One of the complaints about the squad since Jürgen Klopp arrived was the lack of depth, especially on the front line. If Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, and/or Roberto Firmino were absent, the dropoff in skill level was usually obvious. This, of course, fails to explain some of the most famous wins in recent history, like the 4-0 over Barcelona, where both Bob and Mo were missing and were covered by Divock Origi (eternally rooted to the bench or transfer rumors) and Xherdan Shaqiri (now with the Chicago Fire after a remarkably brief stay with Lyon.) In the end, both of them contributed significantly to that and several other wins (Origi against Newcastle and Tottenham that season, Wolverhampton this season; Shaqiri against ManU and Leicester in successive seasons; etc.) so it may be a case of exaggeration on the part of most Liverpool supporters. In other words, things may have been better than we thought. It took an injury crisis of almost unprecedented scope last year to push us to select a 24-year-old journeyman (Nat Phillips) and a 19-year-old rookie (Rhys Williams) for the last quarter of the season. But that, too, turned out better than most expected. Certainly, many of those who bewail the club’s lack of depth (e.g. lack of spending in the transfer market) are also those who complain about the fact that players nailed to the bench don’t see the field as often as those transfer window warriors would like. There’s an old adage in American football in that the most talented player on the team is always the backup quarterback, but you can’t have it both ways and be reasonable about it.
But now we’ve reached a point where we could have serious, reasonable arguments about the lineup in multiple areas of the pitch. Is Bob’s link-up play more important than Diogo Jota’s scoring prowess or less so? Luis Díaz has had a remarkable opening to his Liverpool career and Sadio has had some hiccups. Is that an argument for the former’s inclusion over the latter? Is Thiago Alcãntara’s presence the key to performance by the midfield or is it Naby Keita? How about Fabinho or Captain Jordan Henderson? Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip have been rock solid this season, but what about Joe Gomez, Virg’s preferred partner from the title-winning season and the early part of last year before both were injured? We’ve gone past the usual backup QB argument of “The current guy sucks. Let’s try the other guy.” because none of our guys “suck”. They’re all actually great at what they do. The only mystery is who will be key in our finishing the season with real trophies. Or is it?
The problem that most people complained about, erroneously or not, was a lack of depth. Now, we have that depth in greater abundance than I think anyone anticipated; maybe even Jürgen. It is, as they always say, a very nice problem to have when you’re spoiled for choice. It allows the manager to make selections not based on necessity, but on preference, current form, and individual matchups, albeit with the understanding that our system, being much like the Dutch totaalvoetbal, relies less on individual performance than it does the collective ability to operate as a unit. That, in fact, is what may have ameliorated the perceived depth issues in the past. But now those depth issues are a thing of that past and, as long as we avoid any major injury crises like last season (fingers crossed), we have more than enough talent on this squad to actually compete at top level in all four of the contests that we’re currently engaged in. That’s why we can talk about trying to chase down Manchester City without having to reserve our energy for the seemingly more attainable cup competitions along the way. The main bone of contention with City is that their unlimited oil money, whether directly from Sheikh Mansour or the proliferation of fake businesses they’ve built up to disguise it, allowed them to field what was essentially two complete Premier League starting XIs. Now we can basically do the same. Guess maybe it’s time to get those shelves dusted off again.
Liverpool 2 – 0 Leicester City
I’m using Understat’s graphic because Caley is failing me these days. Part of the reason I stick to Caley is that I think their diagrams make it easier to see what actually happened (different-sized blocks as opposed to a mix of symbols) and because, when comparing the data from multiple sources, I think Understat tends to (ahem) underplay the gap in results. The other numbers I’ve seen have showed us around 3.36-3.45 for this match, with the Leicesters from .39 to .43, which seems closer to what actually appeared on my TV, for as much as numbers and qualitative analysis can have a “feel” to them, as opposed to actual data. xG, of course, is still far from a definitive formula. What was far more definitive was the way said goals were scored.
Strikers often get denigrated by being referred to as a “poacher” or someone who doesn’t create his own shots. But what makes some strikers great is their movement off the ball, which is something that MotM Diogo is particularly adept at. He knew that Virg was going to try to get free (which he did off an excellent pick delivered by Fabinho and not because Wilfred Ndidi left him unmarked, as it may have appeared) and charged the net in anticipation of a fortunate bounce, which is exactly what he got. In the same way, he kept himself available in front of the goal during the scramble in the box in front of the Kop long enough for Joel to deliver a great pass to him. But the fact is that Diogo is also an excellent dribbler and has great control with both feet and head (hence, the most touches in the box noted above), so he’s more than capable of meeting that mythical “self-created shot” status, as well.
And speaking of great dribblers, you can number Luis among them. He had the most successful dribbles (8) of anyone on the pitch tonight and looked like he’d been playing with us for months and not less than a week. Two of those successful duels were in the air, too. There were a couple moments when he could’ve started a run a step earlier, but he’ll get there as he begins to trust Virg to deliver those long balls down the left side in the same way he always does to Sadio. That comes with experience and time together. It’s a cliché to say that someone looks like “an X Club player” but, yeah, Luis already looks like a Liverpool player (Jürgen said so, as well) in only about a game-and-a-half of actual play. You could feel the envy seeping off fans of other clubs on r/soccer, usually accompanying a post like: “Liverpool has done it again.”
There’s a stat approaching meme status on Twitter, where people cite the fact that Fabinho and Thiago have “started  games together and Liverpool has won  and drawn .” Those numbers go up every time it happens, of course. My first response to that would be something like: “Sample size, yo.” because even at 10 games, you’re still not quite reaching the level of statistical trend. But there’s no denying their effectiveness alongside each other. Fabinho’s impact is probably understated in the above tweet (those 7 interceptions are the most by any player in a single match in the PL this season) but it’s also hard to argue with the skill of Thiago when he does things like:
Fab is almost never that flashy because he doesn’t need to be. But it certainly is pretty to watch and it shows up in heat map form, too:
You see that big green gap, laterally and longitudinally? Yeah. That’s where Fabinho is so that Thiago doesn’t have to be. But the point is that Thiago is everywhere because he can be. These are the matches where you understand Bayern fans’ raving about him as the technical master of their squad.
But let’s not overlook our leading assist man for the match, our false 32, Joel. I’ve talked before about his increased tendency to venture forward this season. In this case, that assist to Diogo came as a consequence of him being forward for a corner and our persistence in putting their goal under siege, but he’s among the leaders in progressive carries in the PL this season and while I used to look at his sorties with a bit of trepidation (What happens when he loses the ball? Who fills the gap?!), now I’m frequently talking to the screen and urging him to go even farther forward, because it’s clear that he can handle the ball and opponents are still not quite sure what to make of him when he’s closing in on their box.
And then there’s Mr. Consistency who still can’t defend, clearly. Plus, none of these tweets full of numbers acknowledge that this may have been Virgil’s best game of the season. I could’ve raved like this about everyone who stepped foot on the pitch tonight because they all performed like we expect them to and no one was the weak link. Again, that’s confirmation of that depth that may have been there all along, anyway, but now we know is definitively here.
Next up is (ugh) Turf Moor and the parked bus with driver, Ben Mee. They’re currently on the path to relegation, so this may be the last time we have the opportunity to visit scenic Lancashire for a few years (fingers crossed) so, y’know, let’s show up at Magee’s and see them off.