I didn’t write anything after the league match against Chelsea last weekend for the first time in a few years. Even when I’ve skipped matches in the cup competitions (because I generally don’t care about them), I’ve stayed with the league activity because, to an old-schooler like me, the league is everything. In my opinion, it’s the soundest estimation of just where a club is and how it’s performing because it measures the entire season and not the often fluke events of a knockout competition in the most random of major sports. So, when you look at our being ninth in the table, above tenth-placed Chelsea only on goal difference, you’d have to say that our dreadful, goalless draw with them last week and then today’s loss to Brighton (sixth in the table) are pretty clear reminders of just where we are and what we’re doing. In a lot of ways, it’s not too dissimilar to what Liverpool’s existence was for much of the 21st century, prior to Jürgen Klopp’s arrival. It’s a state of affairs that breeds a sense of detachment. You’re not in the rush of being at or near the top of the table, with every match perhaps deciding whether a title is within reach, and you’re not in the dire panic of being at or near the bottom (you can look across Stanley Park for what that looks like…), with every match perhaps determining whether you stay in the top division at all next season. Instead, you’re kind of muddling along; never looking great and (usually) never looking quite dire enough to go into free fall. Of course, given the success that we’ve had over the past six years, this is looking pretty dire for a lot of the Reds’ fanbase and all of the “Could be worse. Could be Everton.” sentiment is a poor substitute for concrete answers as to why circumstances are as they are. And, yes, I have expressed some of that sentiment about the neighbors because, in the long run, it’s absolutely true. Things could be much worse. But, despite all the wailings by the TWWs, we haven’t been as poorly run as the Blues have been since FSG arrived. Anyone trying to debate that is a waste of time and airspace.
That said, there is certainly room for criticism and no one is immune to it. Not the players. Not the owners. Not the recruiters. And not Jürgen. In both matches in the past 10 days, we’ve played Cody Gakpo down the middle and either Harvey Elliott or Darwin Núñez off the left, despite all three of those people being out of position in that formation. Harvey does his best work from midfield or on the right, Darwin has shown how dangerous he can be as a central target guy, and Cody has expressed before that he feels most comfortable on the left. Of course, Jürgen knows a lot more about the game and his players than I do, but it’s hard to not wonder about what his motivations are when the visual evidence that all three players provide is contrary to how he’s setting them up to play. That only adds to the confusion and frustration that everyone feels (manager, players, supporters) about how we’ve been playing for the vast majority of this season. When you reach that level of frustration, a natural reaction is to throw up your hands and find something else with which to occupy your time. Of course, I’ll still watch every minute, just as I did today. I watch every time Liverpool is kicking a ball, from pre-season to end of season because that’s what I’ve done for 40+ years (when games were available.) But I’m not immune to that sense of frustration when it comes to actually sitting down for an hour or two and typing out a couple thousand words which will largely be the same words that I’ve been typing for most of this season (aka “What is happening?”, “Why is this happening?”, “Can someone- anyone -stop this from happening?”) That gets old fast and it’s a situation that, within the last few years, only reared its head in the middle of the injury-ravaged ’20-’21 season when the problem was blatantly obvious.
Certainly, injuries are a problem this season, as well, since we’ve been without Diogo Jota and Luís Diaz and now Roberto Firmino for the majority of it. That would explain a lot about why we’ve been unable to score at our usual pace and why Mohamed Salah has also been enduring his worst run of form since arriving on Merseyside five years ago. As a fine example of historical not-really-irony, one of our most consistent performers over the past few matches has been the oft-injured Naby Keita. But injuries aren’t everything. Certainly, we miss the steadying presence of Virgil Van Dijk at the back, but Virg has been some distance from the world’s best centerback this year. In truth, our best performer in that role has probably been Ibrahima Konaté, who reinforced that opinion again today. Likewise, the middle of the pitch seemed much more secure when Stefan Bajčetić was on than when former guaranteed starter Fabinho came on in his place and with his first touch almost generated an excellent chance for Brighton and with his second delivered an easy yellow card tackle that likely should’ve been a red. I’ve spoken before about the amount of miles on Fabinho’s odometer and that certainly could factor in to his recent performances. Even so, the dramatic dropoff from a player who is now only 29 (i.e. in his prime years as a footballer) has been as jarring as everything else that has happened this season. So I can sit here and keep talking about the bad news or I can keep shrugging and repeating some version of “I don’t know why…” and that’s not particularly entertaining for me and probably isn’t for all of you, either (and since I’m still not doing this for a paycheck of any kind, there’s a lot less motivation on a practical level, too.) Right now, all we can do is what the boss says: take it game by game and see what happens. It’s a far cry from the surge of joy that has been most of the Klopp era, but nothing lasts forever, and sometimes you just need to put a little distance between yourself and things like this until everyone feels like we’re back on the same page again. Or at least reading from the same book.
Brighton 2 – 1 Liverpool
Before we get into today, it’s worth asking whether there was anything notable to mention from the draw against Chelsea. On the positive side, Stefan and Thiago both had solid games, especially notable in Stefan’s case as it was the 18-year-old’s first Premier League start. Beyond that, pretty much all bad news, most notable among that news being:
For much of the first half of the season, it was fair to say that Mo was one of our few consistent performers. Since the return from the World Cup break, that’s no longer the case. In fact, that match was the third consecutive league match in which Mo didn’t even have a shot on target. Problems in the midfield and the lack of Bob to assist or other regular threats to take the heat off (Darwin has been hampered by mild injuries) have certainly contributed to that state of affairs, but there’s no doubt that Mo is having some issues of his own. As Simon Brundish pointed out, that came in the middle of a “7 games in 47 days” stretch; the lightest schedule that Jürgen has had since he became Liverpool manager, so it’s hard to argue that short-term fatigue is a significant factor. Indeed, as we’ve seen over the years, the Reds often play better when they have to respond every three or four days and extended breaks are often the precursor to poor play. Well, the schedule just got lighter.
Andy Robertson opined that our form has been worse since the World Cup break and, despite Jürgens disagreement, I don’t think he’s wrong. The stat pointed out by Andrew Beasley above says everything about a squad that’s desperate to keep up physically, tactically, and psychologically. In every season before this, including the almost-disaster of ’20-’21, Liverpool have won the “Fair Play” award in the PL and we’re still second in that particular table, 2 cards behind Manchester City (which is with whom we’re usually contesting that “award.”) But there’s been a sharp surge in card-creating tackles lately, which speaks to a squad that’s disorganized on the pitch and usually being outplayed by the side they’re up against, which was the case again today. (As an aside, Andrew is doing excellent work at the Liverpool Echo in place of the departed James Pearce. He’s a stats guy, but has a keen sense for the atmosphere of a match, as well.)
Both the ESPN commentators and the Twitterati remarked how Liverpool showed more fight in the first five minutes against Brighton than they had in the entire 90 two weeks ago. But a decent first half effort didn’t obscure the fact that, in the second half, the match was largely Brighton’s to dictate once again. We were sitting on the counter and taking advantage of cheap opportunities, rather than conducting a coordinated attack. There was the now-usual fountain of outrage at Jürgen’s substitutions, as soon as Naby and Trent Alexander-Arnold were taken off the pitch for Captain Jordan Henderson and James Milner, Robot Warrior. Naby would not have been my first choice to replace, either, but if you’re going to try to press the attack, rather than control the middle third, Hendo is still probably the better choice, given his instincts. Likewise, with Trent getting harried by new Brighton star, Kaoru Mitoma, it’s not a horrible idea to replace Trent’s athleticism with Millie’s veteran knowhow. One of our best chances of the entire match came on Millie’s pinpoint, curving pass into the box, right in front of Mo who, unfortunately, couldn’t convert and the veteran did a fine job of containing the Brighton winger and outfoxing him more than once in both their defensive zone and ours. Of course, he couldn’t do much about leaving both Mitoma and Pervis Estupiñán unmarked at the far post which then led to the winning goal. The one change you could perhaps really criticize Jürgen for is replacing Stefan with Fabinho, but the former is still developing and was already on a yellow, so that’s not completely irrational, either. I’ve seen people criticizing the fact that, despite Jürgen’s insistence that we have to win more challenges, Hendo got into only a single duel in his entire time on the pitch today. From my perspective, that’s a result of two things: Brighton’s superior organization allowing them to play around us and not actually create instances where they could be successfully challenged (this is a page right out of Pep Guardiola’s manual that Roberto Di Zerbi has successfully implemented) and also because Hendo was inserted more to create offense in the absence of Trent than to control the middle third, which we were reliant upon Thiago and Fab to do. Then the argument comes to complain about Trent going off, but if what’s happening on the pitch isn’t working (which it wasn’t), you generally want to change things, right? How many years have people screamed about Jürgen not making changes soon enough? Now he’s doing it, as he looks for answers and that’s not good enough, either.
One upside is that in the last couple matches, we haven’t been getting played through like we aren’t on the pitch as we were so frequently in earlier games. Goals against have come from set pieces (Both of them today…) and bad turnovers rather than a real structural problem. Of course, all of that improvement gets you a relatively even match and a last-minute defeat against Brighton, so… We get to go to Wolverhampton again next Saturday and then it’s the Merseyside derby at Anfield a week from the following Monday. You’d think that could be a point where we feel better about ourselves, but I don’t think we’re quite that desperate yet. (Maybe?)