Learning to win again

That title is from one of the boss’ statements after the match. In truth, I was sorely tempted to title this one “The Two Halves of Dierness” in tribute to the main contributor on Mo Salah’s winning goal, since the former was as passive as anyone else on Tottenham Hotspur’s squad in the first half, but came out in the second with the motivation that only an Antonio Conté halftime scorching can produce, as did the rest of them. But given the number of troubles (and mistakes) that we’ve had this season, I figured it probably wasn’t appropriate to key on that one moment, as there were far too many others that outweighed that lone mistake. (Of course, that picture above does come from that goal…) In truth, we basically got outplayed for much of the match, as the fancystats will attest to. There were many individual performances that were outstanding (Mo, Ibrahima Konaté(!), Darwin Nuñez, Thiago Alcãntara, Andy Robertson, most of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s play) but, in the end, Spurs generally executed more of their gameplan than we did ours and we got the three points from this one by the skin of our collective teeth. Given that we’re (now) eighth in the table, we need to basically win out if we have any chance of securing top 4, given that there are now seven contenders for those spots, with Newcastle having seemingly arrived. So there’s an air of desperation in November, instead of our usual January, despite the fact that we now basically won’t be playing until January.

This 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 matches. And that’s what the title is actually about, as Jürgen understands the mentality that has to be rebuilt after the devastation of the last week of last season and the problems with this one. We played better than any other Premier League side in the latter half of last year and still lost the league by a point. We utterly outplayed Madrid in the Champions League final and still lost. When faced with that, it’s possible to start questioning what you’re doing as an individual and what you’re doing as a team. When draws against clubs like Everton and Fulham are followed by getting the doors blown off by Napoli, you may start to wonder quite a bit about which direction is up. Captain Jordan Henderson admitted this week that there are a few problems in the dressing room. Whether that’s from what’s happened or is part of the problem that’s contributed to what’s happened, we don’t know. At this point, all we can really do is keep hoping for some level of consistency and less of the two halves, and two teams, that are polar opposites of each other. That situation still turned out in our favor today, which is great. But it’s also fair to call it “lucky” and that’s not something I want to rely on in the most random of the major sports. That said, it’s also fair to sit back and enjoy another solid win that, as Jürgen pointed out after his 250th win with the club (only Shankly, Watson, and Paisley have more), was similar to how we used to close out games in the recent past, even when our defending was less, um, dire. (Sorry. Couldn’t help it.)

Tottenham Hotspur 1 – 2 Liverpool

As Alfred’s stats will show you, Spurs definitely had the edge over us in what most would refer to as “the run of play.” Due credit to Ivan Perisic. That dude is 33 years old and still blazing up and down the touchline, causing problems wherever he goes. He has that “experienced footballer” awareness, too, putting the ball in the right spot, nine times out of ten. His was the first shot of theirs that went off the woodwork and you can see that cluster on the right where he and Ryan Sessegnon were trying to team up on Trent. The latter didn’t have one of those “Trent can’t defend!” days. He did OK, even if he did get outpaced by Sessegnon a couple times. There were also moments where his positioning was spot on, but he can only handle one guy at a time and someone else has to pick up the gap. Thankfully, that other guy today was Ibou.

That was a masterful display by the young CB in this match; even better than the excellent game he had against Napoli during the week. He was in the right spot every time and only misplaced a couple passes in the whole match. This also doesn’t record his excellent offensive efforts, aside from the three passes in the final third. I’ve been bemoaning the lack of Joel Matip’s threat on offense, but Ibou showed that he’s every bit in the same mold as our beloved giraffe with his ability to both handle the ball and carry it forward and engage in direct participation in that offensive third. That would put him right alongside the guys we expect that from.

What more can be said about Mo at this point? That he’s still amazing? OK. If you wanted to be snippy about it, you could ask why he’s able to score against the best club in Italy and a top 4 contender like Spurs but not against Nottingham Forest, but that’s football. In the ranking of clubs that he’s scored against, the other members of the Big 6 are all in the top four rows (Chelsea: 7, Arsenal: 8, Man City: 9) with ManU and Tottenham sitting on top with 10. So, yeah, he is a “big game” scorer, but that’s what you want, most of the time. But it’s also a lie to suggest that that’s his limit. He has 19 goal involvements through 20 games this season (14 goals, 5 assists.) Only once has he had more for Liverpool through the same number of games… last season, with 28. But you’re still hoping that other people will step up in those “smaller” games and fill some of the gap. That’s part of what we’ve been missing this season and was part of why we bought this guy.

It’s been great to see Captain Chaos™ growing into his role in our front line. (Reminder: He’s still only 23.) That includes his efforts in tracking back and helping to defend. One of the greatest aspects of Sadio Mané’s game was his ability and willingness to do just that. That’s something that Mo has grown into over the years, as well, and which is seriously needed at this time, given our continuing defensives issues, which showed up regularly in this match in the face of Spurs’ concerted attack. Mo’s stats should also include a clearance and a successful tackle, so they’ve both been putting in work trying to right the ship here. As they sort out a better understanding about the wheres and whens, things like this:

will become far more frequent. The other factor that many people have wailed about lacking is delivery for both of them from midfield. The one caveat to that is that a majority of our shot creation has been enabled by the fullbacks since Kloppo (and Trent and Robbo) arrived, instead of the midfield. That was still true in this game, as the sequence leading to the above goal was begun by Robbo. But that’s not to say that the midfield was poor. This was definitely one of Fabinho’s better games this season and Harvey Elliott was his usual electric self, if seemingly a little overwhelmed at times by Tottenham’s back three. But Mr. Usual was also still himself.

There are times when I wince when he passes the ball because I know it’s the perfect pass, but his intended recipient is occasionally not ready for it at all, so the chance goes wasted. And then there’s the killer delivery he made in the second half, where he fed Mo right in the middle of the box, if only the latter hadn’t been six inches offside, and you figure that losing possession a couple times because someone else couldn’t handle the excellence is fine. But that means being able to appreciate the highs that come along with a couple lows, as with Trent.

Those three long, crossfield passes to the left corner? Those were “on the foot” passes. As in, Robbo and Darwin didn’t have to chase those. They were placed there so that they could keep running at pace and initiate an attack, which they did. They were also fired from someone who had just recovered a ball (twice) or maneuvered his own way through opponents. Yes, Trent had some trouble keeping up with Sessegnon. That’s why everyone wanted the kid when he was with Fulham. But he also stoned him a couple times in the corner or otherwise did exactly what a fullback is supposed to do: feed him into a centerback or trap him in the corner until the ball goes out of play or help arrives. It’s been fair to question Trent’s motivation and overall play this season. I’ve done it. It’s also fair to acknowledge that while he can defend, he’s not a lockdown fullback. But what he brings on the other end of the pitch more than makes up for it and every manager on the planet other than Gareth Southgate will tell you the same thing.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m almost thankful that Southgate isn’t interested because Trent, like many among the squad, could likely use the rest. Michael Reid pointed out that Virgil Van Dijk has played every minute of all 20 matches that Liverpool have played this season, becoming the first to do that for the club since Jason McAteer and John Barnes (Barnesy!) both did so in 1996. We usually think of Virg as something of a constant, but he’s been even more of a constant than usual, which might explain some of the lapses in his play, as well. No matter how well-conditioned these guys are, it catches up to you eventually. Now that the collective attitude seems to have been buttressed, the upcoming break for the Crime in Qatar may be arriving at just the right moment (which Virg, unfortunately, won’t be able to partake of.)

We have League One Derby County in the WITSBP cup on Wednesday (which is probably a good time for Virg and several others to take a break) and then now-managerless Soton on Saturday. Oh, and just one more chance for a good Nelson Muntz:

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