Most English commentators love the “magic of the FA Cup” thing, even if that magic has been less in evidence over the past 20 years than it was before then. With the diminishment of the domestic cups in terms of importance for European play and, of course, money, the compulsion to really compete for them is less than in the days of yore, when the FA Cup was often seen as a higher achievement than winning the league. What keeps the “magic” theme alive is the idea that one of the smaller clubs can somehow go on a run like Portsmouth in 2008 or Wigan in 2013 and take the national trophy away from its expected landing spot at one of the Big Six or other top tier location. The problem is that said idea is a pretty rare bird, given that in this century, other than those two “little guys” the winner has been Leicester City once, Man City twice, Liverpool twice, ManU twice, Chelsea five times, and Arsenal seven times. Despite the valiant efforts by clubs like Middlesbrough to make ManU look like they’re on an equitable level, the truth is that the gap between the top tier and the rest of the pyramid is wider than ever.
What that leads to is a lot of games like the first half today, where Cardiff City packed it in and basically dared Liverpool to play the game (85% possession at one point, with seven times the number of passes for the Reds late in the match.) Like usual in these situations, we tried to keep the game moving and had a couple good looks, most notably Diogo Jota’s reception of a pass from Naby Keita in the box and nice turn that ended with a shot directly at Dillon Phillips, Cardiff’s keeper. But it was mostly a slog, with the commentators later crowing about what the Bluebirds “had done” to us. If that meant trying to bore both our players and everyone watching to death, then mission accomplished. It’s a generally English trait to look on these situations something like the RAF defending against the Blitz. It doesn’t really accomplish anything constructive, but it keeps the window open for possibilities later. But as soon as Diogo put in the opening goal off another of his brilliant headers from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s delivery, the picture changed, and Cardiff had to actually, you know, play football. At that point, the game became both interesting and the difference in skill between the two sides rapidly became even more evident than it already had been. This is where the argument comes out that this is the way these smaller clubs have to play in order to have a chance. Of course, it doesn’t make for something entertaining to watch, which is the original point of the whole exercise, and we start realizing that the Super League types weren’t completely lacking a point. But that’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down today.
In the end, Diogo did what Diogo does, Taki Minamino continued his excellent cup scoring run off a nice feed from newcomer, Luis Diaz, and Harvey Elliott scored one of the prettiest first-ever goals for the club you’re likely to see. Because Cardiff was compelled to come out and play by the scoreboard, the second half turned from what had been a slog into a pretty entertaining game, which contributed to the visitors’ own visit to that scoreboard on a nice counterattacking goal off a mistaken exchange between James Milner, Robot Warrior and Roberto Firmino. So, plenty of upside as we await the return of some of the regular starters, although as noted last time, it’s not like we’ve been hurting in their absence, which is again a sign of the depth that the squad has built up over the last couple seasons. In this case, definitely a cup (more than) half-full.
Liverpool 3 – 1 Cardiff City
That’s a 2.39 xG vs 0.15, which again speaks to the way that both sides were attempting to “play” the game. Granted, yes, one could say that Cardiff is currently struggling to avoid relegation from the Championship, as they sit 20th, but they’re also nine points above the drop, given Peterborough’s inability to play at that level, Derby’s points deduction, and Barnsley’s utter implosion from their form of the past couple years. So, no, Cardiff are not competitive with a PL side, but most people would’ve thought that sixth tier Kidderminster Harriers wouldn’t have to be felled by not one, but two, literally last-minute goals by West Ham. Kidderminster played the Hammers up and down the field for that whole match and held the lead for the vast majority of it. It is feasible. But, yeah, it’s hard to compete when you’re staring down the MotM today:
He just keeps producing, especially with his head (running tally for the season is: 6 left, 4 right, 5 head), which is kind of ridiculous given his relatively small size when bashing around in the box against at least a pair of centerbacks. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the delivery was spot-on, as Trent picked up his 15th assist of the season, still leading the PL.
It seems mildly ridiculous to keep saying “And he’s a right back”, especially since we often get the same service from the left side, as Andy Robertson also picked up his 10th with his delivery to Harvey Elliott.
First game back after five months out with a devastating injury and he still showed everything that has Jürgen Klopp (and every other Red) so excited about what he can bring to the squad. And, of course, he’s still only 18. That goal deserves to be replayed, of course:
Great delivery, great first touch, the patience to let it drop into the perfect position, and then the power and control to not give the keeper a chance. Pretty solid for his first goal for the club. And speaking of firsts:
Not an overwhelming stat line, but nice to see Jürgen having so much faith in him to drop him into a match after being in Liverpool for all of four days. Luis showed exactly why we pursued him, as well, since Porto also plays a high pressing style and he stepped right into his role and showed off the determination which makes him what he is:
The debate on the assist is apparently ongoing, as at one point Twitter was declaring that Opta had given it to him but the real arbiter is the FA. Neither WhoScored nor Transfermarkt are recording it, so we’ll have to assume the assist actually goes to Diogo for almost blocking the pass(!) Luis is the first Colombian to play for the Reds and should, if there were any sanity in the world, put the transfer window warriors to bed for a while. But you could still see a big chunk of the respondents to the club account’s tweets being people making jokes about John Henry losing his wallet. At this point, it’s not about whether we actually spent money. It’s just about them being so determined to not be proven wrong that reality is ignored so they can “win” an argument on social media.
Otherwise it was mostly business as usual, with a few hiccups along the way. As noted, Cardiff’s goal came from what was basically a difference in the way two players approach the game. Bob was probably expecting a more refined exchange while Millie is more direct in application these days. With him at the six, when the exchange went awry, he just wasn’t fast enough to run his man down. In similar straits, Curtis Jones had a decent game, but he also tended to slow play down in the final third and didn’t provide a whole lot in terms of chances created or shooting, as all three of his efforts were way off target. One cheap excuse could have been the state of the pitch, which was the worst I’ve seen it at Anfield in quite some time. I haven’t been paying attention to Liverpool weather recently, so I don’t know if that’s part of it, but after a couple days of rolling my eyes at the condition of lower tier surfaces, I’m just going to stop talking about that subject for the moment, even internally. In addition to that, the crowd was pretty somnolent for most of the match. Yes, it was a lower tier opponent in the FA Cup, but this has become a bit of a trend in recent outings at Anfield, as the crowd becomes frustrated with whomever is parking the bus and just mutters about our inability to get past it. This is not the legendary atmosphere that once made our home incredibly daunting to most opponents. Granted, the team also didn’t charge them up for a while, since they came out flat as they do after almost every international break and couldn’t even get past the middle third for the first few minutes, to say nothing of the final. Anyway, 3-1 win and we move on.
The crowd may be needed for Thursday’s match against the Fightin’ Leicesters, although they did just bow out of the FA Cup with a housing by vague rival Nottingham Forest. But the 1-0 loss to them in December has to be one of the most frustrating results of the season, so maybe Jürgen can light a little fire under the squad, which they really shouldn’t need, since it’s now win out or accept that City has won the title again. Anyway, three days after that we have to go to Turf Moor so, yay.