The simple truth is that, without Alisson Becker, who’s been by far our best player this season, we’d be fighting relegation right now. How this side, as suffused with talent as any we’ve ever had, could be in that state is a mystery that I simply no longer have any answers for. Of course, we’re back on the injury train, with no less than seven potential starters and one possible (Joel Matip, Ibrahima Konaté, Naby Keita, Thiago Alcãntara, Diogo Jota, Luís Diaz, Darwin Nuñez, Kaide Gordon) out with injury. Simon Brundish pointed out that we’ve had more games missed to injury this year than we did at the same point of the record-breaking ’20-’21 season which, taken at face value, seems mildly confusing, since all you’re saying is that the same situation happened much earlier in the season. But then you realize that it’s about an actual injury crisis this early in the season. A couple of those names are back in training, but still not fit enough to make the bench.
Even so, the squad we put on the pitch should be enough to beat the worst team in the Premier League. Instead, we’ve now played five league games on the road and have failed to win any of them, drawing three and losing two. One week after beating Manchester City with a convincing performance, we’re back to nightmares of “last season at Dortmund”, except that it’s even worse than that, since that Dortmund side were just plagued by bad luck and poor finishing. We lost a match in which we also lost the xG to the worst side in the PL. And this is after completely dominating the match because Forest allowed us to dominate the match. They knew that they couldn’t run with us, so they gave us 75% possession, which we could do nothing with, and capitalized on one moment of opportunity. Every other imaginable stat is on our side: xThreat, field tilt, passing, on and on. In a way, this game is a duplicate of the Champions League final, in which we also utterly dominated and then gave away on a single moment. That’s also a match that seems to have sucked the life out of this squad, barring two excellent matches against the team that everyone regards as the best in England. How we can go from the electricity at Anfield last Sunday to… this, is just beyond me. I mean, in some ways, that’s sports, but there’s something very wrong here and it feels like Jürgen doesn’t have any answers for it, either.
How does a side that plays what is now assuredly a 4-4-2 end up so narrow in defense? Why did we completely abandon both the wide spaces and the half-spaces that we’ve been using for the past year on offense? How did Mo Salah end up with just four completed passes and three carries for the entire game, against the worst side in the PL? What role is Fabinho playing in this 4-4-2 and why does it make him look surprised every time he has to touch the ball? You can ask all of these questions without coming to a solid answer on any of them. Instead, the only solid “answer” we have is that we lost 4 of 63 games last season. We’ve lost 4 of 16 this season and, now that we’ve managed to make the worst side in the league look like they’re functional, can be relatively confident that, even more than usual in the most random sport in the world, there are no given points any longer. As noted after the Arsenal loss, we’re playing for top 4 right now and nothing else. In all honesty, given the way we’ve played outside of the match against City, we could be playing just to stay in European play of any kind, to say nothing of the CL. Remember those days when we’d need a miracle win in a knockout tournament final to even get to Europe? Yeah, a lot of you don’t, in the same way that a lot of Liverpool fans thought it was “cool” that a team with a history like Forest was back in the top division. I didn’t agree because the majority of our history with Forest is bad and we only perpetuated that today, with this being the sixth time we’ve tried to win at the City Ground in the league since the PL was created. And the sixth time we’ve failed.
Sure, most of that is superstition; Forest being our “bogey” team and whatnot. Every match is a discrete event. But right now they’re all discrete events that include the inability to connect any possible trends between them, outside of the majority being enormously disappointing for a squad of this caliber, even aside from the absurd list of injuries (19 different players and counting.) Three years ago, we lost our “invincibles” attempt because of a faceplant against Watford. That happens. That’s football. But this season the “That’s football” moments are happening with us as the surprising side; the one that should probably be losing to City and instead somehow pulling out a win. The players have been talking about “digging deep” to find that successful approach again almost since the season started. I think we’re past that now. Something else needs to change or the whole “dynasty” concept that Jürgen emphasized in his decision to extend his contract last season is a footnote in history, rather than a chapter. In his press conference after the match, he said: “I have no idea how we lose this game, to be honest.” Yeah. That seems to be the trend.
Nottingham Forest 1 – 0 Liverpool
Most of that noted press conference was about how we failed to score on set pieces, which is one of Forest’s main weaknesses. We had our best chances off those set pieces and somehow failed to produce anything from any of them; from Virgil Van Dijk heading the ball across the box to Roberto Firmino instead of going for goal to Bob putting a ball outside the post in front of a wide open net to Virg doing the same thing 10 minutes later. Those are our two main guys on corners and, as Jürgen said, Forest gave them to us. You can’t be in a “more right” position or move better in the box than we did and yet still we didn’t produce. Continuing the trend, Jürgen also said he had “no idea how we do not score from set pieces.” But I think part of our problem was in not being able to effectuate an offense outside of those dead ball situations. Despite utterly dominating the match, we essentially let them dictate the pace. They did a Burnley and this time we didn’t do enough differently to stretch them, instead giving them time to pack in the box and wait us out. Of course, if we’d had people like Darwin and Luís to help with that, it would’ve been great. Unfortunately, bringing on players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t have quite the same effect.
Jürgen also pointed out that Curtis Jones had just returned to the squad and hadn’t really had the opportunity to play in this formation before, which may explain some of the stultifying pace coming through the middle third. I think Curtis is enormously talented and he plays the Gini/recycler role well, especially when it comes to ball retention, which he displayed several times today. But also like Gini, when it comes to progressive passing, he’s still missing a bit of the elite touch that shows up in the play of someone like Harvey Elliott. Of course, they’re in the wide roles of the middle 4, which means that they need to control a different shape on the pitch than we normally ask of our #8s… so I dunno. One thing that’s become obvious is that Fabinho is simply not the player that he was for the four prior years. Something has gone awry with him and I think we’re past the point of hoping he’ll just play out of it before the World Cup break comes around. We’re at the point where we just have to find people able to play, which means I’d be far more interested in seeing Stefan Bajcetic starting the match against Leeds next weekend, regardless of whom plays against Ajax during the week.
Anyone with a shred of sense might stop for a moment and think
There was a lot of furor over the songs being sung by Man City fans last weekend (“the Sun was right”, etc.), not least because it’s become an increasing occurrence at any match that we’re playing in against English competition. The fact that some of them have had their own issues in the past doesn’t seem to register with their fans. But it’s especially grim when you hear those kinds of songs from supporters of the club that could easily have been the one putting up a memorial outside their stadium, if only they’d been given the Leppings Lane end at that FA Cup semifinal, as this Forest fan fairly eloquently pointed out. He also mentioned that many Forest fans still suffer from PTSD and horrible memories from the scenes they witnessed that day, but so many have decided that, because it’s out of the scope of their personal experience, “banter rules” are the order of the day, no matter the topic. I could easily be writing this bit after the 3-0 win that this probably should have been, since it continues to be a growing problem, regardless of outcome. My prevailing opinion has always been that people in groups are stupid herd animals, only occasionally prone to compassion, especially when it comes to competition, real or imagined (see: student debt discussion.) This is one of those moments that kind of drives that home.
We’re at Ajax on Wednesday, followed by Leeds at Anfield on Saturday. I don’t know that I’m particularly excited about either of them.