As any student of history will discover, things tend to move in patterns. You can look at the current political climate in both the US and the UK and realize that it’s not that much different from what was seen in the US in the late 19th century and throughout Europe in the 1920s. You can examine the pushback against cultural change in the US from slavery to trans rights and realize that it’s usually the same bad elements fueled by ignorance and fear of something different that results in the same social struggles that will eventually be won by the more just side. That view of history and culture can be expanded across decades or even centuries (what people now refer to as Nixon’s/the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” was notably first employed in 18th-century Haiti, where the big White plantation owners convinced the small White owners that the problem was all those non-White people.) And sometimes it can be just a repetition of the same thing, over and over, within something as short as the average football season.
Liverpool lost to the 20th-placed club in the Premier League last Saturday (Bournemouth, 1-0), which was the fourth time they’d played the team in last place and the third time they’d lost (Leeds, Nottingham Forest, and Everton were the others, managing a draw against only the Bitters.) After the match, Trent Alexander-Arnold invoked a sports cliché, suggesting that the Cherries “wanted it more than us” and how that was “unacceptable and we need to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.” Except, well, it has happened two other times (three if you count taking a draw against Everton) and those debacles are far from the only time it’s happened this season. In fact, you can probably look at the majority of our matches and declare that the other side “wanted it more than us”, despite me not giving any weight to that perspective at all, given that these are all professional athletes playing for money and glory and this entire squad has been at the pinnacle of English football for the past five years because they “wanted it.” That, of course, may be part of the problem and lends weight to the idea that the squad should be overhauled, even at the cost of some real talents, if only to bring in some players who do seem to genuinely “want it.”
In a broader sense, chronologically, but a smaller one, opponent-wise, Wednesday was the fourth time in six seasons that we’ve been knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid. Of course, two of those were finals, one of which we should have won by any reasonable estimation, but the last time we lost out in the knockout rounds, it was remarkably similar to this situation. Madrid got a solid lead in the first leg and then basically coasted, controlling the game without any sense of urgency in the second leg. The only thing that would have made it more symmetrical is if they’d pulled out another 0-0 draw like last time, rather than Benzema poaching a goal late in this match. But, for all that we were climbing a mountain in the same way we were four years ago against Barcelona (again, that whole “history repeating” thing), other than a few minutes in the first half and another few in the second, this performance showed none of the drive that that ’18-’19 team did. Of course, playing against a side managed by Carlo Ancelotti is a much different situation than playing against one managed by Ernesto Valverde. The former knows how to control matches and is perhaps uniquely equipped with the scalding memory of the greatest comeback in European Cup history in knowing that there are to be no risks taken against the side wearing red. But this side wearing red didn’t even seem that compelled to make it a challenge, in the same way they haven’t against most of the clubs we’ve played for this whole season.
So, there went our last faint hope at a trophy for the year. At this point, there’s little left to do but play out the string in the likewise faint hope that we can overtake Tottenham or Newcastle or whomever happens to sit fourth to be able to play in the Champions League next year. Again, having won the PL title in 2020, the idea that the next two seasons would be complete write-offs is baffling. One you can probably attest to massive injuries (a problem that we have not escaped this season) but this level of output is something beyond that. There are problems here that no level of Man United faceplant can possibly cover for. Jürgen said that part of the reason he extended his contract was that he wanted to be here for the “difficult” season. That’s just another way that he takes the blame for what this season has turned into. But it’s more than just “difficult.” At the moment, despite his protestations, it feels like there are real problems in the organization, on the pitch and off it, and I don’t think just rebuilding the midfield is going to compensate for all of them. We’re off for over two weeks at this point (our planned match against Fulham was postponed because of their continued participation in the FA Cup) before we return to action against Manchester City in April. Does recent history repeat itself, where this squad activates the Wonder Twin powers for the big games? Or it just a continuation of the slide into mediocrity that has been ’22-’23? We have a lot of time to think about how badly we want it.
Bournemouth 1 – 0 Liverpool
What else to say about this one? Similarly to last year’s CL final against, uh, the other opponent that I’ll get to below, we had twice the Cherries’ xG and our first penalty given in almost a year (we are, once again, dead last in that category in the league despite having, once again, the second-most touches in the opposition box) and failed to convert anything. As the above diagram shows, they did well in limiting our opportunities in the middle of the box but, of course, our two biggest chances came right in the middle of that box. On the other end, we basically gave them nothing except one decent pass to a threat that, of all people, Virgil Van Dijk didn’t turn correctly into and that was the end. It was, by far, the worst game I’ve seen Virg play since he returned from his injury. But no one else particularly covered themselves in glory, either, so I’m not going to single out anyone in the same way I wouldn’t in the losses to Leeds or Forest. This is still a team game requiring a team effort and too often this season that effort has been lacking. Of course, when one looks at Jürgen’s Liverpool career as a whole, we’ve lost more matches against clubs in the relegation zone (12) than we have against those in the CL spots (10) so, again, historical trends.
All you have to do is look at that passing network diagram and it’s easy to see which side was actually probing forward in search of a goal. Yes, they got us on the classic counter, but it was such a feeble counter that really should have been isolated and removed that you once again sit there and ask yourself the unanswerable question: Why? That question could also be pointed at our attacking unit but in a more oblique fashion, as in: With all of our resources bent in that direction, how is it possible that we didn’t score? But just as the Madrid game showed, putting in more attackers doesn’t necessarily lead to more scoring. Mo Salah, Cody Gakpo, and Darwin Núñez have been among our best players since the restart but football is still a team game and they can’t do everything by themselves. And, in a lot of ways, they haven’t.
You have to go nine players deep to find the first Bournemouth player on this list. Seven of our starting XI and two of our subs were more threatening in the build-up than anyone who set foot on the pitch in red-and-black stripes but, somehow, here were are, again, for the third time this season. Add on top of that our first penalty in almost a year which Mo somehow missed (not “missed” as in “saved”, but outright missed the target) and, yeah, I don’t know where to go with all of this information other than to think that we just need to swap out even established starters for new faces next season. Sometimes teams need that, even when things are riding high. The perfect example is, of all abominable people, Alex Ferguson, who made that a hallmark of his career at Man United.
Real Madrid 1 – 0 Liverpool
In total contrast, despite our frequent domination of the ball, this match was all Madrid. Not only did they never really have to get out of second gear whether in possession or out of it, but the better chances and the xT (expected threat; the chance of a goal based on the build-up) were firmly in their favor (2.21 to our 0.58.) When you combine that second match with the absurd goal tally they racked up from the first one, the 6-2 difference is our heaviest defeat over two matches in a European knockout tie. For the first 25 minutes of the first match, we were great (xG of 1.85.) For the rest of that game and the second (155 minutes), we were indifferent (0.61 xG) which is basically the same story as it’s been in the PL (great against top sides; in absentia against lower ones.) Except that, of course, Madrid is still a top side and they displayed it in this tie by not losing their heads when 0-2 down and in controlling the second match in the full confidence that, unlike four years ago against Barcelona, we basically had no chance of reversing this scoreline. Again, Ancelotti’s style of play often guarantees that; to say nothing of how he reacts every time he plays Liverpool since 2005.
This is also a great example of the subtle variations in modern stats theory. Once again, we have the majority of progressive attacking players, but this time only six out of ten. It’s also worth noting that two of Madrid’s four are Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, their two star midfielders. We were set up in a 4-2-3-1, with James Milner, Robot Warrior and Fabinho as the double pivot, so you would expect one of that double to be a key passer but maybe not to the extent that Fabinho obviously was, which is a positive development for him (albeit quite late in the season for all that) and there’s no shame on Cody’s part, since he’s filling the #10 spot solidly. The problem is that when we play that formation it’s generally an attack-heavy approach (in direct contrast to its employment as a defensive setup, traditionally) and if you can’t make the connection between the pivot and your four attackers, you get nothing. Both Modrić and Kroos were and are experts at cutting out that progression and that’s what they showed here, in addition to moving the ball.
Our best player across both legs, which is saying something when we’ve surrendered six goals, was Alisson Becker. In the above image, he’s saving what was a certain goal by Vinicius Junior and he had two other excellent saves, including a fingertip deflection of a nice cross-box shot by Karim Benzema. In the aftermath, for the first time since he’s arrived in Liverpool, Alisson had some choice words for this teammates, saying that they “lacked attitude”, among other things and that injuries could no longer be an excuse. What does it say when the most forgiving, most positive player on the squad has to drop the hammer like that? It says you have problems that no magic midfielder is going to immediately solve. Speaking of magic midfielders…
Oh, yeah. We were just talking about injuries, right? Well, now our brightest young player is out for the rest of the season. This has now arced past the ridiculous, past the absurd, and we’re on into the sublime. As you all know, I’m all about statistical analysis and one trend does not indicate a pattern, especially given sample sizes. But to have been leading the games-lost-to-injury table in the PL for the past several seasons and to continue to end up with long-term, muscular injuries like this has basically become the pattern. There has to be something wrong here with our training methods, especially given the number of these injuries that are incurred in training. Certainly, the players spend far more time training than they do play, so it’s expected that that would be the case to some degree, but this is insane. Jürgen reacted extremely poorly to Melissa Reddy’s piece about turmoil behind the scenes that I mentioned a few weeks back, but it doesn’t take that much brain power to link the medical staff’s departure with the continued casualty list, even if you don’t want to believe the hearsay about Andreas Kornmayer.
So, there it is. We’re off for almost two weeks from this point, playing at the Etihad against Man City and their goalscoring machine, Erling Haaland, on April 1st. What will that match be like? Well, you could talk about “Fools’ Day”, but I really have no idea. On the one hand, you look at the inconsistent results in contrast with City’s reliability and imagine that we’ll get blown off the pitch. This is especially a consideration when the gentlest person on our team is castigating the others for not giving their all. But, then, of course, given our propensity to show up against big sides, as we did in the 1-0 win over this same opponent back in the fall, there’s really no way to tell. We’re seven points back of Spurs with a game in hand after this weekend and with Antonio Conté determined to continue to give us hope. I, for one, am just not going to think about it until the ball starts rolling again. I have a TV series to write from almost the ground up, which is the kind of (re)build that it might take to get this squad back to contending next season. Until then, join me in giggling about Uncle O’Grimacey, hardcore Provo: