Well, we’ve often reached this point in the season during the January fade under Jürgen Klopp, wherein the intensity that he so favors and which produces outstanding results in the first half of the season seems to take enough out of the squad that we just can’t keep the pace, post-holiday schedule. It’s led to some seasons that shoulda/coulda been title-winners and, far less often, almost outright disasters, as with two years ago and the six-match losing streak at Anfield. Just like then, some of our current problem may be a result of the injury list. However, there’s something else going on here, since we’re not in the normal time frame of mid-season nor are we entirely crippled by injury losses as with our CBs in ’20-’21. Simon Brundish kind of summed it up neatly yesterday:
We’re just not seeing the same energy and cohesion on the pitch. Much of what we do looks slow and uncoordinated and any Premier League side (i.e. not Bournemouth) putting 8 guys in the box just completely outfoxes us and we end up hoping for brilliant shots from Luís Diaz (who almost hit another one yesterday; stupid post) in order to make something happen. The most glaring example of this lack of energy came from Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) who said that, from his stats, we’ve been outrun by every single side we’ve played this season by an average of 3.4k per match. Now, distance covered is always a nebulous assessment (similar to time of possession), especially given how we tend to dominate possession and so don’t have to chase the ball very often. But given how outrunning opponents was also something of a signal attribute of Klopp’s squads from Mainz to now, it’s really strange for that advantage to simply dissipate with the advent of the new season.
Certainly, history was not on our side as far as the result was concerned. There have been more goalless draws in the Merseyside derby in both PL history (12) and top-flight history (36) than any other fixture. But, speaking of nebulous statistics, that certainly qualifies as one, as do most historical trends of that sort. What we’re talking about is the here and the now, which sees us having accumulated a grand total of 9 points from 6 matches. That’s a pace that won’t keep us in the Champions League places, much less contending for a title, even if Man City was courteous enough to drop points yesterday against the Villans. If you’ve taken a look at the table recently, you’d notice that the rest of the top 6 is fully in the hunt, whereas we’re lagging behind them and, uh, Brighton. Even after 6 matches, it’s certainly still early days and, as we demonstrated last season, even a double digit gap with the leader is something that can be (almost) retrieved. But it certainly won’t happen playing the way we have been. This squad looks lost and, as much as I tried to dismiss it last time, I’m still having visions of Jürgen’s last season with the Schwarzgelben. Half the squad simply doesn’t look tuned in to what’s happening, while the other half, among them Luís, Harvey Elliott, Roberto Firmino, Fabio Carvalho, and James Milner, Robot Warrior, are collapsing from effort on the field trying to make up for it.
However, Millie was probably not the best answer for managing Trent Alexander-Arnold’s game time when we’re trying to make a breakthrough goal, as was Jürgen’s response to inquiries about that particular substitution. But with the breakneck schedule of the next few weeks (first group match of the CL is Wednesday; last one is the first week of November(!)), I can certainly understand his caution. But we’re now in a situation where every, single point of the PL season matters… which is not that different from the situation we’ve been in before, but that was when we were chasing City for a title. This is now just about qualification for the CL, which is crucial to the progression of the club. It’s always a tricky situation in terms of competing for trophies now or trying to lay off and go for the long stretch. I don’t envy any manager trying to make decisions in that situation, as it’s easy to get lost amidst those competing priorities. But that’s exactly what we look like now: lost. And that’s why all 3 of the draws we’ve taken have felt even more like losses because there doesn’t seem to be a clear path out of this malaise and that means a lot more hard questions, even avoiding those created by Qatar.
Everton 0 – 0 Liverpool
You look at that shot map and you don’t even see any big chances because, well, there weren’t any. The Bitters were organized defensively and, as noted, we’re just not that great at creating clear-cut stuff at the moment, despite Mo Salah’s best efforts in that respect being the one shining note of his play right now. On that topic, I find it pointless to criticize Mo for not scoring. All numbers available show that he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing for the rest of the team. It’s just that he’s not getting the service that he’d normally expect in return and when he is called upon to make his own shot, as he is quite adept at doing, they’re just not ending up in the net. Whether that’s because of squad changes, injuries, poor play, or some other X factor is the unknowable part at the moment. But you don’t just switch on “goalscoring mode” in the same way that the accusations of him coasting after that big contract are ludicrous. First off, the aforementioned number about chances created (highest in the PL) are the obvious counterargument, but there’s also the fact that, having come so close to the two big titles last year and his repeatedly stated desire to write himself into the history books, it’s hard to imagine how coasting on your raft of dollars/pounds/Euros is going to accomplish either of those achievements. There are two types of responses to problems like those we’re now facing: Those who ask “I wonder why this is happening?” and those who state “This is why this is happening!” and are invariably wrong.
How to make yourself frustrated in one image. Like the CL final, this game was ours in every way, shape, and form except for a couple isolated counters. Credit where it’s due, those counters, especially when Neil Maupay was leading them, were well executed and only Alisson Becker’s superior play stopped us from not getting anything out of this match.
Those are the moments you live for as a keeper. On that note, I think it’s safe to say that Conor Coady being called offside on his goal that would have, indeed, given us nothing was one of the more marginal VAR calls I’ve seen lately. It’s not like we haven’t been screwed in that respect over the years, but it doesn’t make me feel any better to see it happen to someone else (except City.) As far as other outstanding performers, I couldn’t find any of the usual stat tweets from places like Squawka because there weren’t really any outstanding performers yesterday; hence, the draw. But it’s safe to say that Bob’s arrival in the second half as an injury replacement for Fabio was key in energizing things for the first part of the period. It also gave us a change to really put the 4-2-3-1 into action, except that I’m not sure how well Harvey functions in the double pivot with Fabinho. Seemed to keep us forward offensively, though, which is really the point. Also, Joe Gomez was a consistent performer
as he’s stepped right back into his role as Virgil Van Dijk’s perfect match from a couple seasons ago. He’s still not great in the air, but that’s fine. He does so much else on the ground that he more than makes up for that one drawback.
In other news. It was hilarious to see all of the transfer window warriors (from here on out: TWWs) switch tack from “Sign someone! Sign ANYONE!” to “We signed an also-ran from Juve! FSG lacks ambition!” in the space of about thirty seconds. As I mentioned on the Facebook page, I immediately pinged my long-time Barca fan and friend, Michael, when I saw that we’d gotten Arthur and asked for some insight, since I know the player, but not in any serious detail. Michael’s response was succinct: “Injury-prone. Got anybody like that already?” Awesome. But he’s also in the 97th percentile for progressive passing and other more forward-thinking midfielder stuff, so he’s definitely in the model of what we’ve been recruiting (Thiago Alcãntara, Fabio) and what we’ve been developing (Harvey.) It is just a loan deal, so there’s not a huge risk laid out by the club (<cough>Naby<cough>) and he is technically in his prime right now, at just 26 years old. Given our current midfield injury list, I think it’s a solid move. Whether it’s something that helps turn around our current tailspin is way too large an ask, but that’s the kind of miracle cure that the TWW’s would be asking for when they get through whining about how “ANYONE” really meant “not THAT anyone.”
Speaking of Naby Keita, both he and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were left off the CL A-list possibly because, as noted, the first stage of the CL is going to be over before either of them are expected to return from their injuries. That’s not a surprise in the case of Ox but kinda is in the case of Naby. Stefan Bajcetic is on the A-list to help round out the squad and both Curtis Jones and Harvey are on the B-list (21 and under who’ve been with the club more than two years) so they can be named the day before a match if the manager wants them. In Naby’s case, we may just be done here. Given the current state of affairs, I wouldn’t be astonished to see him sold for a decent fee in the winter window if he’s able and the rest of the midfield seems to be in good shape, injury-wise. It’s a damn shame, but that’s football, yo.
Argh. Napoli on Wednesday at the (formerly) San Paolo but now the Stadio Maradona(!) As noted for all of our matches to date this season, on paper, this shouldn’t be a huge deal. But, yeah. They are currently atop the Serie A table with Milan, so it’s not like they’re a walkover. I’m not expecting anything thrilling. Then we get Bruno Lage, the box-packer, and his golden Wolves at Anfield next Saturday. Apologies to those of you who actually did make it to Magee’s yesterday for the derby, as I was scolding people to get there and ended up getting waylaid by another obligation myself. Mea culpa.
Also, as a side note to the football, if anyone feels like reading mildly acerbic stuff about TV series and movies, I’m in the midst of doing a blow-by-blow of both House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power, as those progress. When Game of Thrones was running, I wrote a critique of every episode, as I was a long-time fan of the never-to-be-seen-again novels. I’m also something of a Tolkien fan, so there it is. In between those, I’m usually writing about the various arthouse films that we see at the Michigan/State Theater(s) in Ann Arbor, if you have any interest in that kind of thing, too.