There’s a simple fact that’s going to color everything we do in the Premier League from here on out: It’s the winter international break and we’re nine points back of the most expensive side in the game’s history, albeit with a game in hand. The gray sky above Selhurst Park is the same color that’s going to hang over everything until that gap gets closed to a more reasonable distance, if it does. Consequently, the only way to approach this scenario is the fabled “one game at a time.” Take care of business in each match, do your jobs, and see where things end up. It’s one of the beautiful things about football and other sports (like ice hockey’s regular season) that use a point system to determine a champion. Every game does matter until circumstances are a mathematical certainty. Every opponent has to be treated with respect if we’re going to climb back into the race and keep things from going all Bundesliga-like. Nowhere was that more evident than on the pitch yesterday, when we comprehensively outplayed Crystal Palace in the first half (described by Jürgen Klopp as the “best football we’ve played this season”) and then were under constant assault in the second. Anyone who’d seen the first 35 minutes might have imagined that this was going to turn into a mirror of the last time we played at Selhurst: a 7-0 laugher that could’ve been much worse. But this is a very different Palace under a very different manager.
In fact, this match was the conclusion of a stretch that everyone before the season looked at with some degree of trepidation, given that we’d be without three of our most effective offensive players in Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, and Naby Keita. We also ended up without Thiago Alcãntara, Divock Origi, and Harvey Elliott for that same stretch, any of whom could’ve been looked at as a potential contributor to cover the gap left by our AFCON players. In the end, we ended up with 4 wins, 1 draw, and a place in a cup final, putting us in similar circumstances to the “group of death” we were supposedly part of for this year’s Champions League. We did it with the on-fire Diogo Jota, the seemingly returned-to-form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the everpresent Roberto Firmino, plus the rocks that are Fabinho, Captain Jordan Henderson, and Curtis Jones. To all of the transfer window warriors, insistent that we’d have to spend money to cover the gap… not so much, eh?
But, again, that’s not to say that we’re in cruise control; just as we shouldn’t have been during this match. After the first half hour, Palace took the game to us and we had trouble trying to keep up with their collection of young talent. In that respect, the man-of-the-match was an easy pick, as Alisson Becker stood in the way of this three points becoming one or even zero. Jürgen told him after the match: “Thanks for saving our ass again!” Alisson’s simple reply: “It’s my job.” Do your job, take care of business, and see what happens. The keeper is spot on and that’s what everyone is going to have to do all the way to June. The old saying is that fortune favors the bold, but it also tends to favor the reliable.
Crystal Palace 1 – 3 Liverpool
For once, I substantively disagree with Caley Graphics’ method here. No, I’m not arguing that Palace didn’t have the better chances. They absolutely did and it’s a tribute, once again, to the skill of Alisson that they were almost completely foiled. What I’m arguing is that their estimation for the likelihood of Virgil Van Dijk scoring from his position on the corner should have been much higher. It’s not about a scenario where if he had been properly marked, the goal was unlikely (Newsflash to future opponents: You should probably mark Virgil in the box.) xG is supposed to be a measure of shot quality, positioning, and the quality of the chance. With a wide open header in the box and a cross delivered right to his head, there was basically no way that he wouldn’t score from there. That should have left our xG at something a little over 1. But, whatevs. It wasn’t quite a smash-and-grab, but it wouldn’t have been surprising at all if we’d lost the match. Howevah, one thing that wouldn’t have resulted in us losing or drawing the match is the penalty called for the foul on Diogo by Palace keeper, Vincent Guaita.
Let’s get one thing clear: it was a pretty soft call. Yes, Guaita made contact that inhibited Diogo from playing the ball, but since he didn’t have control of the ball in the first place, it’s an open question whether he would’ve been able to regain it that close to the end line. On the other hand, Guaita didn’t play the ball, but instead just slid into Diogo, which should always be a penalty. And, besides, when we’re talking about soft penalties, if things like this are called:
Then, yeah, we’re getting that call every day. This doesn’t even include the fact that we’re among the lowest of the big clubs (i.e. the ones that play offensive football consistently) in penalties called for us in the past five seasons, despite leading the league in all but one of those seasons in touches in the opposing box. Like, say, this one:
We’ve also led the league in the number of VAR decisions denying a goal for the past three years running. Of course, talking about poor VAR decisions and comparing the penalty called for Diogo against Palace and ignored against Spurs just emphasizes the main problem which is the quality of the officiating in the Premier League. None of it, of course, alters the fact that we were still leading 2-1 when the penalty against Palace was called in the 89th minute. Funny how the game was inevitably doomed if that call wasn’t made.
In another of those little ironies, it’s also funny that, despite playing that “best of the season” form in the first half, the reason that Alisson was MotM was because of his excellent performance in the second half when things had all gone a bit downhill for our heroes. I’m kind of waiting for a great piece from Matt Pyzdrowski on The Athletic, detailing all the little shifts and adjustments Alisson had to make to keep Jean-Philippe Mateta and Michael Olise from overrunning the box. One adjustment that was obvious that led to him palming away an attempted chip over his head from Olise in the second half was getting his feet moving backwards as soon as he saw the Palace forward approach the ball. Without that, he almost certainly doesn’t get there in time and we’re tied up heading to the All-Important Penalty. Further outfield, Andy Robertson put his stamp on the game:
That’s “3rd in PL assists behind Mo (9) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (10)” so, yeah, I ‘m thinking offense isn’t the problem. You can add 5 recoveries, 9 crosses, and 25 of those 59 passes happening in the final third to that list. But we have to take notice of Diogo, too.
Again, he’s now fully adapted to our style of play, as he drops as readily as Bob, Sadio, and Mo do to defend and has become much more effective at it, which hasn’t detracted from his offensive output at all. Squawka dug up an interesting stat that, since the beginning of last season, he’s the only player who has scored 6+ goals with each of the usual body parts: 7 right foot, 6 left foot, 6 head. He also has the best non-penalty xG per 90 in the league.
But there were a number of solid performances yesterday, among them being Ox scoring in consecutive league matches for the first time in almost two years; Fabinho continuing his masterful play in the middle (and making a charge for Mo’s penalty kick slot; Fab is our leading scorer for 2022); Virg being Virg, as well as topping the scoring charts for defenders (12) in the league since he made his Liverpool debut; and Bob just being Bob. He won more duels and aerial duels than anyone else for LFC in the first half and also initiated the play that led to the second goal with a smart pass from the far right wing. All of that led to our longest win streak (10) against another top flight side in the club’s history. In the end, a pretty solid January and not a peep from the transfer window warriors, strangely.
Now we’re stuck with almost two weeks of nothing as we wait for our FA Cup fourth round match with Cardiff City. Most of the players could probably use the time off, but it seems like we’re on a run here and I’d hate to see the usual post-break malaise set in. Nothing to do but keep working, I guess.