One of the oldest debates in English football is: Does the Community (formerly Charity) Shield really count as a trophy? Most of the time the answer is something like: If you win it, yes. If you lose it, no. Many other nations attach a bit more gravitas to what almost all of them refer to as a “supercup” of one kind or another and, certainly, even many English fans acknowledge the UEFA Supercup as an actual trophy (unless they lose it, like Chelsea, and then it’s not.) So, it’s a bit incongruous for us to be regularly pointing out that we won said UEFA Supercup and it was part of our trophy haul in ’19-’20 and then wave off the Shield as no big deal. But, just like the other two domestic actual trophies, the big plate is pretty low on the hierarchy of things to be excited about. But they give out winners’ medals, so…
What makes it more interesting these days is that, when the Reds are playing for said giant plate, the opposition is almost always our biggest rival in the league for the past few years, Manchester City. While I wasn’t particularly concerned about the silverware, I was highly interested in beating City again, just as we’d done in the FA Cup semifinal. They’re the measuring stick for all English teams at the moment, having won four of the last five league trophies. But we’ve been right there with them, having won that fifth of five and having fallen short by a single point twice in that span. I will always get up for games with ManU and the Bitters; with Chelsea and the Gunners. But since it became the two titans among giants in the English game, there’s really nothing better than playing the Cityzens. Reminds me of when Everton was actually a football club.
What added stupid fuel to the fire is the other big topic of this time of year: the transfer window. City made their long-awaited acquisition of Erling Haaland, son of former City player, Alfie Haaland, and LFC brought in the best player from Benfica, Darwin Nuñez. It was our largest spend on a single player since we brought in Virgil Van Dijk whom, of course, has been transformative for the fortunes of our club. Consequently, the pressure is on Darwin to prove that he’s worth the price in the same way that it’s on Haaland to prove that he doesn’t come with the now-meme-like “Bundesliga tax”; as in, the quality of the Bundesliga has dropped so far that players moving from there have to have expectations lowered to make it in the Premier League; see: Timo Werner, lately being jettisoned by Chelsea, although that adds his name to a very long list of players, not least among whom is one Mohammed Salah… But with that backdrop of which high-priced acquisition was going to lead their side to victory, it somehow detracts even further from the idea of the Shield as the real prize in this competition. Instead, we’re playing for bragging rights over our most direct rival and whether we can say that someone “failed” to live up to expectations on the weight of, y’know, a single match. Because that makes sense.
So, yay, we won the stupid Twitter bragging rights because our guy contributed directly to the win of a trophy that most don’t care about and theirs didn’t? Sure. Whatever. What it really became was an opportunity to see how both sides have developed in the pre-season and how fast of a start they can gain before the jarring, idiotic interruption of the season happens in late November. In that respect, it was a really interesting game, as both managers again attempted to unlock each others’ puzzle box while using new keys (the whole game for Haaland; the last half hour for Darwin.) And that’s really what pre-seasons are about: seeing where we are. What we determined is that the squad is still really good, even without one of the legendary front three and we’re still one of the best teams in the world, which everyone kinda knew already. There’s another pre-season game tomorrow for everyone who didn’t play today and then one more the day after our first PL game against Fulham next week. So, we’ll continue to see how we’ve prepared even after the season starts? Game’s gone.
Liverpool 3 – 1 Manchester City
Despite the utter domination of the first 20 minutes or so, given the nature of pre-season and the nature of the opposition, in the end, we kinda got outplayed but by a pretty narrow margin. Alfred was measuring the field tilt (the share of possession of a team only in the attacking third) as favoring City, 51%-49%. Again, narrow margins, but it’s an outgrowth of things like touches in the opponent’s box (their 27 to our 21; a stat that we often dominate), pass completion % (their 84% to our 80%), and so forth. We had minor edges in things like progressive passes (43-42) and successful crosses (4-3), but it still boiled down to their expected threat (assigning a value to every spot on the field, such that actions/possession in that spot will lead to a goal; yes, extremely wonky) coming in at 2.29 to our 1.75. Put simply (Ha!), it means that they seemed more likely to win the game based on the threat of their possession but far more marginally than we seemed likely to win the CL final over Real Madrid. (Sorry. Was just watching the latter play Juventus in the Rose Bowl and am still seething. It’s going to take a while.) Using different language, we took advantage of our possession and scored, while City didn’t, even though theirs likely had better scoring chances (see: Haaland bouncing one off the crossbar with a wide-open net.) Did we swipe one? Not really. Will I stop talking about arcane stats today? Maybe. Do I think we were the better side? If it had only been 2-1, maybe not. Since it was 3-1, yes. Scientific analysis, yo.
Who was the best player on the pitch, end to end? Probably Mo. Part of that may be a lingering impression from the rest of the pre-season matches, though. (See how nebulous all of this is?) He’s looked positively deadly since we started kicking the ball around again. That little skittering motion he’s always done when he’s really moving in for the kill? That’s gone. Now he’s moving with a purpose every time he’s taking a step. I think both the frustration with last season’s near-misses and finally getting the contract out of the way has focused him in a way that we haven’t yet seen. He’s here to close the deal and immortalize himself in the record books even beyond the absurdity that he’s already created. That can only mean good things for us. Of course, the show was kinda stolen by the new kid, late in the game.
Some of that is misleading because 11 touches, obvsly. But it’s not just his time on the ball that makes his presence important, as his movement behind defensive lines is phenomenal. For a guy that big to be that fast is not a normal thing. One analyst suggested that Virg wouldn’t be able to keep up with Haaland if the latter tried making runs like Darwin was doing. I laughed. Haaland is not particularly quick. Darwin is and it shows every time there’s another person out of place because Darwin’s movement has dragged them out of place.
The front line question
But that’s when we start talking about the whole front line. Who is the “best” lineup now that the fabled Front Three are no longer? There was outrage among the Twitdiots this morning when word leaked out that Roberto Firmino was starting “over” Darwin. Wait, you mean, our starting center forward for the last six years is… starting? OK. (Save me, jeebus.) Certainly, Darwin provides a whole new element for us when he’s on the pitch, which is exactly why we spent £85 million to get him. But that doesn’t mean he’s always the answer. Remember, we probably looked at our best and had City most on their heels in the opening 15 minutes when Bob was on the field. It’s also not entirely certain that we should stick with our favored 4-3-3 when Darwin is playing, as he’s probably more suited to a firm 4-2-3-1, instead of the malleable use of it we’ve made in the past, which opens up a whole host of new complications in selection, but also new possibilities in performance.
This is not to neglect Luís Diaz’s presence in said lineup, either today or any day. (Seriously, how absurd is it that within the same year we bought the best player from Porto and the best player from Benfica and yet people still complain about FSG not spending money? (For that matter, what does it say about Portuguese football that they have to keep selling players like this to pay debts, rather than build their clubs?)) Certainly, the best lineup includes him on the left and Mo on the right. The main question is in the middle. I don’t have any list of numbers for Luís today because he just did what he always does, which is terrorize whomever is playing right back for the opposition. But he’s been really adept at swapping positions with whomever is playing in the center, as Sadio Mané used to do on the regular, as well. Once Diogo Jota returns from his injury, we’ll have that flexibility back in the toolkit, as well. Right now, I’m still tempted to say that the top front line is Bob, Luís, and Mo. But the changeup possibilities are much more advanced with Darwin around. Football is nothing without Origi, but football can’t evolve without Darwin? I can see it.
The midfield riches
I mean, yeah, Thiago Alcântara is Thiago. Nothing has changed. He’s still masterful. That means that we usually want him as the left-sided 8, while The Lighthouse, Fabinho, takes his normal spot at the 6. In our 4-3-3, that means Captain Jordan Henderson takes his usual post at the right-sided 8 for a host of reasons. He’s the captain who drives the rest of the squad forward; his work ethic is still a model; his passing is usually still excellent; and his mental connection with Trent Alexander-Arnold is still the best of any of our midfielders. But if we switch to a 4-2-3-1 to emphasize Darwin…? That would frequently mean that we need Thiago and Fab at the double pivot, which kind of ices out Hendo, since we need someone to play the 10 behind Darwin and, despite his incredible versatility, that is definitely not a Hendo role. (Just as an aside, he’s been playing the last man role on set pieces in pre-season that is normally occupied by either Trent or Andy Robertson. Not quite sure what that means, other than that Jürgen is tinkering, as always.)
Who can play the 10? Well, Bob can, possibly better than anyone else. But so can Thiago, Naby, Fabio Carvalho, and possibly Harvey Elliott. We have both serious depth and serious flexibility in the midfield, since James Milner, Bearded Robot Warrior is also on that list, as will be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when he returns from yet another serious injury (The man is cursed.) For that matter, so is Curtis Jones, who claims to be in his best form ever and should be given serious consideration for time, based on what he accomplished in the last few matches of last season and what he’s done in the pre-season. One mild drawback is that we have people who can back up Fab at the 6 (Hendo, Thiago, Naby, Millie) but no one who does it quite as well as he does. That and right back may be the two positions where we can’t just shrug our shoulders at whomever comes in, with the confidence that the quality of play will barely change. That said, the 6 role in Jürgen’s system is kind of codified. When the FBs are pressing, you drop to cover if they lose the ball. When the front line is pressing, you move up to fill the space. Fabinho just does it more easily than anyone else put in that role (one might almost say “laconically”, at times) and his instinctive play shows up when you realize that he’s simply always in the right spot, rather than rushing to get there. That’s a valuable thing.
Another real upside of the 4-2-3-1 is that it also means that we can rest both Luís and Mo, since Fabio and Harvey are both able to play that genuine winger role, on the left and right, respectively. It also means that Trent is even more encouraged to drift into the middle as he’s been doing so often in the last couple years and which was on full display in today’s match, as well. Speaking of Trent…
The defensive wall
Generational talent, yo. The 4-2-3-1 tends to play the fullback positions as wingbacks, which is what we’re basically already doing, anyway. One of the hilarious aspects of City’s attempt to press us high today was how many times they were leaving either Robbo or Trent wide open as an obvious consequence of their high press. It started with Haaland who, quite frankly, isn’t very good at it. He would press solo from the middle trying to interfere with the passing lane between Virg and Joel Matip. We solved that by simply asking Adrián to come forward and create another element to that lane. (Adrián is not as adept at this as Alisson Becker is, but I’ll get to that.) So DeBruyne started coming forward to assist Haaland’s press. But that meant that there was one less midfielder to cover Fabinho, so someone would shift over from the wide spaces, leaving at least one of our fullbacks wide open and able to immediately initiate an attack, which is precisely our normal gameplan which Pep is intimately familiar with so, yeah, I don’t know what the thinking was.
Our depth on the back line is almost as good. Certainly, Virg is a constant. But we can feel supremely confident against the vast majority of our opponents with any of Joel Matip, Ibrahima Konaté, or Joe Gomez in that left CB slot and, of course, with any of them alongside Virg in the right slot. Likewise, I’m perfectly content with Kostas Tsimikas coming in for Robbo at this point. RB is a little dicier. Now that Neco Williams has departed for Forest, that means Millie is the first backup to Trent, as we saw today. That’s fine. It’s just a significant step down in terms of offensive ability, but it does mean that having our RB drift into the middle to play as, y’know, a midfielder is a perfectly natural development, given the Bearded One’s normal role in our system. So, there may be some hidden advantages that we just haven’t seen yet.
Back on that keeper question. Certainly, Adrián is not Ali when it comes to distribution. I daresay a significant portion of our inaccurate passes came from the keeper and there was a moment in the first 15 minutes where both Fab and Joel were wondering what the keeper was doing when he delivered passes that left the former in a bad spot and the latter watching the ball roll out for a City throw. But that’s why he’s the third-choice keeper. This was the first actual game action he’s gotten in over a year and it was against the other of the two best clubs on the planet. He was still important when it came to neutralizing City’s press (even if I really wanted him to be more aggressively-positioned at the top of the box in the way Ali always is) and he still probably couldn’t have done anything about that rebound from Phil Foden’s strike falling in front of Julián Alvarez. Would Ali have been more likely to steer it away? Maybe. But that’s why Adrián is the third-choice keeper. (There’s also the open question of whether the whistle should have come because he had both hands on the ball before the goal was made, but he also didn’t have control of it, so…) He still stopped a great chance from Haaland and still helped win us yet another supercup-style trophy. We have depth at keeper and I’m OK with either him or Caoimhin Kelleher stepping in, even if I’d prefer no one did and would still prefer if Kelleher did when it comes down to it. This is a non-issue, despite all the outrage and gnashing of cyberteeth among the Twitdiots.
So that’s kind of a game review and a broad assessment of the squad as a whole. We have insane depth right now and that’s without even mentioning some of the guys farther down the bench, like Nat Phillips, or coming up through the ranks to star in the pre-season, like Stefan Bajcetic, a 17-year-old Spaniard who’s been playing at the 6 and has been lights out while doing it. This is the foundation of the dynasty that Jürgen was talking about and things look very, very bright.