This is where I show my age. When I was a kid in the 70s, one of the drinks du jour was a sickly-sweet concoction known as a Harvey Wallbanger. Like most things in the 70s, it was the creation of a marketing campaign by the company that imported an herbal liqueur called Galliano which was the essential ingredient to the thing that made it different from your typical screwdriver (drink, not tool.) Said campaign invented the name and unleashed this thing and, of course, 1970s America being what it was, people (often literally) lapped it up. Why is this relevant? It’s not, really, in the same way that the win over Wolves today in the FA Cup isn’t really “relevant” to the broader discussion of Liverpool’s season. But the banger that Harvey Elliott unleashed in the 13th minute was enough to make me think of the artificial drink and the contrast with the genuine nature of Harvey’s celebration, where he repeatedly slapped and clutched at the badge on his chest, showing everyone just whom and what he was playing for. It’s that kind of passion, energy- intensity -that we’ve often lacked this season and which was on full display not just from Harvey but the rest of the youts and which led them to the win looking a lot like the Liverpool we’d come to know and believe in over the past few years.
Certainly, this was a match where you expected the younger/backbencher lineup, since we’re on a two-game losing streak in the league and have Chelsea coming to town on Saturday. That’s why this match wasn’t particularly relevant in the big picture. The only picture that matters right now is making top 4 and getting into the Champions League next season. But it was relevant in the way that people often think about generational change. It’s important that younger people are more invested in the ideals of equality and identity in the world-at-large in order to shift to a more positive society and move further from the savagery and violence of the past. But that idea of change is disturbing to a lot of older people because it’s not what they’ve become accustomed to. In this squad, we’ve become accustomed to a group of guys playing in a way that Jürgen Klopp established when he arrived. So, players and style of play is something we’re familiar with. But when that style of play drifts away, it’s often necessary to find new people to bring back the kind of game (and society) we want to see on the pitch. We need that energy to return us to being Liverpool. It’s not that veterans like James Milner, Robot Warrior, aren’t still Reds. Of course, they are, as Millie demonstrated it tonight. (Show of hands: How many of you expected Millie, at right back, to repeatedly beat people on the dribble? That would be “zero.” Right.) But you can only subsist on the afterburners for so long, physically, mentally, and emotionally before something gives way. Clearly, it has given way for some of our regulars, so this was a great opportunity to send a reminder of just what this team can be when it plays like the manager wants it to. If we can’t approximate that for the majority of what remains of the season, the alternative is just to go get drunk on something far better than a cheap marketing campaign from half a century ago. You youts don’t know what I’m talkin’ about, anyway.
Wolverhampton 0 – 1 Liverpool
That said, let’s not get carried away here. This wasn’t a perfect performance but, against relegation-battling Wolverhampton, it shouldn’t have to be. Julen Lopetegui still plays that mildly-suffocating, kinda 4-4-2, but gives a lot more freedom to his wingers to make things happen. Chief among those is Rayan Ait-Nouri, who gave us all kinds of problems at Anfield, but was largely kept in check by the redoubtable Robot Warrior, who also schooled Ait-Nouri a couple times about what pace and intensity really mean in this game. Speaking of which, Ibrahima Konaté once again demonstrated both his pace and his awareness, as he played the next best thing to a libero in covering the defensive third, line to line. That allowed Joe Gomez to range a bit farther forward to fill the space that Trent Alexander-Arnold normally would which, in turn, allowed Millie to focus mostly on slowing Wolves’ attack. It’s a credit to them that they were willing to run with us and put serious pressure on for the last 15 minutes or so, when you could see all of the starters on the pitch beginning to wear out. But one guy that really didn’t wear out until his legs cramped up was this guy:
This was one of the calmest, most assured performances by a DM we’ve had this season and definitely not something you’d normally expect from an 18-year-old. We knew Stefan had potential and we’ve seen it in bits and pieces before, but this was a real statement by the kid. Backup to Fabinho has been one of our most significant depth concerns for a couple years now and, given the latter’s recent decline, finding a replacement has taken on a note of urgency, as well. The spotlight is now squarely on Stefan. A bit more endurance and a bit more muscle and it’s not outrageous to think of him as a nailed-on starter. Even without those things, I’m ready to call him a regular rotational guy right now.
Likewise, given recent troubles, I think it’s difficult to keep Harvey off the field right now. Yes, there are still some defensive and shape concerns, but he’s become much more adept at knowing where to be and when to be there and clearly has the wheels that we need to maintain the press and pace of play that the boss likes. Starting him and Naby Keita as the 8s alongside Stefan or Thiago at the 6 seems like a real path forward at the moment. Oh, yeah, I said “forward.”
To ratchet the expectations down a bit, no, I don’t expect Ben Doak to become a starter this season. I think he looks great for who and what he is (17 years old!) and has demonstrated that he’s perfectly fine at the PL level. But there’s still a fair amount of learnin’ and growin’ to do before he reaches even Harvey and Stefan’s levels. Still, he moved the ball well and had a great grasp of how Wolves’ lines were moving so that he could get in between and behind them.
Along with all of those youts, I think Curtis Jones played really well in his few minutes on the pitch and Fabio Carvalho did OK, although he was once again out of his natural position. He’d really be ideal in the #10 slot in a 4-2-3-1, but we’re just not set up to use that as the base formation, personnel-wise, so it’s hard to find a good location for him that would get the best out of his skillset. I think he can play as one of the 8s, but straight-line speed is not really his forte. Of course, it’s not really Naby’s, either, as was demonstrated a couple times tonight and he was still fantastic at controlling the middle of the pitch and making sure the ball was going where it was supposed to. Given our current situation, it’s really hard for me to think who else would be a better starter on the right side. Every time he’s on the pitch, we look better and there’s almost no one else on the squad whom I’m more comfortable with emerging from a crowded midfield with the ball and then putting it in the right spot.
So, fellow walking casualty line Chelsea on Saturday. It’s the early game, so it will be me and whoever has to open the bar to start drinking at 7 AM. (Well, OK, I’ll be drinking. The bartenders should avoid that.) Don’t leave us hanging there alone. Meanwhile, here’s more Stefan: