One of the most prominent sensations of the win over Everton was how much that performance reminded everyone of how Liverpool used to look on the pitch. It was a callback to the side that was constantly on fire and needing to put that fire out by putting balls in the back of the net. In some ways, it was a callback even farther than just last season where we almost won the quad or the injury-plagued season before that. It was to the earlier part of the Jürgen Klopp era where the offensive urgency would sometimes overwhelm the defensive competency. That side was on full display again yesterday, as we went through the swings and roundabouts (English phrase) of enduring their opening 10 minutes of pressure and then put their end of the pitch under full assault until Nick Pope forgot where he was and only realized when he was back in the dressing room, and then had a 10-man side largely take it to us for an hour before finally closing out our first Premier League clean sheet on the road since April. There’s a caveat, of course, as in the early days of Kloppball, we wouldn’t have kept the clean sheet. But since the arrival of Alisson Becker, whom I can unabashedly state is the best goalkeeper on the planet right now, that’s been far less of a concern. As Trent Alexander-Arnold stated after the match: “It’s starting to feel like the Liverpool we’re used to.”
And there might be a clue to how this turning point is still just a part of the overall process when you look at the first goal. Trent is now well-known across the football world for his pinpoint passes and crosses to set up scoring opportunities, if not outright assists, as with this one. But in this series of replays, notice how Trent sees the space that Darwin Núñez will be running into before the latter even acknowledges the possibility and starts his run toward the goal. Trent knows the opportunity is there and Darwin should know, given how much space Newcastle’s centerbacks are giving him. He often does attack those spaces, but here it’s almost like Trent’s pass catches him out just a bit and he responds fast enough to make something out of it. It’s that kind of instinctive behavior and Vulcan mind meld that takes time to develop among a squad. Contrast this situation with Alisson’s brilliant pass to Mo Salah. As soon as he catches that ball off the Newcastle free kick, he’s moving toward the edge of the box to put that ball at Mo’s feet, who is already on his way into the Newcastle half. He later stated: “I know him. He knows me. I know how fast he is.” It’s that kind of understanding that marks the difference between players who’ve been together for five years (Alisson and Mo) and those who’ve been together for seven months (Trent and Darwin.)
After the derby, both players and outside observers like yours truly were ready to wave it off as just another of the single-match results we’ve had this season (Man City, Napoli, Southampton) that made it seem like the squad had turned the corner and things were starting to click. But now we have two successive such moments, including one against a current rival for top 4, rather than against the relegation-threatened Bitters. It certainly would have been even more reassuring if we hadn’t given up 5 of Newcastle’s 7 corners while they were a man down, but due credit to Eddie Howe’s team. They didn’t give up and they continued to play just like his sides did at Bournemouth: always pursuing the ball and always pushing forward. It’s quite possible that Jürgen told the boys at halftime to just shift into contain mode in order to save some energy for the Champions League match against Real Madrid on Tuesday and that’s what enabled the Maggies to keep their feet under them for the rest of the match. Certainly, a four-man swap in the 59th minute speaks of time management, rather than anything tactical and that’s fine. We’re at the stage of the season where time management is a priority, especially for those who’ve been on the pitch since August. The only thing to do is keep rolling forward and getting as much out of each match as we can. There’s still the faint glimmer of hope that we could make another CL final and then it’s just about treating every PL match as a final to hopefully get back closer to the position that everyone expected us to be in at the start of the season with this same group of guys who are starting to look a lot more like those expectations.
Newcastle United 0 – 2 Liverpool
That’s easily the widest gulf in xG that I’ve seen among the several analyses usually available (nothing from Caley on anything but the Arsenal-Villa match yesterday for some reason.) Markstatsbot, for example, had it as only a 2.13 to 2.02 advantage in our favor, which I would have said is oddly low. Despite the disparity (I think we need a third “disp” word in there, like “disposal” or “dyspepsia”) in xG, Newcastle did have chances. Part of the praise for Alisson arises from two of the three saves he had to make, which were excellent. As we all know, 2-0 is the worst of all leads and one goal changes it from us managing the game to trying to hold off the white-and-black tide, even if undermanned. Speaking of that undermanning, I have all the respect in the world for Howe, not only for what he was able to do with tiny Bournemouth but also for what he’s done with this Newcastle squad. Unlike their fellow sportswashers in Manchester, the Maggies’ owners have been very deliberate about their squad construction and Howe has taken what most would have deemed a good but not spectacular collection of talent and turned them into a top 4 unit that has lost only two PL games all season… both of them to us. But Howe’s take on Pope’s red card (“I thought it was harsh. It could’ve been yellow.”) is the height of managerial disingenuousness. There’s no way that’s a yellow card. Not only did he intentionally handle the ball outside the box, but he did so to prevent an obvious goalscoring opportunity. That’s a straight red for any player on the pitch and you could tell that Pope knew what he’d done as soon as he grabbed the ball. It’s not even a judgment call on Anthony Taylor’s part. It’s just dismissal. Just accept that your keeper lost his head for a second and that’s that. No one wanted him sent off. Both Mo and Alisson later said that they would have rather had the goal and assist, respectively. Maybe Howe was just irritated at being the first manager in history to lose 10 consecutive league matches against Liverpool?
Part of that thing we’re all used to is having the big man on the pitch. This was the return of Virgil Van Dijk after seven matches out with a hamstring problem and it was kind of a relief to have his calm control back in place, given the often uncertain play of our centerbacks without him this season. Nowhere was that more obvious than in Joe Gomez’s play, who also turned in an excellent coverage and passing game, probably with the reassurance of knowing that Virg was back and holding down his half of the field. It’s like the assurance that offensive linemen get in American football once they’re used to playing with each other, such that they sit on the bench in formation (“That guy is always there!”) That led to greater offensive production, as we can see here.
Again, back to the old Liverpool, with three defenders directly contributing in significant fashion to the forward movement of the ball. But the PPDA (passes per defensive action; how many passes the opposition is allowed before the defense challenges) was also markedly in our favor at 7.1 to their 26.2. That’s certainly slanted by playing against 10 men for an hour, when they’re less likely to come out to challenge for fear of giving up an even larger space behind, but it’s also a measure of how our press and counterpress, which have been significant weaknesses this season, in contrast to the strengths that they usually are, have begun to shift into the weapons that we want and need them to be.
Speaking of weapons… That was only Trent’s third assist in the PL this season, after 24 matches, which is remarkably low for him, but indicative of the general malaise across the squad. But it’s a standout performance, especially given the relatively quiet day that Andy Robertson had on the left side. Of course, most of the excitement off the left was coming a bit farther forward:
As Lee Dixon elaborates, that pass by Mo is sublime. As soon as Fabinho delivers it, his foot is already angled to drop it right where he wants it and Cody Gakpo’s ability to control it, turn, and then poke it past Pope can’t be ignored, either. That’s just an overall slick play. The downside to the NBC replay is that it misses the beginning of that sequence, which is a remarkable turn-and-progression by Stefan Bajčetić, who remains one of our best players on the pitch at any given time:
Yeah, man. 18 years old! And he keeps doing this stuff. We’ve all seen the young stars who produce for a few matches and whom we think are sure to go on to be names in the record book, but I have to think back to someone like Michael Owen for someone who was this young and played this consistently well over an extended period. As Mo noted after the derby, Stefan has probably been our best overall player on the pitch since the return from the World Cup break and he didn’t dissuade anyone from that opinion today. Put that key linking play in a sequence that led to Cody’s second goal in two games and you start to feel much more positive about the near future and the long-term.
But while we’re talking about the new kids, let’s not forget the old guard. This was Roberto Firmino’s 350th appearance for Liverpool and he was still up to the same tricks he’s always shown; keeping the ball moving through the middle third and opening up opportunities for others and himself. The rumor is that Jürgen has been playing Cody through the middle so often (despite the latter’s desire to play on the left) to try to teach him how to become the false 9 in our system. As good as Cody is with the ball, which he displayed in that turn and shot that led to his goal, I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to duplicate what Bob has done for us. I’m not sure that anyone outside of that guy from Argentina really could.
Similarly, piles of credit to James Milner, Robot Warrior. When Newcastle was still pressing the issue in the second half, the guy laying waste to the middle third, putting in key tackles and some great passes from touchline to touchline was Millie. He won’t get called out in the stats and there was no Thiago-like magic to it. It was just solid play all over the pitch which is what that guy has been delivering for us for eight years now; almost twice as long as his stay with any other club.
We got the late game on Saturday leading up to our Tuesday encounter with Real Madrid, which Jürgen won’t be happy about from a recovery standpoint but with so many casualties returning to fitness and, again, the four-man swap that we did at the hour mark, fatigue shouldn’t really be an issue. Darwin’s shoulder injury might but, again, with both Bob and Diogo Jota back, we’ve reestablished the depth on the front line, even without Captain Chaos. We once again have the late game next Saturday against Crystal Palace, but at least we won’t be going to Madrid for almost three weeks after that. I leave you as we began, with the best keeper on the planet.