As mentioned before, I’ve been in the habit recently of writing these posts about Champions League matches (and the occasional PL match; Thanks, schedulers!) the day after, because I often haven’t gotten the chance to watch the game until quite late in the day, leaving me not a whole lot of time to get things scribed before I’m looking at a clock that says 3 AM or thereabouts. But that delay turned out to be mildly fortuitous today because now at least we all know whom we’re playing in the CL final (snicker.) After all, as much of a challenge as Villareal presented, we still entered that game with real confidence about proceeding to our third CL final in the last five years and fourth European final since Jürgen Klopp became our manager (chortle.) There is something to be said for having the pedigree to continually reach these heights, as both Liverpool and Real Madrid fans would be happy to tell you. We will now pause for 10 seconds so that I can try to stop laughing about the events I’ve just witnessed (aka Man City faceplanting at the Bernabeu.)
Whew. OK. Enough of that. I hate using the old cliché of the “game of two halves”, not only because it’s a cliché but also because I’ve used it before in these pages; more than once. Yes, football is one of those games where minor corrections can seem to have a huge impact on the progression of a match. We played what was literally our worst half of football of the entire season in the first half yesterday. You can sum it up with one stat: 66% pass completion, which is easily the worst of any half we’ve played. But there are more: 3 touches in the opposition box (lowest of the season); 0.06 xG (2nd-lowest of the season); and on and on. Nothing was working and, to their extreme credit, the Yellow Submarine came out on fire (which is an odd concept for a submarine) and simply outplayed us at almost every opportunity. Combine their intensity with the torrential rains (in Spain; southern Spain, which isn’t normal) and there was a lot to withstand early on. Jürgen said after the match that he had turned to Peter Krawietz for a video clip of something- anything -that had gone correctly in the first half so he could use it to emphasize the point of how we could and should play in the second. There was nothing to present. It’s not even a case of “We couldn’t play much worse.” According to the standards we’ve set this season, we actually couldn’t play worse. Period.
The most obvious choice was to bring on Luís Diaz who has been such a huge impact player in games since his arrival, with the way that he pushes defenses out of the shape that they’d like to be in. But Michael Cox wrote a piece for The Athletic today($) that stated that, from his perspective, the player that really twisted Villareal out of shape was Fabinho, based primarily on what seemed to be their strategy to try to nullify him and his distribution forward. Many people were suggesting that Captain Jordan Henderson also come on at halftime in place of Naby Keita, but Naby really wasn’t having that poor of a game when compared to everyone else who also were doing a great job at looking like they’d never played against a press before. But when Villareal came out in the second half, that press was gone. They sat back in what has frequently been Unai Emery’s style (Ask almost any Gunners fan) and seemed like they were trying to protect their lead… but to what end? The main reason I suspected they were sitting back was because they couldn’t keep up the intensity that they’d displayed in the first half, especially with an ailing Gerard Moreno. So they were trying to conserve energy in the hopes of getting a late goal on the break, while keeping us out of their end. But, of course, the stamina of our squad has become mildly legendary. The yellow shirts might not have been able to keep up that pace, but the red ones do that routinely.
And, once again, we see the benefits of the extraordinary depth that we’ve built up come through. It also didn’t hurt that Villareal’s keeper, Gerónimo Rulli, is not quite what you’d expect from a Champions League-level defender. So, there were a lot of potential factors that went into an awful first half and then a scintillating second. It’s about endurance, strategy, and the basic quality of personnel. We know that ours currently exceeds everyone’s but some guys in pale blue that have never won a CL title. With that in mind, it was simply a matter of getting everyone to play like we, and Jürgen, know are capable. It wasn’t just Luís coming on that completely changed the game. But he was part of it. And, as I’ve pontificated about before, football is a team game. When I say that, I don’t just mean the guys running around on the grass. I mean the coaching staff and the scouting staff and the nutrition and training and medical staff that keep all of those guys running around in the first place. Everything we’re seeing is part of a unified vision and it’s one that may be bearing the most fruitful season our 130-year-old club has ever seen.
Villareal 2 – 3 Liverpool
Now, first off: Don’t get me wrong. Luís did spur a significant part of that transformation in the second half. He mentioned after the game that he treats every opportunity to play as a way to seek revenge on those who doubted his ability so, uh, he’s something of a man on a mission and it shows up in his play. Opta, as you might expect with their recent one-word appraisals, chimed in:
Yeah, that’s about as “tale of two halves” as you can get, although why they persist in using the wrong, even opposite in this case, color scheme every time they put out one of these about Liverpool continues to baffle me. Jim Proudfoot did mention right after Luís had scored that he’d already had four attempts on goal since he’d come on and no one else in the squad had more than one. You always want to avoid getting sucked into the “new, shiny toy” perspective but it’s pretty hard to argue that the Reds’ best XI doesn’t include this man right now.
Beast mode. Villareal just couldn’t deal with him in the same way almost every other side we’ve played in this calendar year hasn’t been able to. Porto fans thought they sold him too cheaply back in January and now they’re bemoaning it even more because they were right then and they’re righter now. But I agree with Cox that motion through the middle was extremely important to disrupting the opponents’ established patterns of play.
His numbers don’t immediately scream that at you, but his real impact was about the movement off the ball (like, say, continuing to run forward on a give-and-go with Mo Salah…) Villareal were determined to break up his influence in the middle of the pitch and he attracted all kinds of attention from them, which left them exposed when also trying to deal with Luís’ presence. That, in turn, gave time to Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to finally get into a rhythm and start to threaten the box. As has been the case for the past 4 or 5 years with LFC, that’s when things start to happen. Of course, he also made things happen by putting a shot past Rulli that the latter really should have saved. Fab said that he thought Sadio Mané was offside, so he just took the shot himself, which is the kind of initiative you want from all your outfield players. But often left out of these posts is the one man who enables us to enjoy such freedom and movement higher up the pitch:
Go ahead and watch the full 2:20. It’s worth it to see how the best keeper at 1v1s in Europe operates and how many times he’s had to do it in just this season. Yes, he got beat twice yesterday- for the first time in over a month -and both of those goals were on our generally poor play outside the six-yard box. We talk a lot about “best in the world” figures on this squad. Alisson Becker is in that conversation.
Speaking of superlatives, many of them were dropped about the result last night. We’re the first English club to reach the final of all three cup competitions in the same season. We’re the first club in Europe to have won all six away matches (group stage through knockouts) in the Champions League format. We’re now confirmed to be tying our own English record (1981) for matches played in a season and number of matches played in a single season. We’re the fourth club to reach 10 European Cup finals, behind Bayern and Milan (11) and (now) Real Madrid (17.) (chuckle) Jürgen has now reached the final four times, putting him alongside Marcelo Lippi and Alex Ferguson and (now) one behind Carlo Ancelotti. (HA!) We also hit 139 goals for the season, which sets a new club record, and there are still five games left to play. After 5+ seasons, this is Jürgen’s direct impact:
Of course, what he’s really done for our club goes way, way beyond the W-L table and now it’s guaranteed for another four years, at least.
But let’s think about this year. It’s Spurs at Anfield next, followed by welcoming back Stevie G and his Villans on Tuesday, since we’re in the FA Cup final next weekend. Why that final is suddenly two weeks before the end of the season is a mystery that probably has to do with money (It’s always about the money.) In the interim, we can see what one sportswashing front for a human rights-abusing petrostate can do to another sportswashing front for a human rights-abusing petrostate who’ve just done a tailspin. Entertainment abounds (Tee hee!), even in places as inane as TalkSport: