When the season started, we watched the Community Shield game and thought: “This is the squad we saw for so much of last year.” We figured that we were just carrying through. Yes, we played every match possible in ’21-’22 and, yes, we failed to achieve our two highest goals, but we were still easily one of the top two clubs in the world and had not just maintained our talent depth but, in the opinions of most, had massively strengthened it. We handled a side like Manchester City and walked away with yet another trophy. And then the season actually started.
Since that point, we’ve played seven Premier League matches and have won two of them, while drawing four and losing one. We’ve looked almost unrecognizable on the pitch, not only from what we’d been doing for much of the past six years, but also to what we’d done in London to kick off the new season. Injuries have absolutely taken a toll and could be used to explain some of the wobbly moments in August. But now we have the majority of our squad available and we haven’t played a league match in almost a month and we show up today and get comprehensively outplayed for the first half hour. Completely. Utterly. There was no question whatsoever whom was the better side on the pitch. Much of the criticism this year has been aimed at the midfield, with questions about Captain Jordan Henderson’s capabilities at the age of 30 among them. And, yes, Hendo was directly responsible for the first Brighton goal, by letting the ball bounce in front of him and losing control, rather than heading it out of the area. But Hendo was also responsible for the pass to Mo Salah who delivered the ball to Roberto Firmino for our first goal. Hendo was also responsible for the great pass out to Thiago Alcãntara that led directly to our second goal, also by Bob. Similarly, Harvey Elliott has been both extolled for his offense and questioned about his defense. Thiago is often lauded as the answer to all of Liverpool’s problems, if only he can stay on the field. But his wayward passes also led directly to at least two of Brighton’s scoring chances. But he also had the most passes completed, chances created, and tackles won, so…?
What does all of that mean, both in the midfield and almost everywhere else? It means that “What’s wrong with Liverpool?” isn’t an easy question to identify and won’t have a simple answer. No one is more evident an example than Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose performances had Jürgen explaining the basics of modern football to a room full of football writers yesterday. But it’s not hard to look at any match this season and see that he hasn’t been his usual self. The most notable point of data in that assessment is that we’re 10 games into the season and he has yet to produce an assist. But the reality of this situation is now right in front of us: We’re no longer among the two best clubs in the world, no matter what we may think of our Reds. Early as it is in the year, it’s hard to hand that label to almost any club right now, but we’re apparently so incapable of dominating matches in the fashion we’ve become accustomed to that this situation can’t be dismissed as a fluke or something that will work itself out. At the moment, this is the new normal. We’ve turned the clock back to ’16-’17 where our scoring ability wasn’t in doubt but our defensive ability was a constant worry. This is our normal state, just as it was then.
Why has it become that, despite having vastly more and superior talent to that group from six years ago? I don’t know. I’m not sure Jürgen knows. But we have another eight matches before Halloween (and three more in the two weeks afterwards) to find out if this is just some kind of weird dream that we’ve woken up into or if this is the nightmare before Christmas known as a transitional season that we were all hoping to avoid. Regardless, when you’re in the dreamworld, you play by said world’s rules and this is where we are.
Liverpool 3 – 3 Brighton and Hove Albion
In the end, a draw was probably the most justified result, per the stats. Alfred’s numbers on xG have it reversed, slightly favoring us, which means that it was basically too close for most models to definitively call. Given that Brighton could easily have been leading 4-0 at one point in the first half, rather than just 2-0, it’s not out of the realm of reason to consider ourselves lucky to have gotten a point, despite the frustration of having given away a lead and the three points yet again. As noted, the first half hour was all Brighton. But we got our heads back on a few minutes later, as Hendo, Mo, and Bob combined for a pretty slick goal so that we only went into the half down one. Six minutes into the second, Luís and Bob had combined for the second and then we began to control the game in the way we used to. Brighton were still getting opportunities and we weren’t choking the life from them in the way we’ve also become accustomed to, but it was clear which side was now supposedly in control. Nothing displays that better than corners, as in our 9 to their 2, and via which we finally took the lead off an unfortunate OG by Adam Webster. But, then, all it took was one breakdown defensively and Leandro Trossard completing the first hat trick at Anfield in the league since 2009 and there we were, gnashing our collective teeth in frustration at our inability to control what was happening. But that’s sometimes what happens when you’re confronted with a new reality.
This is a great diagram from Alfred that kind of highlights the generalities I’m making. Our passing network, like usual, is extremely forward. We’re on the attack, trying to move the ball into wide spaces to create chances. You can see the chain of possession down the right side that is usually the most obvious sign of the Trent-Hendo-Mo phenomenon. Brighton’s network, OTOH, is a demonstration of two things. The first, closer to the goal, is an example of how Brighton normally plays against us; bunkered into their own end. The second are the couple prominent connections almost into their offensive zone, which are passes going between the lines where their attackers had all kinds of space. This is something that Jürgen was bemoaning after the match, calling it “horrendous.” Our midfield was, once again, being bypassed and there were no injury excuses to make this time. This was Jürgen’s and most fans’ preferred starting combination of Hendo, Thiago, and Fabinho. And it was getting bypassed. As he didn’t come into mention above, it’s worth pointing out that Fab, like the rest of the defense, has been seriously underwhelming this season. I don’t know if he’s carrying an injury or dealing with stuff off the pitch, but this is far from the guy we’ve usually referred to as the best DM in Europe. Like everyone else, you can’t do much other than shrug until he figures it out; unusually in his case, we don’t really have a solid replacement, either.
This, of course, is mildly hilarious, given Bob’s troubles scoring at home in the past few seasons. But he’s also been one of our two best players this season and was in the argument for MotM with that other player.
How weird is it that the keeper is in the discussion for MotM on a day you give up three? Hm. Yeah. But Alisson Becker was the only reason we weren’t staring up at a three, four, or five goal deficit. He kept us in this game and was responsible for precisely none of the balls that went in the net. But this is the occasional contrast of the game. You look at that scoreline and think the keeper must have underperformed somewhere, but the reality is that he’s the only reason we had a chance at a point in the first place.
This is another great example of this phenomenon. A lot of people would accuse Hendo and Trent of being two of the most susceptible underperformers on the pitch. But, like I noted, Hendo’s passing led directly to our two goals and Trent was also a serious threat in the offensive end. Clearly, he’s been told to move into the middle more often and he’s even regularly playing the connector to actions on the left side. I’m left wondering if taking on those new responsibilities have kind of dulled his edge on performing in his usual tasks (again, no assists through 10 games) and might be leading to some of the troubles in the middle of the pitch that we’re seeing so often now. Brighton tore right through our center multiple times this match and that’s been a frequent occurrence (think Napoli.) It also adds to the unwelcome trend where in 12 of the last 15 matches we’ve let the opponent score first and in five of those it’s happened in the first five minutes, just like today. If this is, in fact, the new normal, we have to make some changes somewhere to address it or this will be a very long season for all the wrong reasons.
We have Rangers in town for the first competitive match ever between our two storied clubs. Then we get to go to league-leading Arsenal next week. That… might be fun?