If Liverpool had started this match against Ajax on a tear, running roughshod over their smaller competition, and went up early to simply see the match out, there would be some rather justified cynical outrage over why it takes a debacle like what happened at the City Ground this past weekend to wake this team up and get them playing like they should be playing. Instead, we came out looking like we were going to be run off the pitch by the Dutch club, as they harried us in every way possible, controlled the ball, and would have done a great job of making us look like we were sleepwalking through yet another game if we weren’t doing such a sterling job of that already. Ajax looked far more like Liverpool than Liverpool did. Considering that this version of Liverpool haven’t really looked like themselves for the vast majority of this season, it couldn’t have been too surprising to anyone who’s been watching every game since the Community Shield. So, in real terms, the cynicism has already set in. That was probably only heightened by the great chance that Darwin Nuñez had at an open goal which somehow went off the post. As miserable as this season has largely been so far, it feels like those instances have happened far too often, even though the safe argument is with sample size (e.g. small) and typical variance. The counter-argument to the cynical approach is that the goal he did score was his fourth in his last four starts.
There’s also a technical angle to this, in that we came out for this match playing a 4-4-2 diamond, which is our fourth different system in the last month. The cynic would be saying: “Pick a lane, yo.” But anyone who’s been watching has to be aware that Jürgen is now looking for anything that might solve the problems we’ve been experiencing in midfield and with the defense as a whole. Anyone who watched the first half would fall right back to the cynical perspective, because it didn’t look like the diamond suited us at all, since Ajax were cutting right through it on their way to multiple solid chances. 16 minutes in, it was Ajax 4 shots, 2 on target; Liverpool 0. But then, in our continuing season of role reversal, we had the “totally against the run of play” moment, where Captain Jordan Henderson once again released one of those brilliant curling passes in the direction of one Mohamed Salah, who then proceeded to do the easy chip over the onrushing Remko Pasveer and suddenly the game was ours. You could see the life simply get sucked out of the Ajax squad. When the second half started, we went right at them with the “old Liverpool” confidence, scored two quick ones off an excellent Darwin header across the goal and a lightning bolt from a tight angle by Harvey Elliott (off an excellent feed from Mo) and that was the end. As with so many matches in the recent past and so many that should’ve been that way this season, this one was over. All that remained was for the Reds to see the game out in typical ball-control fashion, as they made their way to the knockout rounds for the sixth consecutive season under Jürgen; the longest such run for our club in the competition as it’s currently formatted.
Now, the cynic would say, comes the question of consistency. Can this second half effort be maintained? Of course, as Darren Fletcher pointed out during the match, this is four wins in the last five, including one over Man City. But, yeah, the black eye against Forest was a huge issue and may continue to be one as the season drags on, if we continue to have hope of not having to win the Champions League in order to participate in it next season. (The cynic, again…) But we also have to acknowledge that the mid-season break is going to change a lot, not only for many teams’ form, but also for the opportunity to recover from the injury problems that have beset us. Indeed, Jürgen was just complaining about the fact that he couldn’t bring Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita to this match because he had been told by the medical staff that their injuries were so severe as to make no sense in including them in the CL squad because they wouldn’t recover before the opening round was finished. And, yet, here they are, ready to go. (Cynic’s rejoinder: “But for how long…?”) At this point, it’s a matter of extracting as many points (e.g. as many wins) as possible before the break and then, with the majority of our squad of nationalities that didn’t qualify or missing the tournament through injury (or managerial disfavor), we might be one of the sides among the top 6 that have a real opportunity to go on a run in the winter months. Does that sound hopeful? Yes. Yes, it does.
Ajax 0 – 3 Liverpool
So, yeah, a diamond. It’s not a formation I’ve ever been particularly fond of because I think it invites pressure down the center of the middle third, which is normally where you really don’t want it, since your nominal allies- the touch lines and end lines -are farther away from you than at any other point on the pitch, which makes defending more difficult unless you have a pretty brilliant #6 to sit at the base of that diamond. Our DM, when it’s been Fabinho, has been less than brilliant all season. The formation can create a number of offensive opportunities higher up the pitch, which is something that Jürgen probably focused on, since we somehow couldn’t take advantage of Forest’s main weakness to set pieces but perhaps could take advantage of our superior size and strength against the smaller Dutch side…? Maybe? I don’t know. As noted, Ajax had little trouble racing right up the pitch against said diamond. But it was also a consideration to try to keep Darwin closer to the center of the pitch, since we didn’t want him playing out on the wing all night. (We’ve, uh, seen how problematic putting our other best scorer out wide all the time has been…) That said, a lot of the opportunities did come from those wide spaces tonight.
Alfred ain’t wrong. That was a (literal) man-of-the-match performance from Andy Robertson tonight. Neither Davy Klassen nor Jorge Sánchez could keep up with Robbo and there were a couple frustrated tussles on that side as a consequence. He’s already struck up what seems to be a pretty good relationship with Darwin, telling him during halftime that he was going to put a corner right on his head, which was only further enhanced by that perfect corner for the perfect header on the goal. But there was some excellent play in the channels, as well.
The one possible criticism that one could level at Harvey is his ability to retain the ball under pressure; an essential skill for a Klopp midfielder. But he’s been improving in leaps and bounds on that aspect of his game and tonight was a great example. Ajax were pressing hard and contesting every ball in the middle third until they went 3-0 down and Harvey shrugged off the majority of attempts that came in against him (4 ground duels won and 5 recoveries) and moved the ball well as he always does.
Also fair to point out the other assisters tonight, with Hendo and that curling pass and Mo himself (17 of 18 passing on the night) putting a perfect daisy-cutter right up the middle for Harvey. As Tricia pointed out when seeing the sequence of that goal: “It’s like a totally different team!” from the one she watched stumble to a faceplant at the City Ground. Yes. Yes, it is. That’s been the problem.
Saturday at Anfield, we see the return of another golden goalscoring opportunity when Leeds United arrives. I’ve been approached by more than one USMNT fan this season declaring themselves to be Leeds fans, given the presence of Jesse Marsch and the proliferation of Americans on the squad. All I can do is sigh and give them a “Yeah, whatever” and refrain from bothering to take the time to talk about the history of Leeds United’s fanbase. (They don’t call’em “the Whites” for nothing.) After that, Napoli comes calling in a match that no longer matters, but one in which it’d be nice to try to continue that winning pattern through to the break.