Have you ever hammered sheet metal? I remember the first time I met the father of one of my old roommates, Wendy. We had driven up to her parents’ house in Clarkston and we pulled around to the back of the driveway where her dad, Chuck, was hammering out a piece of sheet metal with a sledgehammer on a 93-degree July day. He was doing this because his daughter’s boyfriend’s car had a hole in the floor. (For those of you who didn’t grow up with Michigan winters and Michigan salt, this could happen quite regularly with older cars.) Not his daughter’s car. Her boyfriend’s. For this, he was risking heat stroke and going through a pretty grueling activity which never seems to really be making progress for the longest time. And then, suddenly, things start to shift. Those indentations start to coalesce into something noticeable. That piece of metal begins to take shape in the form that you want it to take. It changes from a teeth-gritting exercise in frustration to appreciating the effort that it took to get you there. That’s how I occasionally feel about our games against sides much less talented than the current version of West Ham United. And, appropriately, hammering sheet metal was the thought that came to mind when we were playing, y’know… the Hammers.
The respectful word to describe a David Moyes team is something like “obdurate.” I usually opt for something less complimentary, like “tedious”, but that’s mostly because Moyes was with Everton for so long and there’s really no more tedious club, fan base, or squad than the Bitters. OK, maybe Stoke, back in the day. But there’s no way to argue against the fact that Moyes has built a squad that is very far from tedious and, in fact, can play some pretty attractive football. They’re also seriously competitive and, given the fact that we’ve taken a loss and had to grind out a 1-0 win in our two matches against them this season, I can make just as solid an argument for them taking the fourth Champions League spot in the league as I can any of the other half of the Big Six that are likewise contending for it. That’s not a set of somethings (“contending”, “competitive”, “attractive”, “Champions League”) that one could normally say about West Ham in recent years. In just the time I’ve been supporting Liverpool, I’ve seen West Ham relegated five times and struggling to stay up in many other seasons. Barring a period in the late 90s under Harry Redknapp, the Hammers have never been what you’d consider a threat to the status of the acknowledged big kids on the Premier League block. But that’s changed.
This was the first match in which Mo Salah has failed to score against West Ham since his arrival in 2017. Indeed, he was boxed out on the right so often that Jürgen finally swapped him out for Diogo Jota in the hopes of securing that second goal that would put the match on ice. Even the best players can have off days. But you can also pay attention to what happens off the ball and remember that the reason players get regularly selected is a compilation of a lot of little things. Something like repeated blows to a piece of steel. It was a challenging game because West Ham made it challenging. But, as we’ve seen repeatedly, this Liverpool squad is able to shift gears and grind through these situations that are now defining our PL season. Every match is a cup final. Every swing to that sheet of metal changes it just a little bit. Eventually, it will get the shape that we want it to be in. Hopefully, that shape will be another trophy.
Liverpool 1 – 0 West Ham United
In some degree of contrast to what I was just saying about West Ham affirming their place in the competition at the top of the league, there’s really only one competition of note at the top, which is between the Reds and Manchester City. Opta highlighted that this morning:
If you click through that tweet to their page, you’ll see not only that City and LFC are on top of most of the stats proffered, offensive and defensive, but that some of them are genuinely exceptional. Claims were being tossed around from various corners that, over the past four seasons, these may be the two best teams of the Premier League era, based on point accumulation and other statistical analyses. From my own vantage point, I can say that I’ve been watching Liverpool for over 40 years and, barring maybe a couple points in the late 80s, I don’t remember seeing a squad this complete and dominant against almost any opposition. One of the best ways to measure that quality on the offensive side is looking at whether we’re outperforming our xG. There’s a lot of luck involved in the game of football and if you are significantly overperforming- measured by whether your actual number of goals drastically exceeds your expected number of goals -you can usually be sure that you’ll revert to the mean at some point in the season. But we’re overperforming by less than three goals (i.e. we’ve scored two more than the xG model thinks we should have), as is City.
Defensively, we are a little weaker than City, but I’m of the opinion that it has little to do with the fabled “high line” that we play. Commentators love to gush about how that makes us vulnerable but the xG against isn’t drastically out of line, either, and the only difference in total goals between the two sides is from set piece play, which could easily be a randomness check. To that point, no matter how much people want to talk about chances created by the opposition, as you can see from Understat’s diagram above, we still had the better ones for this match and we’ve only given up 5 goals in our last 14 matches, so clearly the “high line” (which we’ve been using for, oh, 5 seasons now…) is working, since it enhances the offense and doesn’t present that much risk to the defense.
To that point about perception, we add MotM Trent Alexander-Arnold. The popular take is that Trent is exceptional on the offensive end (obvsly) but that he “can’t defend.” I think a fair number of teams come down the right side because of that. But defending is about more than just raw stats. As Jürgen was saying after the match: “Absolutely I don’t understand [the criticism.] If he couldn’t defend, he wouldn’t play. His defending is not a problem.” For some reason, I’ll take the opinion of the manager and my own eyes over the Reddit memes. As the wonderful Peter Drury said yesterday: “There’s no route past 66.” With the assist for Sadio Mané’s goal, Trent also exceeded his personal best of 15 in a season. We’re only in the first few days of March. It also equals Steven Gerrard’s best, which he did in three different seasons, just to drop a name of another guy from Liverpool.
That’s not to neglect the other side of the field, as this was an excellent game for Andy Robertson, as well, who made key contributions, including a goal-saving tackle on Jared Bowen in the second half. It’s true that much of the attacking impetus has come from the right side in recent months and the combination of Trent, Captain Jordan Henderson, and Mo is probably the best when we think about lanes of players along the pitch. But the combo of Andy, Naby Keita, and Sadio often works just as well, especially in terms of retrieving, retaining, and recycling the ball. That’s why it’s a little irritating to keep seeing Sadio in the middle, where he’s great at doing that retrieval/retention part of Roberto Firmino’s job, but not quite as good at the distribution part. The upside to yesterday’s lineup, of course, was that it still included Luis Diaz, who is lightning-in-a-bottle on the attacking end and covers a lot of ground to get back on defense, as well.
Speaking of Naby, as one of his occasional critics, I have to say that he played really well yesterday. He had 71 touches, gave up the ball 3 times, but regained it 9 times and created 2 chances. That’s a proper assumption of the Gini Wijnaldum role, which is exactly what we want with Hendo charging forward on the right side. Like Robbo, he also made a crucial stop during one of Michail Antonio’s rushes into the box. All I’ve ever really asked for from Naby is consistency. Right now, he seems to be reaching it. And, yeah, about Luis…
“He looks like a Liverpool player already!”
It’s always about the money. There’s been a lot of talk about finances in recent days since Liverpool released their books. (Thread from Swiss Ramble.) The long and short of it is that we’re doing really well, even with the impact from the pandemic. The Nike deal seems to be working out just as planned (less money up front, but more money in the long-term.) We’re also poised to overtake Manchester United for total revenue in this season, depending on how both clubs do in the Champions League, since the current gap is just £7 million. Considering that it was £217 million just four years ago, that’s a pretty significant shift. Of course, something else that people took from Swiss Ramble’s thread is how Man City, which was the definition of an afterthought in the PL a little over a decade ago, is now making significantly more revenue than their massive neighbor…
The Nerrazzurri are in town on Tuesday, as we continue the late season run of playing every three days. We’ll also find out whom we’re playing in the FA Cup on Monday (either Huddersfield Town or Nottingham Forest), which will happen two weeks from yesterday. And then it’s on the road at Brighton next Saturday. Whee.