I’ve talked a lot this season about the depth that we’ve built over the past couple years. Nine changes from the FA Cup final against Southampton, with a squad of players who’ve rarely seen time in the second half of the year, including Takumi Minamino, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott, and James Milner, Robot Warrior, is testament to that. The fact that all of them could keep their heads in the game after going a goal down (on yet another wonderful piece of officiating by Martin Atkinson who is, thankfully, retiring alongside good chum, Jon Moss) and return to play some genuinely scintillating football is yet another example of that squad quality beyond the first XI. This match took place with Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, Virgil Van Dijk, and Trent Alexander-Arnold not even on the bench, where they would’ve been alongside Rhys Williams, for his first first-team appearance of the season, despite not making it on the pitch. I’ve mentioned before how embedded Jürgen Klopp’s system is throughout the entire club, which is a huge advantage when we do bring guys up from the academy and the U18s/U23s, since they already know the system and can simply continue to play our game with little need for adjustment. Everyone already regularly on the first team can do that almost without thinking. This is the polar opposite of what a club like Manchester United is now experiencing. This is our style of football and everyone in the club knows it by heart and that means that no matter who takes the field, the song remains the same.
Certainly, there are going to be moments when you’d think: “Oh, Mo would’ve handled that better in that spot than Taki.” Millie shouting at Taki for delivering the ball too slowly late in the second half when he was in a great position (playing at RB once again) to make a cross through the six-yard box is an example of that. But that’s a factor of lack of competitive playing time and a lack of time with each other. And, certainly, the glue that stuck all of these not-often-used pieces together was Bobby Firmino, who had one of his best games of the season and caused Lee Dixon and Grame Le Saux to repeatedly go into rapturous praise of his play. This is the Bob that we all know and love who’s been hindered by injuries and consequent lack of form. Could he be finding his first step again right when he might be needed to compete with Luka Modric and Casemiro? Yeah. Yeah, he could. In that respect, any LFC fan kicking the dirt about the poor timing of the injuries to Fabinho, Virg, and Mo should be just as willing to acknowledge that we have the depth in this squad to even get past those problems. Ibrahima Konaté is now being hailed on Twitter as “the next Virg”, even before Virg has stopped being Virg. Taki may not be at the level of Mo, but we also don’t have to depend on him to be so when Sadio and Diogo Jota are also available. And Captain Jordan Henderson was his usual sublime self at the 6 in the second half. Certainly, competing with Southampton won’t be the same as being on the pitch with Los Blancos, but it won’t have to be with more of the regulars back on that pitch, even if Fabinho can’t make it.
This squad is an example of making the thrilling look routine, because it is routine for this squad. This is how we play. This is who we are. This is what happens when you have one of the best squads in the world under the best manager in the world and a recruiting team that almost never makes a misstep. There was mild outrage on r/soccer over the fact that Liverpool had somehow made an injury-prone, solid-but-not-spectacular centerback into the second coming of VVD. And now they don’t even have the argument that Virg was the one making him look good because he makes everyone look good. Ibou is just that good, just like the rest of the squad. That will take a little bit of the sting out of what seems to be the inevitable disappointment of Sunday, since we’re as loaded as Man City are to continue this struggle for years to come, just as Jürgen planned. The idea was to make a dynasty. A quadruple would be the loudest declaration of that in English football history. But you could also argue that we already made that declaration three years ago when we lost the league by a point to City and then went on to win the Champions League before coming back to win the Premier League the following year. Everything now is just a continuation of that, like singing the hymns that basically all say the same thing, over and over: Praise be to Klopp. Praise be to Liverpool. Sing it again because you still believe.
Southampton 1 – 2 Liverpool
Does that diagram look absurd? Because it should look that way. This game was a primo example of just how big the chasm is between the top sides in the league and those that always vote against them in any matter concerning changes to league play. (This is how the Premier League came about in the first place…) That’s a 24-4 shot margin (9-1 on corners.) That’s a dominant performance, not least because Soton had apparently decided that 5-4-1 was their best hope for anything out of “our Champions League final” as Ralph Hasenhüttl had put it. That’s, uh, not the way you’re going to win a “final” most of the time, unless you happen to be Jose Mourinho, which you’re not. But that’s reaching back into history and, for that, we really should mention this man (or android or robot or whatever he really seems to be now):
He created five of those chances in the first half while playing at the 6, which is as many as everyone else on the pitch had combined. It’s insane how good this guy is and how overlooked he continues to be. Most of the commentary during the Cup final was about how pathetic it was that we were searching for a goal to break the deadlock and were bringing on James Milner. They, of course, had to shut up after the match when the numbers showed just how much they had failed to see, just as they did in this match, where most would probably assume that he didn’t particularly stand out amongst the superlative play of much of the rest of the squad. The best tweet of the match, though, was from Opta, who pointed out that Millie and Harvey were starting a PL match together for the first time. Milner’s PL debut was in November 2002, 145 days before Harvey was born.
Oh, yeah. The youth movement. Curtis is still developing as a player, so he’s going to have ups and downs. But the talent should be obvious to even the most casual observer. The last of those four dribbles was between two defenders in the middle of the pitch, whereupon he shifted the ball to Bob who began another attack. Yes, I probably wouldn’t yet put Curtis at the top of my list of midfield starters, but he’s getting there.
Ibou, on the other hand, is right up there. I’m equally as confident with him on the pitch as I am with Joel Matip. The two of them played tonight as if they’d been doing so alongside each other all season, seamlessly trading off the “Virg security role” for the “Joel attacking role” between each other. The fact that Ibou has yet to lose a match that he’s started for us is a hilarious stat, but almost bettered by the numbers that Opta brought up about Joel, in that the latter has won all 8 PL matches in which he’s scored, but has also only lost 10 of the 125 that he’s appeared in (8%!) which is the lowest of any of the 1081 players to have appeared at least 100 times in the PL era. You remember when I was saying we’d laid the groundwork for dynasty a few years back? That’s more of the evidence.
And, yeah, about those guys I’m perfectly content with starting? Here’s the top of that list. I love Andy Robertson and, like I said after the FA Cup final, I still think we’re a bit better with his standard of aggression on that left side. But you cannot deny the play of Kostas Tsimikas. If he hadn’t already declared himself to be a lifelong Liverpool fan (with a family of them back in Greece), he’d be first on my list of players I’d be worried about losing, since he could easily start for anyone else in the PL and most of the rest of Europe.
But it’s worth talking about the guys who don’t show up as clearly in the fancystats. Or at least not as many of them. Taki has 10 goals in just 9 starts this season for the Reds. It gives him the best goals/minute ratio in the PL this season among players with at least 1000 minutes, with a goal every 101. If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have believed that his total minutes in the league are that high. On the other hand, we know that Bob has played a lot fewer minutes than is customary for him over the previous five years. At the same time, there’s no denying that he controlled this game for Liverpool, creating opening after opening to keep the constant pressure on Southampton until we could finally take the lead (we’ve come from behind in four of the last five matches we’ve played (Villareal, Spurs, Villa, Soton), taking seven points in the league and winning a CL semifinal) and then go on to close the game out. This is the dominance I was talking about above and there’s no question it will continue against a Wolves side that’s looked a lot shakier on defense in the second half of the season.
The rest of it will depend on Stevie G’s boys. I have no faith when it comes to depending on other clubs because I don’t believe in them like I do ours. But we’ll see what happens. Like I said, the last time we lost the league by a point, we took another European Cup. That won’t entirely salve the wound, but it’ll do pretty nicely.