I was an Edgar Allan Poe fan from a very young age. My grandparents had a habit of just leaving books around in places that I would find them during my rare visits with them. One of them was a small collection of Poe stories with a foreboding hard cover in a gray stone motif, perhaps to emphasize the fact that many of Poe’s stories take place in ominous-looking buildings like that, including The Cask of Amontillado, The Telltale Heart and, of course, The Pit and the Pendulum. I devoured them, fascinated that someone could be quite that grim without actually using monsters or ghosts or some otherworldly thing. When you grow up, you learn that a lot of things can be far darker than someone pretending to be a vampire. Sometimes the sports world is that way, too.
At the beginning of this week, Liverpool had produced our worst start to a Premier League campaign in over a decade which, of course, means the worst start to a campaign under Jürgen Klopp. With two draws against teams that we should routinely beat on paper and then an almost-complete implosion against a reeling Manchester United who hadn’t yet scored a goal, it was fair to take a grim, Poe-like look at what was happening. Of course, we have an absurd number of injuries; most notably in the midfield, where Thiago Alcãntara, Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and, most recently, Naby Keita have all gone down with return expectations measured in weeks or months for all of them. Naby’s absence was symbolic of his entire career at Anfield, given that his agent had just been making noise about a new contract where his client “wants to play regularly.” But on top of that we’re also down to two senior centerbacks and are missing 2/5 of the front line, albeit with one of those being a suspension (Darwin Nuñez.) But injuries don’t explain what seems to be the simple lack of intensity in the first three matches, especially when contrasted with how fiercely the squad took the field against Man City in the Community Shield to begin the season. When we fell behind for the seventh straight league match against ManU, the Poe-like dread began creeping into my head that we were watching a version of Jürgen’s last season with Dortmund, where they had a staggering edge in xG but simply couldn’t finish (see: Fulham and Crystal Palace) and it was evident by about halfway through the season that the squad had basically tuned the manager out.
Now, I don’t think we’re in that situation. I think Jürgen’s relationships with the players are still solid and they’re still paying attention to what he’s saying. Having just signed another contract extension last year, I don’t think we’re in any danger of him deciding it’s just not working for him on Merseyside anymore. But when you think about the psychological impact of the end of last season, it might be not too far beyond the reach of reality that it takes a “real” opponent like City to get the Reds really into the game. Palace and Fulham just aren’t at that level, despite knowing that they’re going to throw everything at us. But you’d also think that, even as inept as they’d looked in their first two matches, ManU would still be a game that this squad would go after like a cask of really rare sherry. With a couple exceptions, Mo Salah being the most notable, we got walled in and there we were, 16th in the table, with 2 points out of 9; already 5 points behind City and 7 behind league-leaders, Arsenal. So today the pendulum finally swung.
Of course, the original story is about narrowly-escaping death at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, so the pendulum metaphor isn’t completely appropriate, but the image that it normally brings, especially in sports, is one of a sudden reversal of fortune, which escaping death can be seen as, too. And, who knows? Despite the quality of the opposition, perhaps we look back at this match against Bournemouth as the beginning of something substantial. At the very least, it means we’re somehow top scorers in the PL so far this season. But, despite this being the best league match we’ve played in the past couple seasons (at least), I find myself still bending toward the “quality of the opposition” perspective. Even if we were able to match the record of goals scored and winning margin in the PL (that record being matched twice in the past four seasons against Southampton; due credit to them for embracing the legacy and getting in some good-natured teasing of their fellow south coasters), consistency is what wins a league title. Let’s celebrate the history of the victory and the debuts of players like Stefan Bajcetic and Bobby Clark and the first PL goals for Harvey Elliott and Fabio Carvalho. But let’s keep in mind what it will take to keep the pendulum from swinging back or, in terms of the story, to escape from wandering in the darkness until victory finally comes.
Liverpool 9 – 0 Bournemouth
One side note since I didn’t actually cover the ManU match: Like many of the players, I haven’t really turned on for this season yet, as I’ve mentioned a couple times before. I’ve still seen every minute of action (including pre-season matches) but the motivation to write about another season is still lacking somewhat. Again, maybe it was just an overdose of football last season or perhaps it’s the weird circumstances of this season having a two-month break in the middle of it. But I tend to respond to people that are also striving for the things I’m hoping for. In that respect, the only two players that were really performing for LFC against ManU were Roberto Firmino and Mo:
That note from LFC Stats about Mo needing “to be more involved” seems like a personal criticism, rather than the systemic one it was. Likewise, everyone who was complaining about Bob’s performance was (once again) not really paying attention to what was going on. Bob set a personal best for the number of touches in the middle third of a PL game and kept the ball from spending even more time in our defensive end. Many were complaining about his lack of offensive production, but he was the one keeping an enthusiastic United side from totally overwhelming us. In the end, he was basically playing like a 6 because our usually ultra-reliable guy in that spot was on the bench and our midfield of Captain Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Robot Warrior, and Harvey were simply overrun. We had chances to draw the match or even win it, as Jürgen insisted afterwards, but it didn’t happen because we’d dug ourselves too deep a pit. So now we come to the Bournemouth match:
Ahem. That’s your man-of-the-match without question and it was a perfect example of a Bob Role game, as well as having his 100th goal for the club. I wondered after the last match whether we’d continued to play the style we seem to have adopted for Darwin’s strengths even without Darwin present. One aspect of that style is that both Mo and Luís Diaz have been playing wider, which means that the overlaps by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have been less frequent. That’s OK for Trent who, as I’ve mentioned before, has fully adopted the “roving midfielder” role accorded him with Mo out that wide. But that’s not really Robbo’s game and playing our wingers that wide without the target man to take advantage of the space provided doesn’t really help Bob’s game, either. Today, we went back to Robbo being the widest guy on the left, which left Luís moving inside, enabling the Scot to do those overlapping runs into the box that we know so well. The constant threat there meant that Bournemouth had to shift a bit, which created more space on the right, leading to the service for the first goal by Luís and then the golazos from Harvey:
Yeah, man. Jürgen said later that he doesn’t like it when the crowd screams “Shoot!” when a player has a free moment outside the box, “but this time it worked out OK.” Of course, the scoreline is littered with records of one kind or another; the most obvious being the biggest PL win ever for LFC, tying the record with ManU’s demolition of Ipswich Town and Southampton and Leicester’s similar thrashing of Soton. It was, of course, our biggest league win since the same scoreline was delivered against Palace in 1989. It’s also the first time we’ve scored five in a first half since 1958 against Brighton when we were down in the second division. Bob’s three assists and one goal meant he was the first Liverpool player to have four goal involvements in a match in the PL era. It’s the second time we’ve had five different goalscorers in a single half; the first was in 1892. And, trivia time, at 17 years and 309 days, Stefan is the youngest non-British player to make a league appearance for the Reds. Those records were on the backs of a lot of other strong performances, in addition to Bob:
That was one half of work, as he was replaced by Fabio at halftime because of a minor injury concern. The future is very, very bright at that spot but the present isn’t bad in multiple areas on the pitch.
We will never not miss Sadio Mané but, man, the energy that Luís brings to every match is so consistent as to be approaching the mundane. One of the upsides to Colombia not making the World Cup is that he won’t be the focal point of typical international play, which frequently results in stupid injuries and more fatigue for the season (aside from not being part of the farce that is the Qatar competition.) But one guy that will be there, no matter the seeming conservative mindset of Gareth Southgate is the Scouser in our team:
Aside from the absurd accuracy on long passes and crosses (and the excellent goal), I counted at least three times that I would’ve shouted “Trent can’t defend!” had I been at Magee’s for the match, as he ran down sorties from the Cherries coming down his side; twice simply by keeping pace and once by starting behind his man and simply outsprinting him. On that note, ManU made double the number of sprints that we did at Old Trafford on Monday. Prior to that, LFC had averaged 160% of ManU’s sprint volume over the past four years, per Simon Brundish. Today’s game is what you get when you come to play.
And, of course, when your opponent is the worst team in the league by some margin. All of the above also happened with Mo somehow not getting a goal, despite two sitters that came his way in the box. Whattaya gonna do?
Saudi PFC comes to Anfield on Wednesday because stupid World Cup season condensation. The Maggies look like a decent side. If we maintain this intensity, the three points should still be ours, but we’ve said that before this season already. Also, transfer window warriors rejoice! The club has revealed that, unlike two seasons ago, they’re not going to gamble on the injury situation and they’re trying to get another midfielder into the squad; not least because of that schedule and with so many among the midfield seemingly out until only a few weeks before the international tournament. Of course, the fact is that we knew Thiago, Ox, and Naby were all injury-prone before we bought them so, while it’s unusual to have as many sidelined as we currently have, it’s not entirely unexpected that their problems might coincide at some point. But, no, Dortmund have insisted that Jude Bellingham is not leaving. Given LFC’s normal plan of buying for the long term, it’s hard to say who might end up being the choice. One hopes that it won’t end up sidelining players like Harvey, Curtis, or Fabio: