If you’d asked me for a list of the Premier League sides that we’d drop points to, Fulham would not have been on it. #1 would actually be Bournemouth, as I think they’re even less stable than the Cottagers. But, of course, I would’ve said the same thing back in ’20-’21 before we lost to them, 1-0, at Anfield. They did end up going down that year and we had a handy excuse in the devastating string of injuries that led us into that winter drop. Still, looking at the squads on paper, then and now, you’d think that Fulham would always be second-best when it came to actually kicking the ball around. Well, just like then, for the first 50 minutes of this match, that was anything but true. For almost the first hour, we simply got outplayed. They completely turned the tables on us; attacking us in the same fashion that we usually attack others. Every time a red shirt received the ball, there was a white one contesting position, ball, and often ankles. Roberto Firmino was ineffective in linking play and Fabinho was often ineffective in interrupting it. Our normally precise passing often fell short (Jürgen later criticized the dryness of the pitch, which can contribute to that problem) and simply couldn’t compete in the middle third, as they’d enter, take the ball, and leave it before we could react.
That all changed when, five minutes into the second half, seeing that nothing positive had emerged from the halftime talk, the manager finally pulled the switch and swapped in Darwin Nuñez for Bob and Harvey Elliott for the once-again-injured Thiago Alcãntara. Immediately, the shape of the game changed. We began attacking the Fulham goal with something approximating our usual level of threat and quickly took control of the match. One extremely soft penalty call eventually pushed it to a draw, but it was miles better than what we’d been seeing for the first hour. The call was poor but not outrageous and you’ll almost always get that call unless your name happens to be Mohamed Salah. The fact that it came as a result of an action by the best CB in the league is just emblematic of how the day was going. Cue the panic and outrage across Twitter…
Darwin is going to give a lot of the Twitdiots the same misconception that American football fans have; that there is a savior waiting on the bench to rescue any situation. In that sport, surely the most talented guy on the team is the backup QB, since he’s always the one that people are whining for when things aren’t going well. It doesn’t explain why he’s the backup, but it’s a handy excuse for how dumb the coach is and so on. Most launching those whines probably aren’t thinking too deeply about how they’re saying that the manager whom has led LFC to their current heights is some kind of incompetent fool. That’s not to say that Jürgen is infallible. Far from it. It’s also not to deny the impact that Darwin had on the game, because it was obvious in the same way that it was last week. Should he start? Maybe. But the real bonus of his presence in our club may be the completely different dimension that he provides. Fulham’s game plan was working against Bob. In the past, we’d have been stuck banging our heads against the wall or switching to someone less capable, like Divock Origi. Now we get to change our approach in more ways than one.
Criticism was also launched at the midfield, particularly Captain Jordan Henderson. It’s safe to acknowledge that no one in the midfield played particularly well (despite the numbers of success demonstrated by Alfred’s graphs above) until Harvey stepped on the pitch and began lighting up that right side with Mo and Trent Alexander-Arnold. But part of what allowed him to do that was both Hendo’s ability to slide back to the six when Fabinho was subbed out for James Milner, Bearded Robot Warrior, and the latter’s ability to fight for possession in that middle third and keep things flowing forward. Of course, the outrage reached a height when it was thought that James Milner, of all players, might be someone to help put the game right. But he did, which means that he’s still a contributing member of this squad, just as the manager has insisted. It means that, no, we don’t really need to go spend tens of millions on another midfielder when said midfielder might end up sitting on the bench behind… Harvey, Fabio Carvalho, Curtis Jones, Naby Keita, Fabinho, Thiago and everyone else we have playing for us. When we recruit, we do so with the long term in mind. It’s about having a larger vision about how the club and the squad are developing instead of just throwing the toys out of the pram because one thing didn’t go your way on this one day. No one that is part of the Reds family was happy about the result. But another thing to keep in mind about this situation is that Manchester City lost their first game of the season last year and still ended up with 93 points and the title. So, maybe not everything is as it first seems.
Fulham 2 – 2 Liverpool
I think Caley is once again being either generous or too restrictive, depending on what side you’re on, as that’s one of the narrowest of the xG margins that I’ve seen today. Most of them are more like 2.5 for LFC and 0.4 for Fulham. I know that doesn’t seem like a huge difference but when you’re talking about mathematical models like xG, something like a tenth of a point is actually quite significant. Science! Notice that both of our goals and one of the other big chances came from the right side. A lot of that right side action came in the second half, when Mo was finally able to get something going (he had the fewest touches of any player on the field in the first half, at 24; tied with Alisson Becker) and when he linked up with Darwin, of course. That’s four big chances and twice hitting the woodwork (Luís Diaz in the first half; Hendo in the second.) That’s not an attack that’s failing or is in dire need of some kind of magical midfielder. It’s just another aspect of today: bad luck. That’s the game.
But, yeah, the man of the moment is who he is, even if he shares honors with Mo for goals and assists today (one each for both of them.) Darwin’s goal was actually closer to our usual method of play, since it developed from the wide spaces and came in across the box.
You can look at the backheel style (which he attempted earlier) as either him not being quite prepared for the speed of Mo’s delivery or just him getting away with what he can get away with. Either way, the result’s the same. But Mo’s goal also wasn’t unusual in our system, since it was a long delivery into the box by Trent. It’s just a little less common, especially since Trent delivered it from that half space that he’s been inhabiting more frequently in the past couple seasons:
That, of course, was Mo breaking his own record for scoring in consecutive opening day matches. It also tied him with names like Alan Shearer , Frank Lampard, and Wayne Rooney for the most goals on opening day. But it’s worth looking at that substitute issue again, as The Athletic just wrote an analysis of whether substitutes actually contribute to gaining more points on a regular basis ($.) Conclusion: Not so much. Their examination was more about the new implementation of the five-sub rule in the PL, but it was also a question of quality, rather than quantity. They determined that the big clubs already have enough quality such that putting on more of it generally doesn’t move the needle.
Now, again, we’ve just seen Darwin and others have immediate impact as the above image starkly shows. Again, the huge upside of Darwin entering as a sub seems to be the immediate offensive impact that he has. But that’s in just two games, which is a ridiculously small sample size. One could argue in both instances that the constant pressure of trying to keep Liverpool contained by both Man City and Fulham led to tired legs that Darwin was immediately able to take advantage of in the second half. Indeed, the study by The Athletic was for just one season, albeit taking into account all five big leagues, which is also kind of a small world approach to a big question.
The other big question of the moment is midfield depth. Yes, Thiago is injured again. We knew when we bought him that his availability was often in question. Of course, when he is available, he’s still one of the elite midfielders of the world. So, pros and cons. (Almost right on cue, The Athletic also wrote about this very issue two days ago. ($)) But we now have a rash of injuries in one section of the field, with Thiago, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Curtis Jones all unavailable for an unknown period of time. Of course, that means that we have no less than six senior midfielders to fill those three spots. And, yet, all you’ll see among the Twitdiots is how FSG lacks ambition because we won’t buy another guy to sit on the bench or that they’re too tight because they’re saving money (that they should be spending) to buy Jude Bellingham from Dortmund next summer without actually, y’know, spending… like the £85 million we just spent on Darwin or the £60 million we spent on Luís. Of course, most of them don’t stop to consider that unlike, say, Manchester United, we’re not in the habit of buying quick fixes but instead buy career guys. If we buy some ridiculously expensive attacking mid, what happens when we do buy Bellingham next summer? But that’s next summer’s problem and all these guys want to think about is solving their frustration at today’s result by throwing money at it, despite the perfect example of why not to do that 45 minutes down the M62.
So, yeah, frustration all around. I wasn’t happy when I walked out of Magee’s for the third time in the last four trips, but this is the PL. It’s rarely going to be a walk unless we’re playing the Canaries again. We should have done better. I’m pretty sure that will be the theme of this week’s training before the home opener on Monday against Palace. There’s nothing to do but keep going. That’s what Jürgen does.