working right, beyond doubt, and Trent had another excellent game in his 200th appearance (now the club record holder for most wins in the first 200, with 136), but so did this man:

He’s our walking symbol of depth and has built up a great level of understanding with Sadio Mané down the left side which is getting closer to leading to moments like this:

Of course, the game after I suggest he’s still great but declining, Sadio has another excellent game. That goal and Mo’s put the two of them alongside George Best and Bobby Charlton as the pairs to have both scored in the most top flight matches in history, at 29. Thinking that’s another record that’s going to be broken soon.

Also among our COVID losses was Allison Becker, but it has to be said that Caoimhin Kelleher played a great game. There was nothing he could have done about Kovacic’s worldie and he got stranded in a one-on-one against Christian Pulisic, in which any keeper in the world can give up a goal. He made a couple excellent saves on other shots and his distribution was timely and accurate. I’m feeling as secure as I have about our goalkeeping situation in years.

A note about financial doping. So, carrying the complaint from above a bit further, it says something about something when both Chelsea and Liverpool, two of the best sides in Europe and whom have both lost only two matches in the league this season, are basically out of the title race with almost half of that season left to play. The term used for clubs like Man City is “financial doping.” Chelsea, again, had the open wallet of a billionaire who then conformed to FFP rules by building a ridiculous academy system and pulling in loan and sale fees from clubs across Europe. But even they can’t do what City has done with their fake sponsorships. City bought Nathan Aké from Bournemouth in the summer of 2020 for £40 million. In the 18 months since then, he’s made 14 appearances for them. They bought Jack Grealish from Aston Villa for £100 million last summer, the most expensive buy in the history of the English top division. He’s made 13 appearances for them this season, in contrast to the 94 he made in the previous three seasons with Aston Villa. Those are two players that would be major, every-game players for almost any other club in the world. So, when people cite the fact that LFC have only won one league title and only three other major trophies under Jürgen Klopp, it’s helpful to put things in proper perspective. Liverpool don’t spend like that because they can’t spend like that. Even Chelsea(!) can’t spend like that. The Premier League, the biggest, most monied league in the world, is still slowly drifting toward a Bayern Munich situation because the league won’t take a stand against obvious fraud. In the same way we look at the absurdity of PGMOL and the officiating, at some point you just have throw your hands up and say: “We can only do what we can do.”

We have the first leg of the semifinal of the WITSBP cup on Thursday (Seriously. A two-legged semifinal. Still.) but it’s now looking threatened by Omicron raging through our squad and staff, so who knows? After that, we don’t play until… the other leg of the semifinal at Anfield on the 12th. Beyond that we’ll play one of our two league matches without Sadio, Mo, and Naby on the 19th against Brentford. The future is uncertain.

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