There’s a certain tagline from a classic sitcom that often occurs to me after days like yesterday. It was delivered by John Astin, in his excellent depiction of judge Harry Stone’s (Harry Anderson) not-quite-stable father, Buddy Ryan:
Those moments never fail to get a chuckle out of me, even having seen all of them and multiple times. Night Court was a thing for us when I was at Michigan in the 80s, where we’d frequently end up watching it at, well, night, since its syndicated slot was usually around 11 PM, appropriately enough. There’s an inherent level of comfort and ease that accompanies seeing those scenes on YouTube because they’re familiar and they remind me of what were usually positive times among friends. I’m not much for sitcoms, but that one stood out for its intelligence and often withering humor (John Larroquette remains a standout in that respect.) Similarly, yesterday’s match against Aston Villa carried many of those same elements of comfort. Not only was it the return of something we’re all accustomed to enjoying throughout the winter season (the Premier League race, among others), but it was also a return to the genuine function of this Liverpool squad that we’ve also become intimately familiar with. There was actual control in the midfield with the newly-returned performance of Fabinho and his confirmed starting XI partners, Thiago Alcântara and Captain Jordan Henderson. There was great interplay among the forward three, as Darwin Nuñez continued his trend of being in the right place at the right time, even if the results aren’t always optimal, and Mohamed Salah and ad hoc left wing, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, provided regular threats and dropped well into coverage when out of possession. And there was solidity in the middle of the back line, with old partners Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip being mostly in control, barring a couple skilled moments (and one spot-on goal) from the Villans. But the thing that really stood out to me was the fullback play.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have long-since established themselves as the best fullback pairing in the world and each of them is in the argument for best at their respective positions, as well. It’s not beyond the realm of reason to suggest that Jürgen Klopp and this Liverpool side set the modern standard for how fullbacks should be used, as each provides regular defensive coverage down the wings, as the position has always been played, but also provides a constant threat in the offensive third that is rarely matched by other teams and other performers. The interesting aspect is that both does so in often distinctly different ways; whether it’s Trent’s precision passing to deliver the ball right where it needs to be (in this case, the foot of his counterpart) or Robbo’s ferocious energy that often simply overpowers defenders but still involves a great deal of skill. One of the more amusing moments of yesterday’s match was reading the grumbling from England fans on r/soccer after that first goal, wondering once again how Gareth Southgate justifies leaving someone of Trent’s skill on the bench. Robbo’s skill is evident in his captainship of the Scottish national side and, of course, now as the holder of the record for assists by a defender (54) in the PL era, having passed Leighton Baines with that slick move to Mo. In all honesty, he’s probably the leader in the Football League era, since it was a pretty rare thing back in the day for defenders to be regularly assisting goals. That, again, just confirms how these two have redefined the position of fullback. Also, a note here for the excellent finish by Virg. That’s not a shot that one would normally expect from a centerback.
Of course, there are questions, since there will always be questions in pursuit of perfection. There were still some breakdowns in the defensive third, where our rotations weren’t quite sufficient to control the ball and keep our shape. But it’s worth pointing out that many of the sides we’re coming up against in the league are pretty skilled at one or more aspects of the game themselves. One of the strengths of Unai Emery’s teams is their focus on the transition from the middle to the attacking third (the usual English phrase is: “Being on the front foot.”, as noted by Jim Proudfoot(!) yesterday), so it’s not overly surprising to see them come up with a couple solid plays. It also can’t be denied that the cross from Douglas Luiz to Ollie Watkins for their goal was about as perfect as you can make it. These things happen, in the same way that some of our offensive opportunities didn’t come to fruition (more on that below.) But the main impression is that there was never any doubt from the opening kick which side was going to win this match. It was ours to take and we took it, which is just like how it has been for the majority of the Klopp era. In that way, it was a welcome return from some of the uncertainty of the first half of this season. Now the task is maintaining it. But I’m feeling much better (now) about that prospect.
Aston Villa 1 – 3 Liverpool
That diagram makes it look closer than it was, not least because of the opponent having an xG of 1.8. As noted, it’s not like the Villans didn’t have chances. They obviously did. But as Caley noted in his tweet of this one, “Liverpool created SO MANY chances.” As we all know by now, football is the most random of major sports, but the numbers do still often tell the tale. An xG of 3.8 is not particularly normal in a regular league game. The counter-argument that many will make is that we had SO MANY chances, but still “only” scored on three of them. The focus of that criticism has lately been one Captain Chaos:
Yes, it can be frustrating… but look at those numbers! An xG of almost a goal per game? What that means is that, with a little more luck and/or a bit better decision-making in the box, he’s close to a record-setting scoring pace (depending on whether said records aren’t obliterated by the Norwegian machine down the road.) The main thing about Darwin’s play is that he creates chances constantly. He’s an everpresent threat that defenses cannot go to sleep on. I want the guy who’s constantly creating problems for the defense, even if he’s not scoring every time you think he should. I want the guy who implicitly makes everyone around him better, because that’s how you create a stronger team that isn’t dependent on one player to make the magic happen. The fact that he creates so much uncertainty in the defensive third of opponents and generates chances so frequently is an asset. Just look at the pursuit of Joe Gomez’s ball over the top to set up Stefan Bajčetić for his first PL goal. That’s the guy you want on your squad; the one who chases opportunities like that in the 81st minute and produces something for that effort. The goals will follow, as Jürgen was wisely noting after the match yesterday. It’s all there and it’s demonstrably improving, even from just the few games that he’s played for us this season. And, of course, everyone else on the offensive end also benefits.
Oh, wait. We were talking about someone else creating chances? Yeah. When defenses have to run in circles (sometimes literally) to keep track of Captain Chaos, one of the best forwards in the world is still there, doing his thing. It’s weird to say that Mo seems to get overlooked these days, with newer faces entering the league and our squad, but he’s still Option #1 when it comes to our offense and deservedly so. On that note, it’s worth pointing out the contributions of Ox on the left side. Just like in the WITSBP cup game against City, Ox put in a solid shift and did so playing out of position. As with Fabio Carvalho, a spot on the front line is not really Ox’s bailiwick but he can still make things happen, especially given the system that Jürgen has always emphasized, in that his forwards should be ready to play in any zone of the pitch (totaalvoetbal), which was on full display yesterday. And hopefully will continue to be for the new arrival…
Cody taken quickly-!
Cody Gakpo was a hit at the recent World Cup. At one point, he was the leading scorer in the tournament and has also been so in the Eredivisie for PSV. It was clear that he was moving on to a bigger club and Manchester United was hot in pursuit, as Cody was a preferred target of new ManU boss, Erik Ten Hag, most recently of Ajax. Once Roberto Firmino went down with a calf injury, we found ourselves with only two regular starting forwards (Mo and Darwin) for the foreseeable future. Consequently, we had to move fast to try to fill the gap and this was easily the fastest we’ve acted on a purchase since the now-legendary two hours or so that it took the news about Fabinho to go from “intensive talks” to “Welcome to Anfield.” Cody was the same way, as the regular sources had no sooner posted that Liverpool was now in the conversation for the Dutch forward when PSV came out and announced the sale. So, who is this guy for those who don’t watch Dutch football or didn’t see the Oranje games at the nationalist exercise?
He’s a scorer, which is something you can always use. He’s also only 23 years old, which is young enough to have tons of value, but also old enough to have his head on straight about how the game operates. But, almost as importantly, he’s a creator:
Yeah, man. As noted, the PL is a whole, different world from the Eredivisie (which, sadly, was once regarded as one of the best leagues in Europe) but that kind of play shows instinct to go along with natural talent. That’s what you want when you need someone to just drop in and start running, which is kind of what we need right now. In the end, it’s a rather astounding piece of business for outgoing DoF, Julian Ward, and the price of $45 million (plus some add-ons for another $8m) is actually quite reasonable, considering his potential, the World Cup excitement (which always brings some inflation), and the fact that other big clubs were showing pronounced interest. The fact that PSV were willing to act that quickly and at that price reminds me of Porto’s decision-making around Luís Diaz. Does that mean PSV is trying to clear some debt? No idea, but no Lampen fans that I’ve seen have said anything about that. This is a real Christmas surprise for Reds fans and should generate some real excitement, even if the bigger targets don’t come to fruition in the January window.
We’re back home at Anfield to meet up with Brendan Rodgers’ beleaguered Leicester City on Friday. The clock may be ticking on the Northern Irishman there. Less than three days later, we’re at Brentford. I leave you with a move from PL debutante Ben Doak against an ex-Bitter, which probably only twists the knife on the Blues after Wolverhampton’s last minute winner. Merry Christmas, Ever-ton!