Clearly, I have never taken the WITSBP cup that seriously; to the extent that I didn’t even bother to do a full game writeup after the first leg against Arsenal because of the absolutely dreary nature of that match. At the time, it was the sixth match this season where Liverpool had played with a man advantage. We’ve been able to score from open play in only one of those games and the first leg was no different. We spent 70+ minutes against a literally outmanned Arsenal side and ended up going to the second leg with it being anyone’s tie, at 0-0. It has to be said that, in a majority of those matches, we’ve been leading already and haven’t really needed to press that issue, but still. And, of course, it wasn’t really anyone’s tie because even though we once again went up a man and still didn’t score in the subsequent time, we still won 2-0 and are on our way to our 13th League Cup final (more than anyone else in the competition’s history) because we simply have the deeper and better squad.
Of course, the hilarious side note to this is that both squads have been impacted by AFCON absences, although ours are far more pertinent, and Arsenal even got a boost when Thomas Partey returned from Ghana’s surprise ousting in the group stage. Eight hours after returning to London, he was available on the Gunners’ bench. Within the space of two minutes, he was walking to the dressing room after two yellow card-worthy fouls in only 15 minutes on the pitch. Since it was Martin Atkinson blowing the whistle, you know they were serious fouls, too (the second one could’ve been a straight red.) That’s, uh, 14(!) red cards issued since Mikel Arteta took over as manager, which is six more than any other club in the PL have gotten in that time. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to suggest that Arteta is a “dirty” manager, but the lack of discipline on his watch, on both the offensive and defensive ends, is a certainty. Combine that with the outrage by Gooner fans over Liverpool delaying the first leg from what seemed to be multiple positive COVID tests, only to be followed by Arsenal doing the same thing for their match against Tottenham last weekend for one positive test and it has to be said that the club seems to have fallen a long way since the time of Gentleman Arsene Wenger and not just based on the results. Be careful what you wish for and all that…
In contrast, this will be our seventh cup final in seven years under Jürgen Klopp and the second time we’ve reached the WITSBP cup final, so… yay? At this stage, the more important thing than the nature of the competition is that it gives the boys a trophy to play for. Come the end of the season, I’m not going to deem it a successful one just because we won the League Cup. But players like to win trophies and this is one of them and I just want them to win every game they play so, there it is. Another good thing is that it gave more playing time to Curtis Jones upon his return from injury, more playing time for Kaide Gordon to increase the chance of him being a regular in the squad, and kept the squad in rhythm for the game this weekend against Palace and before (yet another… sigh) international break, whereupon all of our AFCON absentees should be back and ready to finish out the CL and PL seasons (Oh, yeah, and the other national cup.) All of those are (ahem) genuine positives to take away from this.
Arsenal 0 – 2 Liverpool
And speaking of absent players, almost no one on the squad is filling that absence better than one of their front line compatriots in Diogo Jota.
We all have long since realized he was kind of a steal at the price we got him from Wolves last season, but he’s just piling on now. So far this season he’s scoring a goal every 138 minutes and he nearly had an assist tonight if Kaide had been able to keep his wide-open shot down. That first goal was remarkably slow, but also an indicator of how much respect Diogo has earned by making Aaron Ramsdale commit to his position early and then not being able to get to the ball. Diogo also did all of the above in just 40 touches, which rather easily made him MotM. But, no, the assists came from the usual suspect:
That’s 15 assists on the season now and 43 since he became a regular starter in ’17-’18. In that span of time, it leaves him only 4 behind some guy named “Messi”, whoever that is. But the most important part of the above list may be a facet I usually deride, which is the “not dribbled past.” I find that aspect to the game kind of spurious and circumstantial, but it deserves some highlight here, not just because of the “can’t defend” label that continues to follow Trent Alexander-Arnold around, in spite of visual and statistical evidence to the contrary, but also because commentators, including those tonight, continue to play right into that false analysis. They were babbling on about how Gabriel Martinelli was “giving Trent all sorts of problems” by latching on to Route 1 balls from Arsenal and pushing forward. There’s no doubt that Martinelli is a great player, but Trent dispossessed him multiple times tonight and generally kept him pushed wide, which is exactly what a fullback is supposed to do to the opposing forward. The other thing to keep in mind is that most clubs aren’t willing to go that route (literally) because Mo Salah is on the pitch and their forwards have to help keep him contained. 17-year-old Kaide isn’t quite at the threat level yet, so Trent had to change up his positioning a bit. That said, as you can see from the table above, he was still the second-greatest offensive threat of the game.
Similarly (Scousimilarly?), Curtis had a great game tonight, fulfilling the Gini role and adding a bit more offense to it. The best part is his movement off the ball, which leaves him in position to both defend and turn those moments into attacks, which is the definition of the universal midfielder that every side wants. There were a couple opportunities in the box that simply didn’t come off, but those continue to be great signs for a player who’s only three years older than Kaide.
But there were a number of great performances tonight, like Roberto Firmino excelling at the false 9, including a slick backheel that fed the ball to Trent to get to Diogo for the first goal, and Fabinho, who has continued to be masterful at the 6 and showed up a couple more nice offensive touches today to accompany his recent flurry of scores. He also made a brilliant toe-touch tackle on Martinelli who’d broken into the box in the first half and was about to be in a 1v1 with Caoimhin Kelleher. Mention has to be made of Andy Robertson, as well, who has been on fire since his return from his suspension and was so for this 200th appearance for the Reds tonight. And speaking of the keeper, who did this in the first half:
further justifying the manager’s decision to start him in goal. He was steady as ever. The only really questionable performance was by the first leg’s absolute star, Joel Matip, who was having trouble passing the ball with his usual precision. Jürgen actually subbed him off at the half for Ibrahima Konaté, which is something that almost never happens (to any player, much less one of our starting CBs), so there is some background concern that he might’ve picked up an injury and was attempting to play through it.
We’re at Palace on Sunday and then we’re devoid of action until February 6th, when we take on Cardiff in the next round of the other cup. The hope is that both Sadio Mané, Mo, and Naby Keita have returned by then, and that Thiago Alcãntara has recovered so that all are ready to push on in both leagues. I leave you with with another of Ibrahima’s anime statements on the results: