I hate losing to Arsenal. I’ve hated losing to the Gunners since 1989, when they stole the league title from us in the last few minutes of the last game of the season (Sound familiar? Yeah.) I know that’s way before I lot of you started caring or even knowing about Liverpool Football Club, but I’m old and it still sticks with me, as I’m (again) one of those old-fashioned relics who still thinks the league is everything. But I hated losing to them a generation later when we were still trying to find a system that consistently worked and Arsene Wenger had perfected his at Highbury and was running rings around us with players like Thierry Henry. They made it seem so effortless. So machine-like. So very much like the Liverpool of the past few years which doesn’t seem anything like the Liverpool we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks. So, like I was saying before about the new reality, ours is that we’re just aiming for top 4 right now.
I can immediately hear some of your thoughts: “Eight games into the season and you’re suggesting we should abandon the title race?” Well, no. Since we’re playing every game and every game is worth points, we can’t “abandon” the race even if we wanted to. But you have to be in a title race to care about it and, as Jürgen pointed out today after the match, we’re not in the title race. We’re 14 points back just like we were in January of last season, but we had more games in hand then and we were playing far better than we are now. This squad isn’t in a position, mentally, to compete for titles. We’re starting to think that it’s OK if we just do well at Ibrox on Wednesday. Finishing second in the Champions League group is about where we are at the moment, especially considering how we got the doors blown off by Napoli, the likely winner of said group. Plus, there’s really no such thing as “focusing on the cups” with a squad this deep and with a season so disrupted that we don’t know how the domestic cup tourneys will even be scheduled. So, why am I just throwing my hands up and accepting that this is where we are? What’s the problem that seems so insurmountable?
I don’t know.
I don’t know what the problem is. I don’t know why a team loaded with this much talent has put up fewer points in the last five league matches than a club we ravaged 9-0 has. (Bournemouth has 9 points since that match. We have, um, 5.) I’m starting to think that Jürgen doesn’t know, given how despondent he looked in one of his post-game interviews. This time, it wasn’t just giving up the opening goal in the first few minutes. It was giving it up in the first minute and basically the first time Arsenal had touched the ball. Paul Tomkins thinks it’s an age problem, since a lot of our key guys (Mo Salah, Captain Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcãntara, Virgil Van Dijk) are on the wrong side of 30. He thinks we can’t keep up with the burst and speed that younger sides have. But we’re getting beaten by much younger squads like Arsenal’s and squads that are much closer to our age profile, like Napoli (their 25.6 to our 26.8 average years.) Plus, probably our best player this season, Roberto Firmino, is 31, although it’s equally fair (and, yeah, equally specious given randomness and sample size) to say that a lot of the aforementioned 30+-year-olds aren’t exactly shining examples of performance right now.
So, no, I don’t think there’s an easy answer like age or tactics or the fact that we didn’t buy fifteen more midfielders in the summer. The one we did get on loan is now out with injury for four months. These things happen. There are very rarely solutions as obvious as people like to claim that Virg was back in 2018. They say he “transformed” the defense, but the defense had already been on a steady and marked upward swing for three months prior to his arrival. Did he improve it? Of course. But was he “The Answer”? I can’t say that with any degree of certainty in the same way that I can’t say what the problem is now. But there is a problem. That’s patently obvious. And if we don’t come up with some kind of solution in the next week of training, Manchester City will eat us alive on Sunday. City is already among the clubs I hate losing to, not only because of the recent rivalry, but other things involving fraud and money. I really don’t want them to really bury a season that’s on the verge of being so, anyway.
Arsenal 3 – 2 Liverpool
We got schooled in the second half. There was a stretch there where they had us pinned into our half in the same way that we’ve done to them and most of our opponents for the past five years. We ended up switching formation in order to try to get out of it when Mo came off for Fabinho. That didn’t work and, for a time, made things worse so, yeah, I’m not sure formations or tactics are really the issue here. There’s been some discussion of going to a back three with Virg, Joel Matip, and Ibrahima Konaté, but I really don’t think Jürgen wants to risk Joel’s legs in that kind of arrangement and it’s not something we’ve experimented with at all in the years that Klopp has been here. We’re already having trouble adjusting to the idea of a genuine target man in Darwin Nuñez and Trent Alexander-Arnold has clearly been struggling with the shift toward being more of a midfielder so perhaps experiments are better left for when we actually have some wins under our belt. Of course, nothing else is working, so we’re on the merry-go-round of What To Do.
We definitely switched to the 4-2-3-1 with Darwin in. I’m fine with that because it’s a formation we’ve used off and on over the years and it’s nominally a more defensive one, which is what we really need help with right now. Of course, it’s more defensive when you don’t have fullbacks flying forward like we do, so we’ve always played it as more of an offensive focus, which is still the way we play. As Jürgen pointed out, Trent is often incorrectly viewed as a defensive liability in part because he plays so far forward, but that’s the way we play and the offensive benefits have almost always been worth the downside of some defensive fragility. People keep trying to pin a lot of these results on him because opponents are coming down the left side, but that leaves me wondering where these LFC fans have been for four years. Opponents always try to come down the left side against us because Virg isn’t there. This is not a new thing. It’s not complex positioning errors and responsibility that are doing us in. It’s things like the inability to do the most basic defensive task in existence- clearing the ball -which is what led to the farcical penalty call against Thiago. But, OK, mild positives.
Bob was his usual self against the Gunners, constantly disruptive and both holding and moving the ball at will. That’s 6 goals and 3 assists in just 6 appearances in the Premier League this season, which is a goal every 78 minutes and a G/A every 52. I’m thinking that if we are going to proceed with regularly starting Darwin, the guy who has to be in the 10 spot behind him is Bob. Of course, the guy who delivered the perfect pass that set up Bob’s goal was Diogo Jota and, now that we’ve learned that Luís Diaz is out until December with a knee injury (this just keeps getting better…), there’s no excuse not to have both of them on the pitch right up to the Big Bribery thing. In addition to that, Darwin did manage to score off a brilliant cross from Luís, so hopefully that gets him going in a positive direction. Also, Kostas Tsimikas managed his second fantastic goal-line clearance in a week, even if the play would have been called offside. If Trent’s ankle is going to be a problem and Andy Robertson is ready to return, I’m all about playing wrong-footed Kostas on the right.
Guess it’s time to retire the whole LiVARpool thing, yeah?
At this point, I’ve long since accepted the idea that PL refs are generally not competent to do the job they’re being asked to do. That’s what VAR is supposed to help with. That they and PGMOL have decided to treat the technology as a personal affront to their capabilities is a problem not unique to England, but certainly one with more emphasis there. What that means is that we can’t even trust the guys manning the cameras in Stockley Park (in yesterday’s case, Darren England (how appropo…)) to ask questions where there should be questions. I’m OK with the handball call on Gabriel Magalhâes not being made because I’m not fond of the way the handball rule is usually applied. That said, if it’s usually called that way (and we saw a perfect example of how it was in the Newcastle-Brentford game the day before and the ManU–Everton game right after ours, then it’s absurd that England didn’t even tell Michael Oliver to come look at the screen. Similarly, the ridiculous call on Thiago for the winning penalty deserved another look, at the very least. He might’ve still given it, since there was some (tiny) contact, but why didn’t England call Oliver to come see if he thought it was enough contact? Mo takes 20 hits a game like that in the box but he won’t get that call because he’s not the serial flopper that Gabriel Jesus is and is also named “Mohamed Salah”.
On that note about about Mo, a few weeks ago I mentioned that, even though he’s not scoring, he was still creating more chances than anyone in the league, which meant that he was still playing well even without the goals. But yesterday he had the fewest touches in the opposition box of any PL game since he arrived at Liverpool. Again, it’s a team game and that means people weren’t getting balls to him and Arsenal was obviously quite determined to stop him. But the idea of signing Darwin was that they’d have another target to be concerned about in the center of the pitch and not necessarily all the way on the other side of it like Sadio Mané used to represent and that does not appear to be paying off.
The Liverpool Offside was saying that they’re done with footy this year and will now become fully invested in whether the Rings show is better than the Dragons show or vice-versa. I told them they don’t want to do that since, in the end, they’re both kinda meh and you want to try to feel something, even if it’s agony. Speaking of agony, we play City this weekend, so that will be a day. At the very least, it’s at Anfield and we can always hope for something like the January 2018 game or the November 2019 game or some other match when we were playing like we knew what we were doing. How about the Community Shield? That was a tease, wasn’t it?