I’ve been a gamer for a long time. Board games, RPGs, video games; you name it, I’ve pretty much been deeply involved in it at some period in time, if not still. I still write for a site called ThereWillBe.Games occasionally, although I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus for the past few months. That’s probably why I’ve been a sports fan for as long as I have been, as well, despite the fact that the American mindset for a long time viewed the former as some kind of “nerd behavior”, while the latter was something for “regular people.” That mindset has changed a lot as the video gamers and RPG fans of the 80s became the adults of this century, so it’s not particularly strange that I’m still watching Liverpool and playing games like Abyss on the regular. A couple friends recently talked me into getting back into World of Warcraft, an amazing time sink if ever there was one. I always played a shaman because there was something about the whole nature angle combined with extreme violence that appealed to me. An ability in the game for shamans these days is known as Primordial Wave. What it’s supposed to do is harm your opponents while healing your allies. I suppose the theme in mind is that you’re reaching to the roots of existence (“primordial” literally means “at the beginning”) to create a situation that sets the world to rights from your perspective; hindering those against you while helping those who are with you. That was the scene today at Anfield when the Liverpool that we’ve all known since Jürgen Klopp arrived and which has been absent for much of the past two months finally returned and showed just what they can do against the other club that has been considered the best in English football for that period.
The word “primordial” is also commonly used to mean “essential”; as if the very nature of one’s being is displayed in the contest. On the drive home, I listened to the soundtrack from The Blood of Heroes, an excellent-but-low-budget, post-apocalyptic film with Rutger Hauer and Joan Chen about people who have scraped together a sporting competition called “jugging” where the object is to put a dog’s skull on a stake at either end of the playing field. Despite every moment being a fight for survival in the environmental disaster that is the world of Blood, the need for some kind of competition between communities has still led to the creation of this game. Football was actually invented after the industrial revolution had developed a society where a lot more people weren’t fighting for daily survival and wanted a way to spend their time away from daily labor doing something that still spoke to them of their community and the games they loved to play. That, too, in a way is primordial. It’s the idea that Liverpool is still a community that is centered around the success of its football team(s), even now that said community is millions of people spread across the world and not confined to the Mersey. But it’s still centered in that place we call “Anfield” and around those men who wear the red shirts.
This is the side that we know. This is the intensity that Jürgen has always said is our hallmark. This is the atmosphere at Anfield that makes it worth putting up a sign in the hallway leading to the field reminding our players, as Bill Shankly once said, whom they’re playing for and reminding the opposition whom they’re playing against. This was the reminder to all of us, including the squad, of what we can be, of what we need to be if we’re going to succeed, most likely against the two clubs that we’ve played against in the last two weekends. It doesn’t mean that we’re in contention for the title as one match solves nothing this early in the season. But it does mean that if we had played like this in the previous games, we’d likely be in contention, and if we continue to do so, that we might still be. This is the wakeup call, the awakening, the emergence, the primordial instance that says there’s still something to this season in the league and still something to hope for. This is the reminder that Mo Salah is still among the best in the world at what he does; that Alisson Becker may be the best, period; that even hit by injuries, this squad can still generate moments of brilliance from players like Joe Gomez and James Milner, who are often dismissed even by other Liverpool fans. This was our best game of the season so far. A number of neutrals on Reddit and Twitter have suggested it may have been the best game of the season so far, period. And, maybe, it’s a beginning.
Liverpool 1 – 0 Manchester City
First things first, let’s just revel in this for a moment:
<contented sigh> That was Ali becoming the keeper with the most goal contributions (1 goal, 3 assists) in Premier League history. All three of those assists have gone to one Mohamed Salah. With that goal, Mo also became the second player in the PL to have 100 left-footed goals (Baseball stat!); now trailing some guy named “Fowler” by just 4 goals. As a side note, I’m not as fond of Peter Drury as I am of a couple other commentators who I often feel have more energy, like Arlo White, but his follow-up of “This! Is! Anfield!” was quite good. Energy was a key point in this match, though. We came out in an extremely aggressive press, but were just as content to fall off quickly when that press didn’t succeed in the first couple seconds and let City have the ball, as is their wont (64% possession for them), and play on the counter. Our system usually takes a lot of energy to maintain, but even moreso when we’re expected to press for a couple seconds and then sprint back to keep City from being able to make runs in behind. It was exhausting enough that James Milner, Robot Warrior, serial winner of the pre-season lactate test, dropped to the turf from fatigue as soon as the final whistle was blown. The statistical angle bears this out, as the player with the most touches in the opposition box in the first half was Andy Robertson who, in typical fashion, spared no effort to blanket the entire left side, especially since our 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 is more prone to putting emphasis on the center of play and the half-spaces.
Just like in a couple of last year’s matches with City, we did a bit of the role-reversal with them, in that they chose to try to play the long balls, this time to Erling Haaland, and we chose to operate in those half-spaces that they’re usually so fond of. Our formation is shifting so much as we try to get things fixed and adjust to the tendencies of whom is on the pitch that it’s difficult to pin down. With Trent Alexander-Arnold on the bench, following his recent return from injury, Millie was likely told to remain close to home to reduce the ability of the quick Phil Foden to get past him. With him hanging back, we often ended up in something like a 3-3-4, with Robbo, Diogo Jota, Mo, and Harvey Elliott providing a front 4 across the opposing box, while Roberto Firmino dropped into midfield to assist Thiago Alcãntara and Fabinho. City were technically in their Pep Guardiola-favored 4-3-3 but only really in the lineup, as Haaland was always the farthest player forward for them, with Foden supporting from the left and “right winger” Bernardo Silva often swinging over to the left side to try to create overloads against Millie. To fill the void left by Silva wandering all over the pitch, Kevin De Bruyne became their wide right player. Obviously, City’s squad is as versatile as ours is and emphasizes the totaalvoetbal philosophy like we do, so this was simply Pep’s latest approach as to how to create space to feed Haaland. What the goal machine normally likes to do is attack the space left by players approaching him. What Joe and Virgil Van Dijk didn’t do was approach him until he entered the box.
If someone is always in the space that you want to attack, it’s a lot more difficult to get good chances, as the diagram from Caley above displays. When he did enter the box, Joe was the one assigned to basically be wearing his shirt, which he did with aplomb.
That’s a MotM performance by a guy that a lot of people have dismissed in recent months; not least among them, Gareth Southgate. Here’s hoping that, with both Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konaté in uncertain (albeit familiar (sigh)) health territory, Joe grasps this opportunity and really shows what he’s about in the same way that he did during the title-winning season a couple years ago. Of course, he won that title in a pairing with another guy who’s come under some criticism lately.
Virg, along with almost everyone else, has not been at his best this season. It’s become fair to wonder if he’s past the “best centerback in the world” label and may be entering the downside of his career. But today he brushed all that aside the same way he does most strikers like, say, a big, blond one. Haaland has failed to score or assist for City in two matches: the Community Shield and today. Virg and Joe were in total control, even when under City’s typical pressure in the box. That record that LFC Stats is citing is the one about how Virg has never lost a PL game in which he’s played at Anfield; 69 of them now (nice.) The other record involved today was Jürgen racking up more wins against Pep than any other opposing manager in his career (12.)
Another thing to keep in mind on top of the goalscoring heroics is Ali’s play in goal. He’s been hard-pressed to keep clean sheets this season (only our third in the league and only one more in the Champions League this season), but that hasn’t been a reflection of his play. He’s second among keepers in the PL with average goals stopped by saves (2.7) and has faced a ridiculous number of big chances for this point in the season. He’s so consistent that it’s often easy to take him for granted but he should really be recognized more often for what he does.
Speaking of that, one of the downsides for the day was the loss of Diogo for some unknown period of time, although being taken off on a stretcher usually means much longer than normal. Despite the fact that he hasn’t scored since April, Diogo has been putting in real work whenever he’s been playing, as his hat trick of assists against Rangers would indicate. He led the team tonight with the most key passes (4) and the most successful tackles (5.) That’s a guy that has adopted the Bob role with relish and has been a really valuable part of the team who is, of course, now injured because why shouldn’t the injury crisis make it to the front line during our busiest month of the year?
The other downside is something that I really, genuinely get tired of talking about. We all know the quality of officiating in the PL is ridiculously poor, especially given the amount of money sloshing around the league. But today’s performance by Anthony Taylor was a step below the usual, which is why Jürgen was so incensed on the sideline that he ended up getting a straight red from Taylor. It took VAR (and Darren England, he of the debacle at the Emirates) to show Taylor the obvious foul from Haaland on Fabinho (quite similar to the above offense by Silva) leading to City’s disallowed goal and somehow both Taylor and linesman, Andy Nunn, missed Silva’s half-assed judo throw on Mo, with the latter having it happen literally right in front of him. Instead, the result of the above action was… a foul against Mo. If you think the freeze frame image above makes it seem worse than it was, here it is in actual motion pictures:
So, yeah. Foul on Mo. That’s… I don’t really know what to say about that. I don’t like talking about officiating because it sounds like an excuse. Yes, there were some close calls that went against us last week, but we should have been able to play past those. If we’d played with the same form we had today, we would’ve won, regardless. That said, there’s a limit to all things. Silva had the weaselly gall to complain about the officials’ “lack of consistency”, when they took away City’s goal and… Wait. Where was the egregious foul on our goal?
Oh, right. Nowhere. The above is probably the best angle of the turn that Mo makes. He doesn’t bother competing directly for the ball. He just steps inside on João Cancelo so that his body prevents Cancelo from going for the ball without making a tackle that would get him sent off for denial of a goalscoring opportunity. Mo doesn’t shove him and barely makes contact at all. He simply gets into the right position to be the only one with access and then lets the ball’s momentum lead him right toward the goal. But speaking of contact, lets go back to that thing I was talking about at the start of the season.
Remember this? Yeah. This was pertinent again today, as it is in almost every PL match we play when Mo is on the pitch. Simon Brundish mentioned that Mo has had a foul against him whistled every 89 touches so far this season. Other notable figures are Jack Grealish (22), Harry Kane (24), Raheem Sterling (26), and Marcus Rashford (31.) And, yet, somehow with things like Silva’s escapade above being just the most egregious and latest example, Mo can’t get a whistle. Instead, as noted, the whistle went against him. I’d almost be more comfortable knowing for certain that it was simple racism on the part of all of the PL officials we play alongside. But that’s too easy. Unfortunately, it won’t change until someone other than Liverpool fans stands up and points it out and, given the intractability of PGMOL, the FA, and the league, it likely still wouldn’t change. Incidentally, the PL Match Centre said that even if Taylor hadn’t called the foul on Haaland, he should’ve called a second one on him before City’s goal for kicking the ball out of Alisson’s hands.
Oh, man. That was good. This is the first time this season that I’ve looked at a match report and really felt good about what happened, without reservation. We host the Hammers on Wednesday and then travel to the City Ground for a league match with Forest for the first time in 23 years. Mercy will not be allowed.