The prevailing opinion across the Interwebs about yesterday’s match was somewhere between outright domination on Liverpool’s part and how it could have been even worse for Villareal. It was our second consecutive match against a side that was determined to sit back, although the Spanish side wasn’t even close to being as insipid as the neighbors, so that’s a definite point in their favor. The fact that their fans are so devoted and, everywhere that they go in Europe, they bring with them banners commemorating the 97 of Hillsborough is something else that makes them almost too likeable to get pissed at when the typical defensive play of a team that camps out in their own end turns into questionable tactics like that of goalkeeper, Gerónimo Rulli, who seemed intent on imitating the local T. Rex with how much time he was taking over every goal kick.
But, as Clive Tyldesley suggested when Sadio Mané had scored our second two minutes after Captain Jordan Henderson’s first, Liverpool tend to score in bunches and if you persist in hanging back, eventually the hammer will drop. The game was assessed on r/soccer by a Bayern Munich fan who said he was conflicted between anger and relief; anger because his club couldn’t beat this cautious Villareal as they and most others expected, but relief because his club wouldn’t have to be crushed by the machine that is Liverpool. Tyldesley also stood up among the commentators that have now begun to acknowledge said machine, pointing out that we now have what is likely superior depth to even that of the fabled Mansour City’s and that has given us the ability to do so much rotation that our squad has been fresh enough to persist in every competition that we’ve played this season. While a 2-0 win isn’t necessarily reflective of the outright domination that some are painting this game with, if we persist to form, then we’ll be in our third cup final of the year while still charging down the last five games of the league season with the hope of a win.
Of course, this is an Unai Emery team and he’s apparently made it his life’s focus to win whichever European knockout competition he brings his club into; at least with Spanish clubs. So there are no guarantees when we head to the Cerámica next week. But given how we’re playing at the moment, it’s pretty hard to imagine faceplanting on this one like Juventus and Bayern did. Make no mistake: This is a good Villareal team. But like more than one of their players, including our own Alberto Moreno, was saying before the match, this Liverpool side are a step above. It’s become easier and easier to acknowledge that as the season has worn on, to the point where people are already suggesting that this may be the best Liverpool side in the 130-year history of the club, even though our accumulated honors to date amount to a League Cup and we have to go through Chelsea, Villareal and then either City or Real Madrid, and then City again to achieve anything more. Will anyone look back on this season as a success if all that we come away with in terms of silverware is a WITSBP Cup? Of course not. But it’s still OK to acknowledge that we’re playing some of the best and most eye-catching football in the world right now and that it’s very hard to dispute that we’re one of the two best teams in existence. The old phrase “All that glitters is not gold” can actually be interpreted a couple different ways. One is that shiny objects don’t always have value. But another is that something can still be great even without the trophies to show for it. As it is, we’re still in the hunt for the last three that would lay a marker that no English club in the game’s history has accomplished. Now it’s all about proving that we have the mettle for the metal.
Liverpool 2 – 0 Villareal
Tactically, there’s not a whole lot to be said. Unai stuck doggedly with his 4-4-2 and we shifted our approach around offensively, while smothering any chance of the Spaniards getting out on the break. They tried desperately to slow the game down, but you really need more of the ball to do that without descending to the level of the Bitters. Again, to their credit, Villareal was more than willing to confront us on their side of the pitch, even while they tried to stick to their compact shape. What we’ve learned in the last few months is that having the master tactician that is Thiago Alcãntara in the middle creates exponentially more threats than even our previously thundering offense was able to generate. Adding the extra complexity of Trent Alexander-Arnold drifting inside and the even greater freedom of both centerbacks to charge forward has created an offensive front that most clubs simply struggle to handle. I think that referee Szymon Marciniak could’ve been a little less prone to his whistle in the first half and perhaps a little more prone in the second (How is it that Mo Salah can be obstructed in the box by having his throat grabbed?), but such are the vagaries of the game and officiating. The ease with which our entire squad shifts around and continues to keep the game flowing is the best it’s ever been. We’ve really reached totaalvoetbal, as Virgil Van Dijk’s peeps would put it. Even Barry Glendenning has to admit that we’re fun to watch and a lot of that in the past couple months has been because of this man:
You think back to a decade ago and wonder: How did Barcelona let this guy get away? Certainly, they had a stockpile of brilliant midfielders at the time, but when Pep Guardiola took over Bayern Munich, the priority signing for him from his old club was Thiago, at least in part because Barcelona had put him on the pitch so rarely that his buyout clause dropped to a fifth of what it was supposed to be (€90 million.) So he became a legend for the German giants and is on his way to becoming a legend for us. That’s a status he shares with another midfielder:
Hendo cost us more than Thiago did to Bayern and more than Thiago cost us from Bayern. He’s also been with us for a decade and will be going down in club history as one of the best captains the squad has ever had. Even now, the transfer window warriors complain about his technical skill in comparison to Thiago and Naby Keita (and then get strangely quiet when he puts in a shift like tonight), but there’s no denying his leadership ability on the pitch and the brilliant connection that he has with both Trent and Mo on that right side. And since we can’t leave out the third member of the midfield…
You can watch Fabinho play yesterday and imagine a soundtrack of Spongebob every time Villareal tried to break up the middle: “Hmmmm… No.” The interplay between him and Thiago has become a key aspect of the latter half of the season and one of the best parts about it is that a lot of it is one-touch football. Before the opposition can even begin to contest the ball in the middle third, it’s already in their defensive zone and they’re sprinting back to get in front of it. Similarly, watching Fab sprint back and simply take the ball right off whomever was bringing it forward is something I’ll never get tired of seeing. One measure highlights everything about his play: Villareal has the highest percentage of successful throughballs in the top 5 leagues in Europe. They completed precisely zero of them last night.
TRENT CAN’T DEFEND!!! I bring this up because Trent was also engaged in a couple of those pickpocketing moments and it even stopped Rob Green from suggesting that Trent was having “trouble” with Francis Coquelin or Arnaut Danjuma or whoever was assigned to bring the ball up their left side whenever they felt inclined to actually do so. And, like Squawka points out, he even did that while getting one of his rare rests for the last portion of the game, which will likely come in handy while trying to keep pace with Allan Saint-Maximin this weekend; provided the latter can get past Fabinho… Even if he does, it’s worth pointing out that Alisson Becker has more clean sheets (3) than made saves (2) in the last three games for the Reds. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we’ve played three clubs (ManU, The Ev, Villareal) that aren’t exactly what you’d consider offensive powerhouses, but still. It’s also worth pointing out that Trent has moved into the top 100 of Liverpool’s all-time appearance list, with last night being his 220th, and has done so at the age of just 23.
And, of course, the best news of all in the past 24 hours. The best manager in the world extended his own contract and that of all of his staff for another two years today. He’s now staying until 2026, with an option for a further two years past that. He was the one who pushed for the deal with FSG, who were only too happy to agree to it. He did so, in part, with the urging of his wife, Ulla, who asked him: “How are we going to leave all these people behind in two years?” But he also did so supposedly with the firm intent of creating a “dynasty” at Liverpool, which is positively music to the ears of those of us who remember the 70s and 80s, when Liverpool’s last such period of success took place. We’ll have to do it while contending with the sportswashing and sponsorship-cheating edifice 45 minutes down the M62, but we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far and there’s five games left (and maybe another final) to really put the stake in this year.
We have the dreaded early game with Saudi PIFC on the weekend. The Maggies have dragged themselves away from relegation and look to be playing actual football. Here’s hoping that Eddie Howe sticks to historical form and decides to run with us… Then we have to dive right back down alongside the yellow submarine in Spain, before coming back to England to face scatterbrained Tottenham. The hits just keep on comin’. But with support like this, I think we can take it: