That title is too long for a band name and not quite bizarre enough to be a William S. Burroughs story, so it will have to do for a simple blog post about a Champions League game. 88 minutes into this one, we were approaching mantra status:
Winning the xG
Dominating the ball
Controlling the game
Getting the draw
This is what I was going to start repeating during every match because it’s been the story of most of our season so far. It’s like the long-lasting aftershocks from last season’s CL final. The stats say we should have won, many times over, but instead we struggle with sides that we ruthlessly overmatch and are left wandering bewildered as things once again don’t go our way. Of course, one additional little codicil to that which was also part of that lost final is conceding the first shot on target. Again. But this time that mantra was interrupted by one of the more unlikely of sources.
Joel Matip, more giraffe than man, was finally able to take advantage of the absurd edge that we had in the air (8/9 for Virgil Van Dijk, 7/8 for Joel), shots (24-3), and corners (10-0.) It was that last part that finally did the trick, despite Dusan Tadic’s best efforts to keep the ball from crossing the line (He was, uh, far too late.) His was part of the marked contrast to last outing’s debacle against Napoli and Joel, Diogo Jota, Kostas Tsimikas, and almost-incomparable Thiago Alcãntara (MotM winner) showed just what this squad can do when their collective head (ahem) is in the game. This is to take nothing away from Ajax, who somehow constantly look like the Ajax of old, no matter how many of their best players (and managers) are swept away by bigger clubs. They still play the same forward and exciting style. The key thing in this match was that we were able to keep them from playing that style as often as they liked. In addition to their decision to keep playing the ball out from the back, the Reds’ pressing intensity was the highest it’s been this season. In that respect, the reaction to the disaster in Napoli (not quite Pompeii-like, but close [geography joke]) seems to have been a positive one. If only we could get the ball to bounce between the posts, rather than off them, we might be on the verge of some real change.
But now comes the challenge of a layoff for the next 18 days, thanks to the idiocy of both massive funerals on the public dime and international breaks right before the most massive international break that’s ever been held during the season. We’ve seen the challenges presented by getting this team out of its rhythm, when it was actually more positive for us to be playing every three days, rather than the once-weekly schedule of old. However, as Jürgen noted when asked yesterday about that very topic: “What rhythm? We’d gladly get out of the rhythm we’ve been in.” We played well tonight but, just like against Newcastle, it took a last minute winner to get us across the line and remaining in contention for top honors in the group. Being able to get five or six players back from injury thanks to this extended vacation, mid-season, might put us back to where everyone hoped we’d be, post-Community Shield. Perhaps we’ll shift from droning mantra to something like a haiku:
Giraffe flies forward
The orb soars across the line
He points to the watch
Liverpool 2 – 1 Ajax
Again, the entire team participating and playing well was essential here. Nothing highlighted that more than the first goal: the long and accurate delivery from Alisson Becker (part of why we paid what we did for him) to the head of Luís Diaz to the feet of Diogo to the feet of Mo Salah. I mean, it’s Route 1 football without even a switch of play, which isn’t the most brilliant to watch, but it was us taking advantage of our physical edge (speed and size) and finishing (for once.) The second one was just the cherry on top of Kostas’ sundae.
Don’t get me wrong: Andy Robertson is still the guy I’d like to see as the starting left back, mostly for this speed and intensity on the ball. But Kostas has been making a serious argument because there are things that he just does better than Robbo. One of them is placement into the box, not just on set pieces as in today’s goal, but on deliveries up around the left corner. As opposed to right back being our weakest spot on the squad for depth, left back may just be the strongest, as the two of them are almost interchangeable right now. The other end of that winning goal may have lifted his head above his rivals in that respect, though. (Yes, that’s a giraffe joke.)
Joe Gomez and Ibrahima Konaté are both excellent players and are both usually more durable and definitely younger than Joel is. But, man, the offensive openings that he creates just from his pronounced ability to carry the ball are a serious extra advantage, especially in these days of our misfiring offense. He and Virg also had the most shots of anyone in the match (4 and 3, respectively) and 16 touches in the opposition box between them. Yes, that’s at least as much a measure of Ajax’s diminutive size overall, but it’s also the sign of guys who know how to get to the ball on offense, as well as defense. That goal from Joel was his 10th in a Reds shirt, with LFC not losing any of the matches in which he’s scored (9 wins, 1 draw.) But, uh, yeah, c’mon:
There are Ajax fans on Reddit talking about how weird it was to see them completely penned in to their own half for the first time this season. This is one of those times I seriously question those possession numbers because this seemed like any other Premier League game against an overmatched side, with us just holding the ball and trying to break them down because, as noted, even with all of that statistical dominance, it still took a last-minute winner. But the maestro of that stats dominance was the same as it almost always is when he’s on the pitch:
I tend to shy away from gushing about players because there’s almost always something to analyze and pick apart that might’ve been done better and the idea that any one player in this very team-oriented game could be THE factor is usually exaggeration, at the very least. But it’s really hard to argue against the impact that Thiago has almost every time he plays. He completed the most passes (55), won the most ground duels (6), and had the most recoveries (9.) He was just a constant presence in that middle third, enabling Luís to skate wherever he wanted on the left side and Harvey to do the same on the right. And, at the same time, he created opportunities again and again, being 10 for 10 on long passes, as well. If we could just keep him on the damn field… But credit has to go to at least one other consistent performer on both ends, as well.
“Consistency” is a really important word here. Even though he hasn’t been scoring much, Mo has been everywhere. The goal tonight had to be something of a relief after going five games without one, but he’s been doing a lot all over the pitch and it’s difficult to not consider him among Liverpool’s best performers of the season, even if we could use a few less posts and a few more rippling nets.
Also, due credit to the Bayern Munich fans for their saying the same thing I was a few days ago. You can fete your precious monarch without disrupting the lives and enjoyment of millions of people around the world. Now that the Chelsea match has definitely been postponed, we’re going to be up against it at some point in the season. Of course, now that new owner, Todd Boehly, is determined to prove how “‘Mericans know how to improve yer sport!” because pointless exhibition matches that no one cares about is definitely the “lesson” that everyone should draw from American sports, who knows what excitement lies before us? This is before we even get into the logistics of the whole concept, like “When exactly would this useless exhibition be played?” and, given that the PL only has 20 teams and you need 22 to put full squads on the field, how do we put together an even roster that isn’t dominated by one or two clubs? (And, uh, we likely know who those one or two clubs would be, fan-voted or simply selected.) Doesn’t this nimrod know that there are already plenty of other American owners in the PL who haven’t decided to play the Ugly Yankee card?
Why am I wandering off at the tail end of this? Because we get nothing for two-and-a-half weeks from this point forward. I’ll probably find something to ramble on about during that period, but no guarantees, since I’ve been kinda busy writing about dragons and rings and other nerd stuff. (And some films, too.)