April fools

“There is nothing good to say about this game.” is the direct quote that began Jürgen’s post-match press conference and, yeah, I’m pretty much right there with him on that one. You could tell from the fairly muted roar at Magee’s when Mo Salah opened the scoring that no one genuinely believed that we’d get anything out of this game and the second half showed exactly why. It’s tough to read the assessment on Twitter about how the first half was “fairly even” because it really wasn’t. Both xG and xT were completely in Man City’s favor because they were playing their usual game and we were just hoping to contain it and play on the counter. It was as if we’d acknowledged that they were the vastly superior side even before the ball was kicked. Granted, contain-and-counter is the way Jürgen has approached any match against City and we haven’t lost to them in two years as a result. And, in fact, the one time we didn’t play that way was in the FA Cup semifinal last season where we controlled the match and took play to them, but we still scraped at least a draw from all the rest. But all you have to do is look at our away form this season (12(!) points out of a possible 42) to recognize that trying to turn the tables this time against the Pep Guardiola machine was not a realistic goal. But what’s genuinely disturbing about this match is how one-sided it became after halftime.

I’ve talked fairly often this season about the Dortmund phenomenon, where it became obvious in his final season in Westphalia that his players had simply lost the thread. Either they weren’t listening to him anymore or they were and tried to execute his plans but no longer believed in what they were doing. We are clearly at that point now. This team is so mentally fragile that no amount of encouragement from the manager is going to change anything. By the same token, if things were going as tragically wrong as they were, eight minutes into the second half, it’s a fair question to ask why it took until the 70th minute to make any changes? Jürgen is loyal to his players and people have questioned the timeliness of his subs since the day he set foot in Liverpool but at some point this season, you have to think it’s become obvious that some players simply aren’t working out any longer and the ripcord has to be pulled to get things moving forward again. This is the sixth time this season that we’ve conceded 3+ goals in the Premier League (ninth(!) overall), which is as many as the three previous seasons combined. It’s also the first time we’ve conceded that many so often in this short a span of games (21) since the PL began. Obviously, something isn’t working and it’s not just because Man City is Man City. Again, three years after winning the league title and two of those three years have been total writeoffs. If ever there was an argument for Alex Ferguson’s approach to squad management (e.g. cutting guys loose, even if they’re positive elements on the pitch, if only to shake things up), this is it. But that’s utterly contrary to how Jürgen likes to operate, so here we are. But looking at this performance today, I’d be all in favor of protecting Alisson Becker and Mo, shielding Harvey Elliott, Darwin Núñez, Cody Gakpo, and Ibrahim Konaté because of their age, and listening to offers for everyone else.

Yes, that includes heretofore untouchable players like Virgil Van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Andy Robertson. Something has to change and it won’t change by retaining people who aren’t performing and holding on to other people who can only perform for half the season because they’re constantly injured, like Thiago Alcântara. Granted, we won’t get reasonable offers for all of them, which means some of them will stick around by default, but it has to be made clear that almost no one in this squad is untouchable and the only two that have been consistent enough to approach that status are Mo and Ali. It won’t get any better by finishing from 5th to 7th and playing on Thursday nights next season, either. What’s insane about this is that this same squad was challenging for every trophy possible last season. I hearken back to Ian Graham’s point that we showed better than the numbers indicated last season and are showing worse than the numbers indicate this season. That’s football. But right now it seems like last season was far more the mirage than this season is, especially when it becomes so obvious, as it did in the second half, that we’re not even vaguely a threat to the second-place club in the league. They toyed with us. We were Bournemouth to them, which probably makes sense, given that we lost to Bournemouth in our last league outing. Jürgen said that “four(ish) players had a decent game and the rest were somewhere. I don’t know.” Sticking with that and hoping things will improve as everyone gets a year older is a fool’s errand and I really hope that everyone at the club is conscious of that.

Manchester City 4 – 1 Liverpoool

I mean, what do you say about a result like that? City’s whole game is designed around preventing shots, so you can understand some degree of barrenness at our end, but getting four shots for the whole match is simply a sign of a side that was completely outplayed by the opposition… which is exactly what happened. The last time I can recall being on the pitch with another squad that just completely outplayed us like this is the last time we lost to City, two years ago during the injury debacle season. What happened in the intervening five matches where we came out with two draws and three wins? I can’t say much for certain other than: “That’s football.”

But, seriously, come on, man. Look at those passing networks. Fully half of City’s map is in our zone, while we have on outlier in Mo who was receiving balls in a forward position. I mean, certainly, that’s what happens when you’re sitting compact and playing on the counter, but it’s also a total role reversal of our arrangement against almost every other side in the league and other competitions for the past five years. Are we just acknowledging that we can’t run with City the way we did last season in both matches? Granted, that may actually be the case. You know, after cheating the system for years to build this squad, they now finish so highly in every competition that prize money fills the gap even if they’re playing by the rules now (and, considering the number of mailbox sponsors they have, they’re not.) We’ve done the same on that latter half, but the inability to just keep bringing in star after star has finally reached the end result that you’d expect and we’re simply not on the same level with them anymore. Damn shame to be cheated out of two more league titles, isn’t it? Of course, that sounds like sour grapes right now and it is because next season, barring an enormous transformation this summer, will be more of the same. The bizarre thing, of course, is that before this match, Liverpool was winning the “big 6” mini-league, with more points against the other five than anyone else (15 to City and Chelsea’s 13.) Now, of course, City has taken the lead.

This is a notable excision from this match, though. We came out in a 4-2-3-1 with Mo up top and Cody at the #10. But City also altered their 4-3-3 by doing this in possession, which was the perfect response to our formation, because it utterly cut out the double pivot and often left both fullbacks in 2v1 situations. Contrary to the narrative, I think Trent did OK in this poor situation, but the fact that they kept doing it and, because we were playing on the counter, we allowed them to keep doing it, is something of a tactical failure on Jürgen’s part. They showed fairly early that they were willing to go to the wide spaces, unlike their historical habit under Pep of using the channels, and we didn’t respond.

Aside from the tactical and motivation failures we were, as usual, getting no assistance from the officials, either. This foul above was exactly the same move that Rodri was carded for just a few minutes before. It was literally the same thing. One got a card and the other, despite preventing a break that, had Cody been ahead of Mo on the pitch, could have been termed a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, got nothing but a foul. And we should probably feel lucky to have gotten that. Rodri is the perfect executor (along with Bernardo Silva) of Pep’s “tactical foul” scheme. It’s to the point where “preservation of the spectacle” in City games is a spectacle in and of itself; where most officials just can’t comprehend all of the Grealish flopping that happens, so they just start passing it off as normal.

The one real moment of joy was a brief one. With that goal, Mo becomes our all-time leading away scorer in the PL era with 56, passing Michael Owen. He’s also the first Liverpool player to score four times against another club in the same season, since Ian Rush in 1986-87 (5) and only the third in club history (Harry Chambers against ManU, 1920-21 (4) is the other.) The flip side to that is that we’re now almost a full calendar year since the last time Diogo Jota scored for us (April 10th.) This is what I mean about being willing to cut deep this summer to make changes to a squad that simply isn’t working.

So, yeah, that’s a lot of blaming in every direction (players, staff, officials, opposition for cheating), which is not something I do on a regular basis, but that second half was such an utter collapse that it went beyond the lack of effort evident in the Real Madrid and Bournemouth losses to simply complete surrender. Jürgen says that they’re “already planning for next season” which is fine, but this one is still going and if we want to have European play (and money) at all, then something has to change and soon. Unfortunately, we’re now going on the road again to play 35-man squad Chelsea, so there’s no way of knowing what will happen. I’d like to say that I’m pretty confident in thinking that since Captain Jordan Henderson was talking about how we have to take something from this game and do better on Tuesday that something will actually change, but that’s been the refrain for the entire season so far and we’ve gotten absolutely nothing for it. More players than just him said the same thing after Bournemouth. Are we the fools now?

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