Chasing shadows

Jamie Carragher, who in his apparent eagerness to be an “unbiased” commentator rarely spares a moment these days to talk down about his old (and only) professional club, was right on target with his post-match comments when he said: “They’re a shadow of themselves.” He’s right. And that sentiment was echoed verbatim by another former Red, in the form of Graeme Souness. It’s difficult to understand how this is the same side that was a few minutes and a goal away from doing the quadruple because almost none of them look like it, with the exception of Roberto Firmino, who’s often been carrying the offense, and Alisson Becker, without whom, as I’ve noted before, we’d be battling relegation. Of course, we’ve just lost our second game in a row to a club actually battling relegation, so it’s fair to note that neither Carragher nor Souness were exaggerating here because of the pain that these events might be causing them. It’s simply not the same team. Players that have been rocks for us for years haven’t gone through a slow decline. It’s been as sudden as Joe Gomez’s misplaced pass that gave Leeds their first goal. In the Community Shield match, we looked like we’d just carried forward last year’s form and, with a couple exceptions here and there (like again against Man City three weeks ago), we’ve been nowhere near that or the form that we’ve maintained for the previous five seasons. It’s like a switch was thrown. We finally won the Shield with this group and it was: “All trophies achieved. Our job here is done.”

Simon Brundish points out that we were outrun by 11km by Leeds. 11km! He later pointed out that that’s as much ground as your average midfielder covers, which means they were basically playing with an extra guy on the pitch. It’s also the 11th time that’s happened this season, which is more than the three previous seasons combined. Of course, part of the reason they were running that much is that they allowed us to dominate possession and played on the counter, which has been Tactic #1 for lesser opponents against us since Jürgen Klopp arrived at Anfield. But even in that context, we used to routinely outrun every single opponent we played. In the post-match, Jürgen complained that too many players are being asked to play too often and too soon. And we have had a host of injuries this season. But… 11km! That’s not injuries or tactics or formations or how much damn money was spent in the summer. That’s just desire. Be proud to wear the shirt. Be grateful that you’re considered good enough to wear the shirt. Play like you’re meant to be there. Almost everyone on this squad just doesn’t have that right now. 12 matches in and we have a perfectly symmetrical 4-4-4 record. What will also be perfectly symmetrical, league-wise, is our finish in 10th place if we continue to (not) function like this. That will be an enormous setback to the club’s ambitions and Jürgen’s stated desire to establish a “dynasty” that would last long after he departs. Not playing in the Champions League would be bad enough from a financial and player recruitment angle. Not playing in Europe at all would be devastating. But that’s where we are right now.

You can’t look at our record and say that it’s belied by our performance. It isn’t. It’s pretty much exactly what we should expect by what’s actually been happening on the pitch. It would seem to be obvious that that’s not good enough for Jürgen and not good enough for FSG, no matter what the TWW idiots might rant about. But I’m not sure sure I can say that about more than a couple of players right now. Too many wayward passes. Too many easy mistakes. Too obvious a lack of focus by the majority of the squad. We had the one bright moment of beating Man City, but this is what the rest of our collective performance has really added up to, in the end. I got sucked in at the end of that City match by thinking that perhaps we had turned a corner, but it’s obvious that we’re a long, long way from doing that. But someone has to figure something out soon; be it Jürgen, someone else on the staff, or the players as a unit. Not doing so means returning to the midtable mediocrity that plagued the club for many of the seasons prior to the current staff and players’ arrival. Does that mean we need a housecleaning; an airing out; some light into the corners that might have been too long left in the dark? Maybe. Don’t those things usually start at the top? Yeah. Yeah, they do. That’s not what I’d want, but we’re way past the point of simply hoping for things to change. We are, once again, firmly in Last Season at Dortmund territory, but the problem there wasn’t just the manager, either. It was a collective breakdown. YNWA, right? Well, here we are, right before a six week break, where there will be nothing but shadows to chase for most of the squad. I really hope that someone comes up with a new idea in that time.

Liverpool 1 – 2 Leeds United

Speaking of new ideas, I’m really thinking that we should probably revert to the 4-3-3. We had that beast finely tuned for five seasons. It’s what all of the academy teams play. It’s part of the modern identity of Liverpool. As much as we’d like to play in a system that emphasizes Darwin Nuñez’s abilities, it won’t help us if he scores 20 goals and we finish 9th in the table. Our inability to protect against basic counters and/or attacks coming right up the middle of the pitch is borderline astonishing. Of course, going back to the 4-3-3 would also put even more of the defensive pressure on Fabinho, who has been a negative standout even in this, the collective negative of the current season. But it’s also clear that many other players are thinking way too much about how the new system operates and, with only perhap’s a day’s actual training between matches right now, I’ve come to the opinion that it’s just too much of a risk to keep experimenting with new approaches that leave our already underperforming squad confused about what’s supposed to be happening. Of course, we were playing just as poorly with the 4-3-3 earlier in the season, so maybe I’m just projecting my own discomfort with the Route 1 approach that definitely takes advantage of Darwin’s movement, but which also surrenders possession way more than I would like. This is the moment of second-guessing, when you’ve changed because things weren’t going well, but now they’re still not going well and you start asking yourself if you’d have been better off just grinding through the bad times with the approach that everyone intrinsically knows.

Certainly, injuries have played a factor in the system change and we are currently down to three functional forwards, so employing a system that limits some of their workload is probably at least part of the intent. We’ve played more matches than any other PL club since the start of last season (81) and averaged 4.7 lineup changes last season. This season, because of the rash of injuries, we’re down to 3.0 changes per match. Of course, we also played the early rounds of the League Cup and FA Cup last season, so you have to add some context to what “the side” looked like at any given moment. Also, the fact that this looks almost nothing like recent Liverpool sides and is playing in a different formation than the one we’ve employed for seven years probably makes it feel that much more jarring to be doing that different thing. So, I’m trying not to jump to any conclusions, but I will say that the funniest comment I heard after the City win was from an email to the Guardian Football Weekly, who asked: “Now that Pep has lost to a side playing a 4-4-2 on a long ball over the top, when is he going to adapt to English football?” I laughed, but I kinda cringed, too. This is just not the Reds that I’ve come to admire in the past few years. But some of that may also be context, given that we got through five of the last six seasons without losing two matches in row; the only club to achieve that feat (City have managed four; Chelsea and ManU only 1.) But something that has remained consistent in the past couple years, whenever he’s managed to remain on the pitch, is one of our best midfielders.

Unlike Fab or Captain Jordan Henderson or Naby Keita, Thiago Alcãntara simply doesn’t have bad games, almost ever. There have been times when he’s been off his usual display of skill, but that still means he’s been a solid midfielder. However, that is a bit off the pace for him in terms of chances created, which is something we’ve come to depend on from him and Hendo. Of course, playing in a system that doesn’t emphasize our forward motion as much as the 4-3-3 means those chances will be fewer, but that’s where we are in terms of defensive needs right now. The only other mild bright point I have is Andy Robertson.

Robbo is one of those guys who never gives up and never seems like he’s playing less than full tilt. Indeed, as the above shows, the majority of our threat came down that left side and he hasn’t shown the variance in both intensity and capability that has shown up in his opposite number on the other side of the pitch. Just as with Forest, every stat in existence shows that we should have won this match. But when you make key defensive errors every other time the opposition comes down the pitch, a star keeper will only protect you so much. Leeds fans are raving about their supposed star keeper, as Ilan Meslier made more saves than any keeper has in a PL match this season. But only one of those was a real effort save, because the rest of our shots on target went right at him.

So, I dunno. Playing like this, we’re certainly out of the title race unless an absolute about face happens and both Arsenal and City implode post-World Cup. But, as noted before, at the moment we’re only playing for top 4 and seeing whatever happens in the CL. I could honestly care less about the domestic cups, per usual, especially given that we’ve won the trinkets again just last year. Napoli returns to Anfield on Tuesday. Given the thrashing we took from them a few weeks ago and that they’re currently still atop Serie A by five points, I don’t have much hope for that match. As Jürgen said, it’d be great if we made it a turning point but, yeah, pull the other one, yo. After that, we’re at Tottenham on Sunday, which doesn’t look much better, despite their similarly ailing form of the moment.

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