Well, now that THAT’S over, we can get back to the football season we all know and love, right? Except that, well, we’re still having the part of it that we don’t necessarily love, where we fall asleep on defense and lose a close game that could easily have been a win. On the other hand, if there were any game to lose at this resumption point, it’s probably the least interesting trophy on our agenda. On the third hand, losing that least-concerning game to Manchester City is enough to cause the dental grating to reemerge as badly as it was in the first part of the season. So, I dunno.
I mean, in a distant corner of my brain, I want to care about the WITSBP cup. After all, it is a trophy and we are (were) the defending holders. It’s also the one we’ve won more of than anyone else in the EFL; a tribute to those dominant sides of the 80s whom, at one point, won it four years in a row. But it’s still just the WITSBP cup. Even supporters of clubs who haven’t won much of anything in decades (<cough>Bitters<cough>) would normally just shrug their shoulders at someone winning it. Then again, having one of our records tied or eventually surpassed by the bottomless money pit sportswashers isn’t particularly thrilling, either, as City are now just one behind us in tournament wins (8 to our 9), having won 6 of them in the past 9 years.
But drifting from history to the present reality, despite a couple of nifty goals and some sharp play by people like Joel Matip, Darwin Núñez, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a substitute role, it was sloppy play that led to all three City goals. Take nothing away from people like Erling Haaland and Riyad Mahrez. They deserved the chances that they took. But it was also on people like Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson to be better at playing their man and keeping said chances from being so wide open. This is our concern, Dude. When we’re still making the same basic errors after this many years of this team playing together and this many months of this season showing what happens when we let our guard down even a little, it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to get anything out of this season that even approaches the expectations leading into it. The fact that the ownership and sports director situations are also uncertain makes this even less entertaining.
The contrast to all of that, of course, is that football is back! Sure, some of you may have sated yourselves watching what sounded like a very exciting nationalist exercise. Good on ya. I begrudge no one being a fan. But my football interests have always orbited around my club, even if I do watch a lot of Serie A and Bundesliga and other leagues, because I love the game. Speaking of love of the game, it was hilarious to watch the broadcast of this game and listen to our oft-cited 6000 members of the Traveling Kop outshout and outsing the other oft-cited 50k “fans” of Man City. Jon Champion spared no effort to remind people of how full the stadium was; almost as if the hosts had asked ESPN to play it up. But despite that near-capacity crowd, the only songs you could hear during the entire match were the ones that come from 45 minutes down the M62. Yes, it was a larger contingent than was normally allotted for Premier League games, Jon, but we still shouldn’t have been able to drown out an opposing crowd 8 or 9 times the size of the visitors. But that’s the difference between an actual club and a pretend one, which means that, as with so many other things this evening, nothing has really changed and normal service has, indeed, resumed.
Manchester City 3 – 2 Liverpool
If you consider xG to be the primary indicator of which team played the best and deserved to win… yeah. Not a good look. If we had been able to chip in a couple more (or, y’know, prevent one more from happening), it definitely would’ve been considered a smash-and-grab. We got outplayed for long stretches of the match. Yes, we were playing a number of guys who aren’t in the current first XI, but so were City. It’s comforting in one respect to realize that we are firmly back with our preferred 4-3-3. It’s also not disturbing to note that we ended up giving the majority of possession to City, because that’s been the pattern in most of our last several games with them. Their game is utterly possession-based, so we let them have the ball and, per Jürgen’s usual approach, tried to win it off them in advantageous locations. In that respect, the plan did kinda work. A key aspect of the stats that Alfred has presented above is xG/shot. City excel at forbidding shots on their goal, so it’s not surprising that we got so few. But the ones we did get were as high quality as theirs were, despite them having an edge in total chances and quality of those chances. The fact that we managed only two shots on target and scored with both of them might just say that Steffan Moreno isn’t that great a keeper, which is why he’s the backup, but it could mean a lot of other things or nothing, as well. That’s how stats sometimes work.
Case example. Sure, he looked great and got in the right positions and put a shot off the post and fed Mo Salah nicely for our second. But he also missed a couple other golden opportunities to feed someone the ball in great position and took ill-considered shots. The talent is all there and anyone without a bias veil on can see it (e.g. no Chelsea fans, apparently), but there are times when you’re really wishing that he had a bit more experience under his belt to maybe think again when he once again is in the box with the ball on his foot.
And, yeah, that’s a picture of two players who weren’t positively involved in this match; one because he no longer plays for City and the other because he does some really excellent things that are, unfortunately, often overshadowed by really poor decision-making. The first City goal is directly on Joe, for not keeping track of the world’s largest and one of its most potent strikers currently playing (aka Haaland), who was right on his shoulder. There were a couple other times where poorly-timed attempts at headers left us wide open at the back. Yes, the weakest part of Joe’s game is in the air, so that can’t be overly surprising, but when you see this many jaw-dropping errors, the fact that his feet are good enough to take the ball off and past three Cityzens while trapped near the corner flag usually gets forgotten. Most would pick Joe over Nat Phillips in the CB hierarchy and I’d be one of those most, but there’s no denying that when it comes to tonight, Nat had the better game in that spot; using his head well as he always does, both in terms of a tackle right in the middle of the box on the aforementioned striking machine and keeping the ball in the air until another Red could claim it.
In that vein, there were some great performances by others who often don’t make the starting squad, like Joel who did his usual job opposite Joe and then Nat and also got the hockey assist on Fabio Carvalho’s goal with a nice feed to Mo. Likewise, Ox made the most of his second-half minutes, presenting a nice threat in the middle of the pitch and scrapping sufficiently in midfield to give us wispy memories of his most famous moment in a Liverpool shirt that hasn’t been duplicated or even really approached since. Similarly, Fabinho had one of his best games this season as a halftime sub but, of course, as with the rest of the match, that does engender some memories of what this season has been like. Fair play to Caoimhin Kelleher, too, Despite having three put past him, he made some excellent saves, as well. It’s not often you say that when the opponent actually meets or exceeds their xG, but it’s true here.
But speaking of how this season is going, it took all of 38 minutes of play for us to pick up yet another injury. This time it was James Milner, Robot Warrior breaking down. (It was considerate of Jon Champion to point out that he’ll soon be 37, which gives me the opportunity to post the Bloody Peasant routine.) We’d already gotten the news before the match that Roberto Firmino was out with a calf problem. With Diogo Jota not expected back until February and no return date set for Luís Diaz, we’re down to Mo, Darwin, and whoever seems best suited to fill that last spot, which was Fabio tonight, where he struggled, as he’s probably better-suited to playing a neo-#10 role than being out front. That situation will, of course, have the TWWs screeching about picking up another attacker in the January window, which has already been suffused with rumors about Jude Bellingham and Enzo Fernandez. I refuse to give credence to any of it.
And for a team that’s dealing with significant injuries to one sector and seemingly lacking physical and mental fitness overall, we now get to play three more matches in the space of 16 days. Hooray. That is, of course, an upside for supporters, since we finally get Liverpool football back. But, yeah, it will continue to be a test of whether this season can turn out to be anything worth remembering. We’re at Villa Park on Monday. I will be at Magee’s for the first time in two months…