There was a period in the mid-90s when Newcastle United were the darlings of the Premier League. Under former Liverpool star, Kevin Keegan, the Maggies played a go-for-broke style that never failed to entrance the viewer and frequently won, as well. I’ve mentioned before the match often referred to as the “game of the century” in 1996, between Newcastle, desperate to hold on to their failing lead over Manchester United, and Liverpool, still clinging to the hope of an outside shot at the title ourselves, at Anfield. It was a spectacular match, won in the dying moments by the Reds… which sets up nicely for tonight’s result, similarly won in the beyond-death moments by rising supersub, Fabio Carvalho. The difference was that, instead of being a pell-mell, back-and-forth race to the finish, as in that 1996 match, this game went to those dying moments because it was slowly dying for the full 90, if Newcastle had anything to say about it. Since they began time-wasting in the second minute of the match, you could tell what the game plan was from the very outset: play as little of the actual game as possible. While they’re much-improved over the rather pedestrian squads under Rafa Benitez and Steve Bruce (oil money will do that for ya), Eddie Howe has decided that he’s still more interested in not playing against the big sides than he is in playing them. Maybe he took a look at what we did to his old club last week and decided he wanted no part of that? It would certainly be understandable from a human perspective, but not so much from a sporting one, especially considering that it comes in a match against one of the more entertaining sides of the Premier League in the last few years (that would be us), which lauds itself as the “greatest show on Earth.”
To Jürgen Klopp’s extreme credit, he spared no effort to constantly remind fourth official, Lee Mason, of what Newcastle’s little scheme was. He knew because he’d even mentioned it in the pre-match press conference. It’s a reputation that, given all of the PL’s insistence that the matches should “flow”, should now be firmly attached to Howe and the Maggies, given what was on display tonight. Howe tried to assert afterwards that it was the high number of matches in a few days that produced fatigue and cramps that were really slowing things down. That might even be believable if it weren’t only the fifth match of the season and if black-and-white shirts weren’t already hitting the deck in the first few minutes of the game. I mean, you’re complaining because you’ve just played your first pair of matches separated by only three days? Welcome to our world for the past five years. Sounds like you might have to up your standards at Darsley Park. After all, you have $800 billion on tap. You might be able to hire a nutritionist and a couple yoga instructors for that kind of coin. (Or maybe listen to the Arsenal fans and just get some inhalers. Apparently works for us!)
Do I sound incredibly spiteful? Yeah, I do. When the biggest sportswashing effort of the last decade (and that’s saying something) appears on your doorstep and claims that the best way to play the game is to not play the game, it makes the whole spectacle even more repellent than it already is. Slightly emphasizing that feeling is the fact that, now five matches in, we’re simply still not on track. We’ve had one clean sheet out of those five games and, barring the one massive win over a side that shouldn’t even be in the PL, we’ve given up the lead in eight of the nine going back to last season. With few exceptions, we’re also looking fairly slow and predictable in a lot of ways. I hate to think that it actually is because we spent the whole summer shifting our approach to fit Darwin Nuñez’s game and, now that he’s unavailable, we can’t seem to shake out of that mode. That wouldn’t make sense, anyway, since we looked this awkward in the two games Darwin actually played, too. Every squad goes through fallow periods. Sometimes it’s just the way the game goes. But they usually don’t happen at the beginning of the season, especially to a squad as experienced as this one, much of which has been playing together for several years now. Of course, as I’ve noted before, there’s nothing to do but keep playing the games, unlike Newcastle, and hope that things shake themselves out. This coming Saturday might be a great opportunity to do that, if the Bitters decide to actually play football.
Liverpool 2 – 1 Newcastle United
It’s the return of the fabled 2-1 scoreline! I mean, I guess that’s cool, since we happened to win a lot of said games during that stretch a while back? But it was aggravating then and kinda remains so now. Don’t get me wrong; three points is three points, however you get them, but there remains that strange malaise that seems to settle over four out of five matches now, despite the statistics weighing heavily in our favor. There were some theories out there that this could be something of a transition year, regardless of the ridiculous population of talent on both the pitch and the bench, and it’s playing out like that at the moment. No telling what happens in the intense lead-in to the massive break in the middle of the season (Champions League begins next week!) and then what follows afterwards, but if we want to get into a title race, something has to change and soon. What doesn’t seem to be changing is the absurd shot maps that we end up leaving, as seen above, regardless of actual result. An old school stat that will tell you a similar story of how we dominated this match is corner kicks; meaning our 13 to Newcastle’s zero. Zero. Remember my suggestion a couple years back about starting to award penalty kicks once one side exceeds the opposition in corners by double digits? Yeah. But the fancystats say the same thing:
Come on, yo.
Seriously, when the league gets in on the act, come on. “Hey, the highlight match of the day was a total mismatch because one side didn’t actually want to play football! Greatest show on Earth!” There’s a fancystat known as PPDA (passes per defensive action.) For us, it was 8.2. That means we allowed an average of 8.2 passes before an attempt was made to challenge or tackle the ball. For Newcastle, it was 17.1. And, believe me, it probably got to 8.2 because of that one spell of a couple minutes in the second half where they actually had possession for more than 15 seconds. You can see in Caley’s diagram above that three of their four actual shots came in that little bunching on the left side. As with most teams that play us, they were clearly avoiding Virgil Van Dijk. But, even so, Joe Gomez has been playing brilliantly in his two matches of real action. He showed up on both the defensive AND offensive ends today, creating some real pressure in the offensive third and even getting a shot off (he has yet to score a senior-level goal.) We may even be approaching that spectacular form he enjoyed with Virg before both of them were cut down by injuries a couple years ago. But someone who’s had no trouble with form was the man-of-the-match, without question:
Those basic stats don’t even come close to telling the story of Harvey Elliott’s game. He was the driving force of the midfield in every sense of the phrase. As Alfred pointed out
he was doing massive work up and down that right side and that includes the ball retention work that I’ve always lauded both Captain Jordan Henderson and the departed Gini Wijnaldum for. But, just as importantly, he also contributed massively to ball progression, which is something we’ve occasionally been lacking. I mentioned to someone the other day that Harvey’s play has pushed him past the idea of rotation, as you might consider for Curtis Jones, into nailed-on starter for the moment. In Curtis’ defense, Harvey may be an exceptional talent (it’s a little early, but we’re moving past the “may be” part of that statement, too) and Curtis is only 21 years old, so he has plenty of time to blossom into what Jürgen and the rest of us are hoping for. But Harvey may already be there.
Similarly, Fabio has done nothing but positive things in the supersub role so far. He’s basically become everything that we always wanted Divock Origi to be, but also with the late goals against Newcastle. He’s also creating real arguments for a starting role in the midfield. Speaking of arguments…
With Darwin suspended, Roberto Firmino has made a pretty loud statement for a continuing role as the squad’s false nine, as opposed to Darwin as the actual nine. Those diagrams show someone filling that role perfectly and it’s the experienced player who doesn’t even think about taking a touch off Mo Salah’s feed into the box, but simply passes it on the first touch to the far corner, just as Jim Proudfoot pointed out during the match. As it was “just” the equalizer, I loved seeing him keep that attitude that Sadio Mané often displayed, calling everyone right back to the center circle to get on with it, because there was no time to celebrate while the three points could still be had. That’s the kind of attitude and work rate being displayed by both of the other two guys on the front line, but especially by Mo:
I think LFC Stats does him a disservice by even suggesting that his night was “quiet” because he didn’t score. That’s two assists! And the six chances. That’s 21 open play chances he’s created this season in the PL. No one else in the league has more than 11. (“Only Mo Salah…”) That’s exactly what you want out of your forwards and he still had two direct goal contributions on top of that, even if he didn’t put the ball in the net himself. It really doesn’t get much better than that, even if our first shot on target didn’t happen until the 60th minute (Bob’s goal) and we once again let in the first shot on target by the opposition.
Anyway, yeah. The Bitters on the weekend in the damn early game again. Get to Magee’s, you slackers. The least you can do is reward late effort like this with an early arrival: