You know that feeling when you haven’t seen an old friend in a long time and you finally get together again and it’s like you’ve never been apart? You slip right back into the old patterns and that understanding of each other’s motions and conversational tics (finishing each other’s sentences, etc.) and everything that made your relationship comfortable in the first place. That’s what a lot of the match tonight against Wolverhampton was like. Not only were we meeting for the fourth time in 2023, so the squads have become quite familiar with each other, but the patterns of play slipped right back into what they used to be prior to this season; with the Reds constantly on the attack and firing a lattice of passes around and past Wolves defenders until finally the result was what you might expect it to normally be. Upon Mo Salah’s goal that sealed the victory at Anfield after Virgil Van Dijk’s opener, NBC’s commentator said: “That’s more like the old Liverpool!”, which was true, particularly if by “old” you mean “last season.” Unfortunately, we can’t say “it feels like we never left”, given that we’re still sitting in sixth place, but this match did feel a lot more like the team that we’ve become attached to over the past few years. In truth, we probably could have won by considerably more, if Harvey Elliott had been able to put away the two solid chances that he was presented with in the first half. That “could’ve won by 3/4/5/17” feeling is also a familiar one that we’ve grown accustomed to after routine victories in the past few years. It’s almost enough to give you hope for the rest of the season. But let’s not go nuts here.
The relief was plainly evident on the players’ faces, as well, with no less than implacable Virg clearly elated about scoring the opener. I don’t think he’s celebrated a goal like that since his first in a red shirt against Everton, five years ago. That one was a routine (that word again) header off a corner. This one was an extraordinary effort by newly-returned Diogo Jota to keep the play alive and give Virg a second chance at a header to take the lead. All of that came after Paul Tierney (surprise!) once again gave his best effort to spoil anything involved with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Yes, you could possibly cite Diogo for kicking Max Kilman’s leg on his way into the box. Or you could point out that he already on his way to the ground after being shoved and making contact with both Kilman and Craig Dawson, which is somehow ignored every time we venture into the box. So, if it was a foul on Diogo, wasn’t it also a foul and, thus, penalty on Kilman? Per Michael Reid, we’ve had 1181 touches in the box in the 32 games since the last time we were awarded a penalty in league play. That’s the greatest number of touches without a penalty in the Premier League era since Opta began keeping stats on it. Sunday’s match against ManU marks one year since that last penalty. So, y’know, just part of the routine, amirite? Especially with Tierney around.
But there’s no doubt that it was kind of remarkable to see Fabinho playing like the old Fabinho and Trent Alexander-Arnold playing like Trent AA+ and Liverpool’s midfield controlling the flow of play through the middle third. A lot of that latter aspect was created, as it has been for a few games now, by the superlative play of Stefan Bajčetić, whom you can see in that top image dribbling past fellow Iberian, Joao Moutinho. But combine Stefan’s play with the return of Fab and the excellent performance by Harvey and you get a game that seems blissfully familiar. Continue to feature Alisson’s excellent distribution with the great passing between not-often-seen Kostas Tsimikas and new arrival Cody Gakpo and you get the goal above that is absolutely like “the old Liverpool.” We’ve seemingly had to wait until March to find that routine that has produced four straight clean sheets in the PL; something we haven’t done since the “old Liverpool” of last April. 10 points out of the last 12 could make one think that we’re starting to click again; that old friends have become new and memories have become the present. I’m not quite there yet. Let’s see what happens against a genuinely good side in United this weekend. But it sure is feeling a lot more comfortable this evening, so good enough for now.
Liverpool 2 – 0 Wolverhampton
That’s a lot of big chances square in the middle of the box, which speaks to some kind of problem in the middle of Wolves’ defense that they weren’t able to correct. Of course, it also speaks to the talent that we have on hand firmly showing the quality that everyone has come to expect from Liverpool and there’s one talent in particular that seems to be crucial:
Captain Chaos reigns, yo. Benfica supporters on r/soccer were pleading with frustrated Liverpool fans earlier in the season to just give Darwin Núñez time to get settled and then he would start to produce for us. If it was anyone but Tierney on the pitch tonight, he would have produced his 13th goal, in addition to everything else he provides. He also had the most chances created (3), the most successful dribbles (3), and the most shots (3.) What’s 3 x 3 x 3? #27, of course. Alongside him in the threat creation (xT was more than 2-1 in our favor, 1.81 to 0.76) was part of the new routine:
That’s a #8 statline. If he’s on target with either of those headers he had, it’s a perfect evening for the kid. With him alongside Stefan and the revitalized Fabinho, I’m tempted to say that’s currently our best midfield, since both Thiago and Naby Keita are out with injuries (Go ahead and pretend that you’re shocked) and I’m not certain that either of them would be the better pick right now. I think Harvey might still be a little vulnerable to a midfield with good control (like, say, Real Madrid…) but the constant terror that he creates for back lines might outweigh that, especially with the return of The Lighthouse.
Does that feel wonderfully familiar? He got his typical yellow card because Tierney, but somehow got plowed through with both feet by Adama Traore late in the match who didn’t receive one because Tierney. (Consistency!) So, y’know, routine. The combination of Fab with the two young’uns was very smooth and didn’t produce a ton of issues. It’s not like Wolverhampton played poorly, either, as they were neck-and-neck with us on a whole bunch of the fancystats (PPDA, buildup completion, 10+ pass sequences, etc.) It wasn’t just us grinding down a low block. They came out and played with us to some degree. But we were able to defuse most of their attempts in the middle third and it was because of plays like Fab charging in and taking the ball off of Pablo Sarabia in the center circle in the 32nd minute, which was only a few minutes after he took it off Matheus Nunes in their penalty box to create a scoring chance. This is the old friend that we were so fond of, alongside another guy we haven’t seen in a while.
The Greek Scouser did everything you’d expect to continue to earn that title. That ball into a trotting Mo in the middle of the box was his sixth assist of the season, which is impressive, given the limited game time that he gets. You know what else is routine? Talking about what a shame it is that Kostas gets so few minutes because of how good our starting LB happens to be. I’m mildly surprised that he’s still here. Guess it helps to have grown up a Liverpool fan, but I’m still hoping that we can find more time for him because he still brings a nice, subtle contrast to the similar bundle of energy that is Andy Robertson. And the energy was infectious, as we saw.
There was much complaint among the Twitdiots when Virg was selected to the FIFA XI again. Yes, you might be able to argue that he’s not the nailed-on “best CB on the planet” any longer, but he’s still easily among the best. That goal was also his 20th in the PL, the most of any CB in the league since he arrived at Southampton in 2015.
As part of the routine (Yes, I’ve beaten the metaphor into the ground. Sorry.), Mo’s goal gave him 20 for the season, the sixth time he’s achieved that in his six seasons with us. Six straight with 20 goals or more is the longest run of any player that Liverpool has had in the last 60 years, alongside Ian Rush, who also achieved that feat from 1981 to 1987. Of course, he was technically on loan from Juventus for one of those years, but it wasn’t like he left and then returned to continue the streak. Rushie did rack up nine(!) seasons of 20+ goals for us by the end of his career, though. Three more years, Mo. You can do it.
Speaking of streaks, I’d like to restart one this Sunday against United, since ours was so rudely interrupted back in the fall. They’re on all cylinders right now, third in the table and having just won the WITSBP cup. Erik Ten Hag has done a job there, apparently. Would be great to tip their cart just a bit and gain another three points on Spurs and Newcastle for that 4th-place spot.