It was clear that there really wasn’t much to play for yesterday. Both Napoli and LFC had already qualified for the knockout rounds, so the match was more about staying on a good streak for the Italian club (17 matches without a loss, including all of this season (obvsly)) or trying to get on one (That would be us.) There was a slim chance that the Reds could win the group, but only by winning at least 4-0 which, given the Azzurri being the distinct leader of Serie A at this point, was unlikely. As it occurred, we got halfway there, with a 2-0 win being the most impressive performance since… the win over Manchester City three weeks ago. In that period of time, we’ve managed to take the game to and defeat the current English leaders and the heretofore undefeated Italian leaders, as well as lose to two of the three relegation candidates in the Premier League. So, yeah. Why do I always say that this is the most random of the major sports? Exhibit A.
To their extreme credit, Napoli didn’t bother to bunker in and just wait us out. They came right after us and ran their usual offense, with the intent of becoming only the 11th side to win all of their group stage games in the Champions League format (We were the 10th side to do so just last year…) Aside from a goal that was the product of pathetic marking by a professional club and which was later overturned by the slimmest of VAR calls (LiVARpool!), we largely withstood their repeated attacks. The xG margin was 2.7 to 0.4 in our favor, as we put them under regular pressure, especially after taking the lead, while they couldn’t really muster an obvious approach in our defensive third. Was that a factor of returning to our favored 4-3-3? Dunno. Every match is an experience unto itself, so it’s usually pretty difficult to point to one thing and say: “That’s the solution.” If that were feasible, we’d long since have pointed to and implemented said magical solution on the defensive end this season. But it seemed like some of the heart had returned to the gang, as a whole, and was probably heightened by the Azzurri willingness to screech at the official every time someone looked at them cross-eyed. As Mari Lewis pointedly stated during the match: “I wish I loved anything as much as Napoli players love dramatically going to ground.” That said, one of the best things about the match, even aside from the victory, was that it was really pretty exciting from the opening kick to the end.
Does it mean that the fabled corner might finally have been turned? I don’t think anyone is that gullible anymore, following the previous two weeks in the PL. Part of the reason the match was so enjoyable to watch was because of the stated return of heart, which should have been present all along but notably hasn’t been. This was good. It was a solid win. It was another statement by Darwin Nuñez that he’s ready and able to compete at the level we need him to be. And it was the continuing statement by Mo Salah that he, too, is still the player that we’ve always known him to be. With three matches left until the World Cup against Spurs, Soton, and Derby County, we’ll see just how well this goes until we all stop paying attention to football for a month-and-a-half.
Liverpool 2 – 0 Napoli SSC
Looked at from the fancystats perspective, that’s kind of a beating. It was far from that obvious watching it live. I did think we had the better run of play, but not to the extent to where it looks like your average Burnley game or something like that. I think the return to the 4-3-3 was quite helpful (I remember some random guy talking about doing just that recently.) When you’ve been drilled in the same system for 6+ years, shifting out of it can create a lot of mental strain. Going back to it feels like putting on an old shirt that’s never stopped being comfortable. It required us to play Curtis Jones as the left wing, which isn’t completely foreign to him, as he was frequently on the front line in the academy sides, but still isn’t the ideal formation. Curtis is still developing and his ball retention skills have improved mightily, but he still doesn’t really have the speed to play in that role, which means he was there more to keep a passing network active and significantly advanced on that side.
It’s not a far cry from what we normally try to do, but it’s still more than we’ve done recently on that wing and is certainly a risk against a side like Napoli whom, as we’ve seen, can counter pretty quickly. Retaining possession and working that side hard meant that Napoli had to respond, which opened up areas of threat on the other side of the pitch, while Roberto Firmino’s role was mostly about trying to assist against Victor Osimhen.
That tweet is pointing out that, with 7 goals, Mo is the top scorer of the group stage this year. It also means he has 41 CL goals for Liverpool, tying him with Stevie G. It was also his first time scoring in five straight CL matches. Also got him the MotM trophy from UEFA. But there was a pair of goalscorers.
Darwin again did the “super sub” thing. The above collection of numbers was accumulated in just 10 touches of the ball, which is kind of ridiculous. Without a great save by Alex Meret, he would’ve had two, before Mo was able to blast it past the Napoli keeper. His motion continues to create all kinds of havoc for the opposition, which can only be a positive for us, as long as we have people able to feed him the ball.
Kostas Tsimikas is a great example of one of those people. He’s absolutely our most consistent corner kicker at this time and that xT number is reflective of how much we were working that left side. Again, having someone as capable as he is being the backup at left back is a real luxury.
But we also can’t ignore the contributions on the other side. Trent Alexander-Arnold became the youngest player in Liverpool history to reach 50 matches in the CL. This was definitely one of his better games on both ends of the pitch this season, from competently dealing with Khvicha Kvaratshkelia (whom Jürgen praised after the match; transfer incoming!) to putting one of his beautiful lofted passes right on to Mo’s foot, per usual. Also on that topic, Ibrahima Konaté played his best match of the season, swiftly snuffing out Napoli’s attempts on his side, as well as doing a couple Matip/giraffe runs to the offensive third and handling the ball just as capably as Joel would have. It was also encouraging to see Calvin Ramsay finally get to make his Liverpool debut for the last few minutes of what was also Jürgen’s 400th match in charge of the club, as well as his 100th CL match, with only Pep Guardiola having a higher number of wins in those first 100 (61) than Jürgen’s 58. Calvin is the 39th teenager to make his debut under Klopp; more than double the number of any other manager in the club’s history. This is what he meant about building a sustainable model to last after he’s gone.
On a side note
Grace is retweeting a minor thread by Michael Caley, from whom I swipe most of my xG diagrams (like the above.) He was complaining about Spurs playing for the 0-0 draw about as hard as you can and how awful it was to watch. For his sake, Marseille managed to score in extra time of the first half, which forced Tottenham to come out and play or risk falling out of the CL (the group was that tight; Spurs ended up as the group winner.) Grace’s point is extremely salient and is the philosophy of all of us who count ourselves among the anti-Burnleys of the football world. Napoli didn’t conserve energy and play for the draw that would have served them just as well as a win. They came out and tried to take the game from us. It didn’t work to their benefit (which, again, was irrelevant in the grand scheme, other than the money you get for a win) because we played one of our better matches of the season, not because they “took risks” or some other farcical estimation. Attack your opponent; bury them under a couple goals, if not more; take the wind from their sails and then you can close up shop and just try to control the ball to end the game. We do that all the time (or did, anyway, before this season.)
Speaking of awful football, our next opponent is, of course, Spurs at their monolith of a stadium. Oh, hooray. Then it’s Derby in the WITSBP cup which should hopefully be a full match for players like Calvin, Stefan Bajcetic, Fabio Carvalho, and Harvey Elliott, all of whom got at least a few minutes yesterday, but could really use some more time.
[…] result, of course, doesn’t detract at all from the point I was making last time, where it’s been possible to wonder exactly where this team is in about half of our other […]