A decade ago, the picture was very different for Liverpool Football Club. As now, one of the primary concerns was money. (It’s always about the money.) We’d only barely escaped bankruptcy the season before, thanks to a timely email by an FSG staff member to principal owner, John Henry. Then we’d started that season in disastrous fashion under The Hodgson, only for King Kenny to ride to the rescue in as complete a fashion as was then possible. We meandered through the 2011-12 season, but the one real bright point was making it to the final of the FA Cup after beating Everton in the semifinal. That’s as far as we’ve gone in the tournament in all the seasons since, until today. Liverpool, of course, is a very different club these days and with a squad that’s completely changed, except for Captain Jordan Henderson, who arrived that year from Sunderland and has blossomed into one of the best captains the club has ever had.
This is kind of an oblique way of suggesting that everyone should treasure these moments because they don’t come around very often. That 18-year stretch in the 1970s and 80s where we routinely won the league and the domestic cups, leading to Wembley being known as “Anfield South”, are the glory days of yesteryear. But we’ve been living through another period like that in the last four years and are closing in on what could be our first domestic double (league and FA Cup) since 1989 and our first treble (or quadruple) ever. The only thing standing in the way of what could’ve been a replication of those prior decades are today’s opponents, the sportswashing front of a Persian Gulf emirate. When the lineups came out, there were some eyebrows raised at City’s list, since it included a number of players who aren’t deemed regular starters. Post-match, that led to some sour grapes on Twitter about how Liverpool had “barely scraped by” Man City’s “B team.” Of course, City’s “B team” that they put on the field cost £423 million. Our “A team” cost £380 million. So, what’s the more important point here? The fact that we finally have greater depth than the state-funded club? The fact that City’s “backups” are so good that they cost more than only one of our best lineups, which still demolished them in the first half before coasting home for the win? The fact that almost 1/4 of that cost for City was embodied in one player, Jack Grealish, who is the most expensive player in English league history but still deemed only good enough to be playing domestic cup games between occasional league outings?
There’s a lot to extract from that perspective, especially considering how few of those loyal Cityzens were actually present at Wembley to give voice to their disdain. But the final assessment is this: we’re going to the FA Cup final for the first time in a decade because we played a game that, frankly, did look like we were playing against a bunch of lesser players. (This may be duplicated on Tuesday when we play ManU, whose squad also massively exceeds ours in a financial sense…) After two draws against City in the league that seemed to indicate that the squads were evenly matched, this time there was no question who the better side was, no matter that us trying to close the game out in the late stages led to a scoreline that, quite frankly, flatters the blue side. It’s not to say that the Manchester club are a facade. They’re obviously quite talented and the obscene amount of money they’ve shelled out is a testament to that, unlike their neighbors. But I can’t help but wonder if it all begins to feel a bit hollow when said obscene lucre continues to not produce the trophy they desire above all others (the European Cup) and they have trouble even selling their allotment of tickets for another trophy.
A decade ago, we had no money and many of us were worried that we would no longer have a club or at least not one in the top division. City have all the money in the world but, as the booing during the moment of silence for the victims at Hillsborough today revealed, do they have a soul? I don’t use the term “sportswashing” lightly. It’s a marketing exercise, attempting to use success on the pitch as a way to generate interest in other parts of the UAE and distract from even more aspects. It’s a shell. A cover. Something that’s presented in a manner that suggests it is something other than what it first seems. A little over a decade ago, City was a very different club, too. But where we’ve gone back to the glory days and continue to represent something positive about the game, they’re something else. As much as I generally shrug my shoulders at both of the domestic cups, it’s perhaps better for the game when the marketing exercise isn’t the one sweeping them up all the time. There are other things in life than simply money. As Men in Blazers pointed out today: “Being a Liverpool fan looks so fun.” Remember these days.
Liverpool 3 – 2 Manchester City
Looking at the raw numbers, you’d think: “Yeah, that doesn’t look like a game that Liverpool dominated in the first half and then kinda saw out the win in the second.” and you’d be right. The xG numbers don’t present that picture because xG is concerned with one thing and one thing only: how good were your on-target shots and did actual goals result from any of them. You can have as many passes and as long as possession time as you like, but if those don’t result in goals, you’re ending up with a 0-0 draw, at best. (Which is, again, why I think xG is a great tool and an important number, but not the only number.) But the Reds did dominate that first half, to the point where it barely resembled any Liverpool-Man City game of recent memory, with the exception of the first half of the last time we played City in the Champions League quarterfinals in 2018, which was the last time anyone had put in 3 goals against them in the first half. Symmetry and history repeating itself; this rivalry can’t seem to escape them. But, seriously, that first half looked a lot like us playing Southampton or some other side that we have a significant talent edge on but whom still have to treated as a threat. The pressure on City was unceasing and you can see that in, say, Luiz Diaz’s first half numbers. Our left winger won the most duels (8), the most fouls (4), and had the most successful tackles (3) of anyone on the pitch. and a lot of that was enabled by this man:
All together now: This is the Thiago Alcãntara We Hoped We Were Getting™, although he’s been that so often for us this season that it’s probably safe to say that this is the Thiago we got, which is amazing, just like we’d hoped. As long as he can stay healthy, performances like this:
should continue to be regular occurrences, which can only be delightful for us and terrifying for every opponent. Despite the brilliance of the exchange that led to Sadio Mané’s second goal (Thiago picking up the end of a bad pass, conducting a trade with Trent Alexander-Arnold in front of the box, giving him the freedom to put a perfect chip toward Sadio for the open shot), the best move of the day may have been the last one in that compilation, which was him chesting down a forward attempt by City, only to send it right back to Mo Salah’s feet at the other end. He was 6/7 on those long passes today. Just magnificent.
But the MotM plaque ended up with Sadio, with some valid reasoning, given his two goals and excellent undertaking of the Bob Job (i.e. false 9 role.) He’s been getting better in that slot with every game, such that our previous concern about who can take over for Roberto Firmino when the latter is out injured without us losing our usual rhythm has now potentially been answered without a gap elsewhere, especially given Luis’ torrid start on the left, which is also where Diogo Jota is more comfortable operating. That was easily Sadio’s biggest smile, post-scoring, in 2022. And speaking of 2022 goal scorers:
Those 3 goals are the highest season total in Ibrahima Konaté’s career and he’s scored them in his last three games. The reason that may be his career high is also because he’s only 22 years old. (Here’s where I have to stop typing and just giggle for a few seconds.) And, certainly, if you watch the replay, the most important part of him scoring another splendid header was keeping Jesus from the cross… That was yet another assist for Andy Robertson, of course. On the other side of the pitch:
I shouted (and tweeted) “TRENT CAN’T DEFEND!” at least three times in Magee’s when Trent, faced with an onrushing City attacker, was in the right position, stalled the opponent’s approach, and took the ball off him. But, y’know, memes are gonna be memes, I guess. We also have to give yet another in our endless string of notes of credit to our amazing goalkeeper. Alisson Becker proved yet again why he’s the highest-rated in Europe in 1v1 encounters on the pitch, stopping both Jesus and Grealish in their attempts on goal. He’s still slightly in the shadow of players like Ray Clemence but, man, he’s getting close to that daylight of “best ever” really fast.
So, trophy game in May. Coolness. Now we have to do what Virgil Van Dijk was saying after the match and just focus on the next game, which will be the other Manchester club at the other Anfield on Tuesday. That one could be some serious fun.