Transitions

Reuters – Phil Noble

So, after a stream of exclamations this season, mostly of the “Why-?!” and “Wha-?!” type, I think I’ve finally come to a conclusion about why this Liverpool squad is what it is at the moment. Said conclusion is something I proffered as a possibility a couple times back in August and September, but it’s become more and more apparent as time has gone on: This is a team in transition. Now, you can look at this squad and the depth of talent that we have on it, even apart from the injuries, and wonder how this can be a “transition year”, when we’re a few months away from almost winning everything there is to win and with largely the same cast of characters. But that might just be one of the varied roots of the problem. It’s the same cast of characters and none of them are getting any younger. We have, of course, pointedly recruited from the lower end of the age spectrum, so the squad is getting younger, but our average age (27.1) still puts us in the top five of the Premier League in that category and is a rather stark comparison to the youngest squad, Arsenal, as the current league-leaders sit at 24.1. I have mentioned a couple times that this squad seems tired in many ways and it’s at least in part because they’ve played a lot of football. Someone pointed out recently that Fabinho has played more than 15000 minutes for us in 4.5 seasons. That’s a lotta mileage. And then we look at his other two starting compatriots in Thiago Alcãntara and Captain Jordan Henderson and note that one is 31 and the other is 32. Thiago has never really had the energy for the high press that used to be our identity and Hendo has lost some of that spark, as well. You can still see it, but it fades more quickly than it used to over the course of a match. Happens to everyone. That, of course, makes today’s result the worst one possible, since it means we have to do a replay at Molineux in two weeks.

That sense of transition is also playing out on the pitch in another manner, in that ours are awful. When we have the ball in the middle third, barring some of the usual laser-guided passing by Trent Alexander-Arnold, our attacking approach just isn’t what it used to be. Similarly, when the other team has the ball, there’s a sense of real threat when they’re making moves into the offensive third because we don’t have the energy to do that press (proper pressing is a team-wide effort; either everyone does or no one does) that often meant attacks were snuffed out before they became a threat. Anyone looking at Wolves’ second goal tonight can see that’s no longer the case and that’s been emblematic of this entire season. Part of that weakness, yes, does come from the midfield and the tired legs that are often inhabiting it. But that’s where the howls of the TWWs are often misplaced. Yes, we could’ve spent a couple hundred million on a big name that might have helped our situation, but one guy doesn’t replace three or five. We have two “replacements” already on the squad in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita. I know that both of them were bought five and four years ago when they were 24 and 23, respectively. Given that they’re now 29 and 27, you’d think they were in their primes and are ready to be THE guys in the “new” Liverpool. But neither of them has been able to achieve any consistency on the field, as Ox has never been the same after that massive knee injury and Naby has never been able to be available for more than a dozen games as a time. So, the reason we have a gap in our midfield recruiting is because at least two of the guys that we were hoping to be the replacements for players like Gini Wijnaldum, who was spectacular at the recycler role in the middle third and shutting down his entire side of the pitch, have just never been able to be what we expected them to be. It’s a perfect example that Naby was easily the best player on the pitch when he came on, but he was only on for 20 minutes.

So we scraped out a draw against the 19th-placed team in the PL who had swapped out nine players from their most recent league game, while we started with the squad that most consider our best XI, given availability. We scraped that draw off two mistakes- one colossal one by Alisson and one understandable one by Toti -and a spectacular goal by Darwin Núñez and a “How did that possibly happen?” goal from Hwang Hee Chan. And now we have to play again at their place. In a tournament that most don’t really care about while we look uncomfortably at what this transition year might do to the club’s path for the next couple.

Liverpool 2 – 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers

I wonder sometimes at the propensity of networks to just ignore Wolverhampton’s actual name and constantly refer to them as “Wolves.” “Wolverhampton” is 13 letters, so it’s certainly easier to just use the six letters of their nickname from a graphic design perspective. And, of course, the club plays right into it, with the wolf’s head badge and all that. It’s not just an American sports-teams-have-to-have-nicknames thing, either, as British media all do the same thing. Dunno. Is that more interesting to talk about than this match? Kinda. For most of it, we played like the disjointed mass that we’ve been for most of the season, barring Trent and Darwin’s excellent goal right before halftime and the 15 minutes or so after halftime, wherein we took the lead and looked a lot more like the old Liverpool, with the pressin’ and the harryin’ and the general confidence that we’re the Reds and you’re not. That was the result of this goal:

Goals change games, yo. That’s Darwin’s 10th of the season. Squawka pointed out that that makes Liverpool the only PL club to have two players with at least 10 goals across all competitions this season. A few minutes into the second half, the other player (Mohamed Salah), scored his 17th. In the PL era, only Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres, Daniel Sturridge, Mo, and Diogo Jota have taken fewer appearances than Darwin (23) to get into double figures for the club. But, y’know, he’s a flop. His goal was also courtesy Trent’s second assist this season, after his first against Brentford on Monday. At the same stage last season, he already had 10. Simon Brundish pointed out that Trent’s created more big chances so far this season than last, but we just haven’t been closing the deal. That’s a team in transition.

That’s 250 appearances for the 24-year-old, which speaks to both his incredible talent (Gareth Southgate!) and, again, to the mileage that all of these guys have accumulated. And, yes, I did call out “Trent can’t defend!!” a couple times today, because he had Rayan Ait-Nouri pretty much shut down whenever he was nearby, so there’s that. That goal also put Mo in seventh place on the club’s all-time list, only 10 behind Fowler and 13 behind Stevie G. But then there’s the other side:

This is where you’d insert those “Wha-?!” and “Why-?!” moments, but to quote my friend, Brian: Cumong, mang! What’s even happening here? It’s not just that no one properly closes him down while his outlets on the left are covered, but the amount of space that he has when he receives the cross that starts him on his way. There’s a giant crater in the middle of our shape and there’s nothing but gold shirts along the rim of it. Hendo comes in late to try to fill the gaps but we look either disorganized or tired or both. The fancystats are an expected, albeit still mildly interesting, picture:

@CallmeAlfredo

As you might imagine, we dominate most of them, because Wolves let us have the ball (just like Brentford) and waited for us to provide an opening (just like Brentford) and then took advantage of it when they likely knew that our legs wouldn’t allow us to keep up. It’s clearly a plan by most of our opponents these days and it’s regularly working. The classic phrase is called “playing on the counter”, but it’s not even sustained counter-attacking play that’s working here. It’s just endurance, Burnley-style, until there’s a contested ball in the midfield that they win and then we’re not fast enough to make up the ground they way we used to. Their offensive presence was an adjunct to their defense (38 clearances! To our 7!) The rejoinder to this is that, if Ali doesn’t make an all-time blunder, then we might win, 2-1, barring the offside rule not taking quite so prominent a role (both against Toti’s seeming winner and Mo’s almost winner.) But it’s also arguable that, if Thiago doesn’t get cute right in front of the box while surrounded by Wolves attackers (like a pack, even) and instead makes an eighth clearance, then Ali isn’t forced to pick up the ball for the second time in 10 seconds, either. But don’t let that entirely color your opinion of Thiago, as seen here,

he’s still one of our best midfielders. I think it’s unnecessarily harsh on Keita, who did the Gini thing but with more offensive prowess after he got on the pitch for 22 whole minutes. You would have thought that with this being a cup game and him having limited exposure on Monday that he might have been a starter here but, again, it’s probably hard to know how much to play him without running the risk of injury which would put us in an even less-favorable position than we are now.

Oh, yeah. The new guy. He looked… fine? I mean, he had some good moves. He had some not-quite-as-good moves. There were moments when he looked like he and Robbo were on the same page and moments when they were clearly singing a different hymn. Overall, he looked positive and not afraid of taking chances presented to him. In the later stages of the match, he kinda faded but that’s to be expected when playing your first match with a new side. I didn’t see the fabulous energy of Darwin, but I also didn’t see him chasing the play like, say, Takumi Minamino often did. He looks like he’s finding his feet and that’s to be expected.

So, yeah, we’re at Brighton a week from today. Graham Potter’s departure has not had the impact that one might have expected it would, proving that they’ve assembled a solid squad once again and will doubtlessly be eager to pick on the ailing Reds. A match that I would’ve looked at as an almost-guaranteed three points before the season is now a total toss-up. But we’re on life support as far as top 4 is concerned right now, so we just have to hope the message gets through.

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