Sometimes there are days when it’s OK for it to be just another game. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt that impression that we’re 11 points back in mid-January and the Premier League title is all but decided. The game is on the schedule, so it will be played. But among the more unusual circumstances surrounding this one is that it was the first PL match in four-and-a-half years where neither Mo Salah nor Sadio Mané were available, which is because that game came in May 2017 before Mo joined the club. That’s kind of an extraordinary stretch for both wingers to have avoided joint (and joint) injuries and so it makes it especially obvious when they’re not on the pitch (kind of like League Cup football… yes, I’ll get to it) like they’ve been in the nightmares of opposing defenders for so long.
Even so, there was almost no question as to which side was going to win this match from the opening kick. At one point, we had almost as much possession of the ball as we did against 10-man Arsenal a few days ago (sigh… yes, I’ll get to it.) Brentford, in a contrast to the way they started their first PL season, pretty much bunkered in and waited to play on the counter. Their 3-5-2 is predicated on winning battles in the middle third, but today they decided to just play full-on 5-3-2 and loft long balls that they would hopefully win a few of and generate chances from that. Unfortunately, for them, we have Virgil Van Dijk, Joel Matip, and Fabinho; all of whom are excellent in the air, which meant that strategy was going to be less-than-optimal and generally leave them chasing the game, even when they weren’t already down on the scoreboard. Any time one side has nine corners to the opponent’s zero, you generally know what kind of game it was.
But the contrast with this and something like Burnley (ugh) or 10-man Arsenal (sigh) is that this game was actually fairly interesting to watch, even if it did become something of an artillery barrage slog in whichever end Brentford goalkeeper, Álvaro Fernández, happened to be standing. There was no end of panic on Liverpool Twitter after the score was still 0-0 after 40 minutes, but sometimes games like these just need patience. We were creating plenty of chances. We just weren’t finishing them. Given that we were without our two most prolific scorers over the past five seasons, that could’ve been expected. This, the upcoming WITSBP cup second leg, the Palace match, and maybe the FA Cup match vs Cardiff are simply games that we’re going to have to work our way through. We can and probably should win all of them, but it might take some of the endurance and obstinacy with which we used to regularly display under former Everton manager, Rafa Benitez (ahem.) That goes for the fans, as well. Sometimes life is flashing lights and confetti and sometimes you just have to go to work. This was enough to get three points and three goals. That’s good enough for the state we find ourselves in.
Liverpool 3 – 0 Brentford
Yeah, I mean, just look at that diagram. We got six decent-to-really-good chances and scored on three of them. That’s not brilliant, but it’s not horrible, either; thus, the xG of 3.5 to goals scored of 3. To his credit, Fernández did make a couple excellent saves, including one against Virg off a corner in the first half that he recovered well from a dive in order to make (Liverpool fan and Brentford forward, Ivan Toney, was also there to try to save the goal.) The Bees had some real trouble with set piece defense, as the majority of our corners were genuine threats to their existence and it eventually paid off two minutes to halftime. They were also called offside seven times so, again, it’s not like it was boring to watch and they weren’t just camping out in their box and hoping to run to daylight only every 20 minutes or so. On Liverpool’s end, that translated to 27(!) shots, 13 of them on target. 11 different players took a shot and 9 of them put at least one of them on target, which is, uh, unusual.
I mean, that’s a baseball stat, yo. But, still, it is emblematic of just how dominant Liverpool was in this match. Most of that came out of complete control of the middle third (you know, the area where Brentford tries to gain an advantage with their normal 3-5-2?) Central (ahem) to that effort was Fabinho:
Who comes in third for passing accuracy with 92%? But, yeah, obviously, Fab was MotM for the almost total control he had over Brentford’s occasional sorties forward, as well as contributing a huge amount to the offensive effort. That’s three goals in his last three matches. That whole “false 6” thing is working out exactly as planned. It was also amusing to hear Brentford’s fans singing “You’ll never play for England!” at Trent Alexander-Arnold right before he delivered the corner for his 10th PL assist of the season, making him the league leader. And speaking of assists:
That was Andy Robertson’s sixth in the league this season and you simply can’t drop a ball on someone’s head any better than that. That was the high point of an excellent game for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as he adapted well to his old winger spot that he played with the Gunners and looked like he had his feet under him in an attacking role better than at any point so far this year… which, of course, given his awful luck, was why he went off injured two minutes after this goal with a pretty bad-looking bend of the ankle. There are points when you might consider yourself cursed. Time for a long conversation with Naby Keita, perhaps. But another of our guys with a consistently good run (literally) of form this season has been Joel Matip:
We’ve all seen how Joel’s Adventures have turned up more and more often this season and have been far longer than usual; going right into the opposition box where before he’d drop it off well before that. This time he not only drove into the box but took a solo shot, as well. His footwork and ball handling have always been excellent for a man of his size, but he doesn’t really need the “man of his size” conditional any longer. He’s just an excellent dribbler (or The Dribbler, as Virg calls him) and consistently beats take-ons outside our box and outside the opponent’s. He’s always been good, but this season has been a level above what we’ve seen in the past. He’s challenging for the close control reputation of Roberto Firmino, who demonstrated again why he’s so good:
That’s a goal or assist for Bob every 79 minutes this season, for those thinking he’s past it. The replay misses most of the play, but that third goal was a perfect example of LFC’s front line knowing how to press as a unit. It’s all well and good to be harassing people in the final third to get the ball back. Indeed, that’s Jürgen Klopp’s raison d’etre in football, more or less. But when you do it in coordinated fashion alongside other players, it becomes as effective as you see here. Granted, Fernández made a really poor decision with the ball, but he did so because of what was happening to either side of him. Takumi Minamino dove in on Ethan Pinnock at the same time that Diogo Jota was advancing on Pontus Jansson. Taki continued after Pinnock gave the ball back to the keeper by staying in his passing lane back to Pinnock while Diogo kept Jansson contained by the end line. That gave Fernández no choice but to take the worst option, which was sending a short pass right up the middle to Christian Nørgaard. Bob anticipated that, intercepted it, and then played the game of “No, you score!” with Taki. Granted, I say “no choice” about the keeper’s decision, but that’s only if you’re determined to play the ball out from the back. What he probably should’ve done was just hoof it downfield and lived with the Reds retaining possession in Brentford’s end of the pitch, rather than give up the third goal that definitely ended the match, which had effectively been over for quite some time already.
Another small note about the neighbors. As most people knew last night and everyone found out “officially” during the match, Everton have parted ways with Rafa Benitez. It’s funny how much of a case example our nearest rivals (geographically) have been as a contrast to what FSG have accomplished at our club. But the rot goes much, much deeper than the current squad or whomever the manager has been or will be. Farhad Moshiri has spent ridiculous amounts of money on a very average PL squad, paying them absurd salaries and getting little back in the way of success. He’s done this, in part, because he thinks he’s a genius and his cohorts in the board room (like Bill Kenwright) have similarly inflated opinions of their own acumen. This has come to light when agents have complained anonymously to various news outlets about how they literally have to speak to six different people to get a deal done. Then, when Moshiri has taken a shine to someone, they’d suddenly show up at the door, despite former director of football, Marcel Brands, having no interest. They ostensibly brought Rafa in to “overhaul” the club and, in true Rafa “not a man manager” fashion, he wasted little time, forcing out Brands, their chief of scouting (which was probably a good thing) and most of their medical staff. He also managed to alienate one of their better players in Lucas Digne, whom the club sold off to another PL club because of that estrangement, and then followed literally three days later by firing the manager who encouraged the sale. On top of all that, they were up against FFP limits because of Moshiri’s other new toys (James Rodriguez, anyone?) and will still be hampered by them next summer. Pile the sudden departure of “long-term” manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and the steady injury problems they’ve suffered on top of all that and you can’t possibly have more of a clownshow than what Everton are right now. Rumor has it they’re trying to bring back Roberto Martinez at their seventh(!) manager of the last five seasons; probably because they think he “gets Everton” in supposed total contrast to the “enemy” that was Rafa from the red side of town. When you think about what our ownership has accomplished in the past decade and still think critically, it doesn’t hurt to keep the neighbors in mind.
So, just another day at the office. Brentford is beginning to experience what Leeds has been (trying to play in the PL with Championship talent) but I still think their approach to the game and their club, in general, may be sounder. Thursday is the annoying second leg for the WITSBP cup at Arsenal (I’ll write something about the dreary first leg then) and then we’re at Palace in a week.