Staying in it

I’m certain that I’ve mentioned in these pages before that the Premier League season can be a grind. It’s not a novel or profound statement because, at some point, everyone has said that: players, managers, commentators, football writers and, yes, even supporters. The PL season can be even more of a grind than elsewhere in Europe because not only does no one else among the five major leagues follow the more sensible Bundesliga model (Sensible? Germans? No…) with 18 in the top division, but England is the only one with two domestic cups, which disrupts the schedule even for those knocked out of the tournaments. This is all on top of the fact that football is the major sport with the longest season in the world, as well. Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to still be playing in all those competitions, as we are, the upside is the chance at more trophies. The potential downside is breaking (or equaling) records for participation. What you don’t want after all that, of course, are just participation trophies…

So, it’s not particularly surprising that we came out for this one looking a little fatigued and, therefore, not at our best. It’s certainly possible that the players were just as disappointed as we all were with the result on the weekend, which can kind of dampen your enthusiasm for being the chaser of the leader in an even worse position than you were three days ago. Then again, these are all professionals. I don’t believe any of that stuff about one team “wanting it more.” No, not even Real Madrid (snicker.) Sometimes you have it going and sometimes you don’t. Thankfully for us, we have enough talent on this squad that even when we’re not really getting the ball to roll our way, we can still usually pull out a win, even on a cold relatively warm Thursday Tuesday night in Stoke Birmingham. We also took the opportunity to rotate once again, as Jürgen said it was “necessary” and it probably was.

This game was also a Jon Moss Special. I tweeted during the match that he’s the image that pops into my head whenever I roll my eyes and mutter: “English officiating…”, since he’d apparently forgotten what a yellow card is for both squads on the pitch and had the world’s most inconsistent whistle even on the regular fouls being committed. As Arlo White and Graeme Le Saux were correct to point out, he gave the advantage after a Liverpool foul when there really was no advantage and the play cycled back to Emi Martinez. One of his linesmen also failed to spot Ollie Watkins being a half-yard offside, which began the sequence of play that led to Villa’s goal. All of this happened under the pensive eyes of a rather sedate Steven Gerrard, perhaps conscious of the struggle his home club are involved in, and the blazing eyes of Jürgen Klopp, who couldn’t seem to get his message across at almost any point of the match. So, yeah, not a particularly great night for anyone involved. Gerrard’s response after the match when told that Jon Moss is retiring after the season: “Is he? Good.” Can’t put it much better than that.

That said, there were still a couple standout performances and I’ll get to those, but I can’t say that this one will live particularly long in the memory, except as one of 38 steps toward another title and a quite late one that makes this otherwise unremarkable game that much more important than many of the previous 35. The beauty of a points system for deciding a title is that every game is worth the same three points, so the mark of consistency is the mark of the champion. But it also means that every game is pretty much just the same as the rest, which is where the grinding part comes in. Certainly, playing rivals like The Ev or ManU is normally more exciting than playing the Villans, but we can’t feast on the red Mancs every week, so this match and Soton and Wolves are just going to be about how long we can stay in it, while waiting for City to make a mistake. There’s really not much more to say.

Understat

Aston Villa 1 – 2 Liverpool

That’s a little closer, xG-wise, than I would’ve predicted. Just like Saturday, we held the majority of the play and created more chances (3 of them by Kostas Tsimikas, leading the field.) But there’s no denying that Villa were pretty potent on the counterattack, requiring the world’s best 1v1 man, Alisson Becker, to step in with a couple key saves on ex-Red Danny Ings. If Ings hadn’t blown out both knees, it’s possible to imagine that he might still be with us. But it’s almost as hard to imagine, given the quality of our front line and its current leader:

Those three aerial duels won were actually the most for LFC, too. As Jamie Carragher was pointing out after the match, Sadio Mané came in on the right side when he was first signed and excelled. Mo Salah arrived and Sadio moved to the left and excelled. Now Luís Diaz has arrived and Bobby Firmino has been out, so Sadio has moved to the middle and excelled. The inane rumors about him moving to Bayern Munich are ridiculous for a number of reasons (not least that Bayern wouldn’t normally pay what he would cost), but also because he’s become the lynchpin of our attacking machine. Plus, it was the second time in three years that a late Sadio header won a 2-1 game at Villa Park. On that note, Opta also says that no side has won more points from losing positions than Liverpool (14) this season. It’s about staying in it.

Someone who’s done that over his career here is Naby Keita. While he wasn’t above an arched eyebrow or two during the match, he basically controlled the midfield when an off-kilter Fabinho and a still-not-fully-up-to-PL-regular-level Curtis Jones couldn’t. He’s basically made the Gini role his own while contributing a bit more in terms of progression. Given that he’s been available for almost the entire season, I think we’re finally reaching the point where we can safely declare it an upgrade (those 9 duels won were the most for the Reds.) Hopefully, more of it to come in the future.

I was surprised to hear Arlo say that Kostas has had 8 PL starts this season, since I wouldn’t have guessed that the number was that high. But he’s clearly been worth it and did a great job down the left today. Just giving Andy Robertson a full week’s rest before the FA Cup final is great, but playing as well as he has to the point where people are genuinely questioning what it is we’re missing on that side with Kostas playing is encouraging beyond the usual comments about our increased depth. I still think Robbo is a bit more of a menace on the offensive end, but you can’t doubt the stats that Kostas produces.

Something else you can’t doubt is that consistency, since we haven’t dropped a point against a team in the bottom half of the league all season, winning all 19 such matches by a collective score of 54-5. We’re also only the second team in the PL era to have three players score 15 or more goals in the same season (Mo, Diogo Jota, Sadio), after the ’13-’14 Man City squad, whom we finished second to… In more wonderful historical comparisons, we’ve now scored 43 away goals in the league this season, most in our time in the PL except for ’13-’14, where we scored 48. Still two games left and we could use them now.

Wembley on the weekend for our second cup final this season against Chelsea, now with American billionaires. After that, it’s a trip to the beach against Southampton, who are having defensive issues, which might be a bonus if we’re in a position where goal difference is going to matter.

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