Remember the beginning of this week? I’m talking Monday, the 26th. I realize it’s a long time if you’re, like, a protozoan or something with a lifespan measured in days, but for the rest of us who should be living for some number of decades (always shrinking under the ultra-efficient American medical system!), it’s pretty easy to think back four days ago and remember how this Liverpool side functioned like a machine; how it basically took Aston Villa by the throat, slammed it from side to side like a dog with a favorite toy, and then spit it out on the way to another three points. And now we’re at today, Friday, and have all been witness to the strange phenomenon which is that team was not this team. According to Opta, not only did we concede the first goal again, but we’ve now conceded seven goals in the first five minutes of matches in 2022, which is tied for most in a calendar year in the Premier League era; tied, incidentally, with 2009 Blackburn and 2000 Sunderland. Perhaps surprisingly, neither club was relegated in either of the seasons which those calendar years covered (in fact, Sunderland finished seventh in both 2000 and 2001) and ours won’t be, either. But if the goal is to remain among the national and continental elite and make the Champions League, then 2022’s defending is a serious weight around the neck of this squad as it tries to break the surface of the water that is fourth place in the PL (which we are now only two points away from. Somehow.) What’s bizarre is that this squad will defend a one goal lead like its collective life depends on it, but at 0-0, it couldn’t possibly be more disinterested.
Of course, personnel does often make the difference and for this match we were lacking the mainstay (some call it “lighthouse”) of one of the two spots on the roster that have backup issues. In this case, we’re talking about the DM and Fabinho, who was excused from Anfield today as his wife, Rebeca, was about to give birth to their first child. Attempting to replace him was Captain Jordan Henderson, who has played that spot before and done so with demonstrated ability. But not today. No, today Hendo was in the same frame of mind that seemed to possess the majority of the squad in the first half, in that they didn’t seem like they’d just played an excellent match on that long-ago Monday or any decent match in quite some time. We’d gone from one of the best examples of the 2022-23 season to one of the worst of it. Our saving grace? The even worse play of Leicester City centerback, Wout Faes. Sometimes you just take the gifts that are offered and, in this case, he handed them to us with some degree of urgency. The first came off a decent but not exceptional cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold that Leicester keeper (and ex-Red), Danny Ward, clearly calls for, just as he did two or three times before in that first half. Faes is not the only offender here, as Boubakary Soumare and Daniel Amartey also ignored their goalie’s pleas to stay away from balls that he thought were his. Faes leapt in with a clumsy attempt to clear and sailed one over Ward’s head and into the opposite corner. Seven minutes later, an excellent return header by Virgil Van Dijk on Ward’s goal kick and a great tip by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain released Captain Chaos (aka Darwin Nuñez) in on goal and a 1v1 with Ward (with Boubakary in vain pursuit.) Darwin gets the ball past the keeper, but only onto the post which then springs right back into the covering Faes and into the goal again.
So, it’s not as if we could say that Liverpool had nothing to do with the goals and Faes was just tanking someone’s fantasy team or had a bet riding on the result at Anfield. One was directly contributed to by Trent (who doesn’t get the assist, unfortunately) and the other was created by Darwin, just as he creates (and created today) so many other chances upon which he doesn’t actually score. But the disaster class that was much of the rest of the team’s play- the wild shots, the passes to no one wearing red, the lack of shape -left me wondering the same things I was wondering back in September: Who are these guys and why did Jürgen sign them? Granted, every team has blanks, just as every player has bad days (Faes has doubtlessly had the worst day of any defender in recent memory, hasn’t he, Jaime Carragher?) But most teams don’t have days of brilliance immediately followed by days of stupefying inadequacy. I mean, unless you’re Tottenham or something crazy like that. And, of course, if you look at the numbers, there’s no doubt who should have won this game… and it’s not Leicester. Again, we create an enormous number of chances. We’re just not finishing many of them at the moment. We also do tend to lock down the opposition… except for those opening moments where it seems we need a crisis in order to sit up and pay attention. It’s night and day within the match just as it is between matches. The Captain Chaos moniker may now just belong to the entire squad because that’s what we do. It also means that we’ve won four in a row, dating back before the World Cup break and, again, now sit two points off fourth place, albeit 12 off of where we’d all really like to be, which is first. Of course, we’ve made up larger deficits than that before, too. I guess it just means the second half of the season will be just as “exciting” as the first. Yay?
Liverpool 2 – 1 Leicester City
Again, we confront the variability of xG and xG/shot. There’s not that much difference in the above to really say that Leicester had the better chances on a per shot basis, especially when our total was more than twice what theirs was. They did get some decent chances, but you’ll notice that none of them came that close to goal. Looking at the other side shows that none of ours were, either. In our case, you can explain that by the incredibly packed-in defense that was a product of the 4-5-1 they were in as soon as they took the lead, which was also a product of their attempt to waste time from the five minute mark until they fell behind. In our defensive case, we still tend to rely on Virg and Joel Matip to cover basically all of the center and the channels, while Trent and Andy Robertson attempt to sprint back and cover the wide areas, with occasional veers into those channels. On that topic:
Trent was one of those that actually had a solid game, especially on the defensive end when Leicester was trying to get organized and push in the second half to tie the game up and largely failing to do so because they weren’t able to make the connection to Harvey Barnes down the left side that they’d initially established in the first few minutes of the first half. Trent had a lot to do with that. But the other major contributor was the easy MotM:
On a night when the midfield seemed largely absent in the first half, Thiago Alcântara, was the man in charge. He was everywhere and doing everything, including on the offensive end. Despite his superlative efforts, we can also look at that xG with some chagrin when considering the gilt-edged chances that Hendo missed in the 51st minute and that Mohamed Salah missed (after an excellent leading pass by Darwin) in the 53rd. Those didn’t come through Thiago, but many of the other opportunities did.
Seriously. That’s control, man. Similarly, when Naby Keita and Stefan Bajcetic came on and we switched to the 4-4-2, the former did great work moving the ball on the offensive end, while the latter was solid on the opposite. That also meant that we moved Harvey Elliott up to replace Ox on the left wing. There are a lot of people wondering why we chose to pick up Cody Gakpo, a left-side forward in every sense of the term, when we’re already loaded with Luís Diaz, Diogo Jota, and Darwin, all of whom either specialize or are capable of playing on the left. Well, if it’s Champions League-or-bust and two of them won’t be available until March, it’s not the greatest idea to try to make it to then with converted midfielders (like Harvey, Ox, and Fabio Carvalho) filling the gap. That was never more evident than tonight, when Robbo kind of struggled to get action on the left side, while Trent, Harvey, and Mo were tearing up the right. Also, there are plaudits due for the overall team performance in the second half that led to this:
Yes, some credit is due to the Fightin’ Lesters anemic attack, but it’s also about the Reds getting organized in the second once Faes had graciously given us the lead. The numbers don’t lie:
In other generous news, Robbo was given an MBE in the end-of-the-year celebrations for his work in football and for charity. It doesn’t mean anyone has to refer to him as “Sir Robbo” (that’s the next level up), but it is a pretty high honor for a still-active footballer.
In less than 72 hours, we get to travel to Brentford whom have recently been on a tear, including today’s 2-0 win over the Hammers. However, said win also cost them leading scorer, Ivan Toney, which is a pretty crushing blow for the Bees. So, to join with their uncertainty, I have no idea which Reds team will show up, either. Yay, football. Hey, did you really want a reminder of just how close it was last season?
Of course you did.