The pendulum does at least swing both ways

I call to mind flatness and dampness. And then all is madness- the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things.

That there is a line from The Pit and the Pendulum, a story by one of the masters of both short stories and literary horror, Edgar Allan Poe. The story isn’t one of his best, as it’s largely about how a person committed to a lightless dungeon interprets things through his other four senses. But he does spend a lot of time remembering the torture that the Spanish Inquisition subjected him to, as you do. That means a lot of meandering thoughts about how we’ve seen all this before and, of course, we have. What we saw in the first half of the Arsenal match was every Liverpool weakness laid bare. The other side was full of energy, constantly pressing, and we looked disorganized and out of touch with what was actually happening on the pitch and were, thus, down 0-2 at the half. Then, we seemed to have decided that there was nothing left to lose (and, in truth, that’s probably right) and came out in the second half utterly on fire. We took the game to the Gunners, pressing and counter-pressing, scored once to get back into it and then got the tying goal from one Roberto Firmino, who may never have failed to score against Arsenal. Of course, we also had an unreal xG and the opposing goalkeeper had the game of his life to keep them in it. Memories of Paris abound and, like the prisoner in the pit, they’re not pleasant ones. On top of that was a more recent horror, in the form of Mo Salah missing his second straight penalty of which we are, once again, leading the league in terms of fewest awarded so it’s not like those opportunities come along very often. We, once again, overwhelmed them on a statistical level and still failed to get all three points. Karmic, perhaps, given the 0-0 draw we escaped from Stamford Bridge with. But it was also our fifth straight match without a win, something that hadn’t happened since Jürgen Klopp set foot on Merseyside.

So we roll up to Leeds and think… nothing in particular. This is yet another relegation-battling side against whom we’ve been awful all year (Leeds beat us, at Anfield, in the first match) and there’s no way to tell whether we’ll see first-half-with-Arsenal Liverpool or second-half-with-Arsenal Liverpool. The one certainty was the newest change that has stamped itself on both of those matches: inverted right back/midfielder Trent Alexander-Arnold. And, in this case, the pendulum had indeed swung all the way to our side once again, and we demolished the Whites on every possible statistical level, but mostly the most important one (aka the scoreboard.) We’ve scored 56 goals in the Premier League this season. Well over one third of them have come in just three matches (9-0 Bournemouth, 7-0 ManUnited, 6-1 Leeds.) We’ve scored 6+ goals three times this season (obvsly), which is more than all 19 other clubs in the PL combined. And, once again, we turn our hands up and say: WTF? How do we demonstrate, again, the ruthless domination that we’re capable of, while in half our other matches we look unsure about which end of the pitch to run toward? You can certainly argue with some foundation that today’s match was an expression of just how bad Leeds are, as was the case with Bournemouth in the fall. But then you look at the third match of that type against third-place Man United and (after the laughter stops) wonder what happened there. Or what happened in the victory over Man City in October. Or how our record is so solid against top 6 sides and so miserable against everyone in or near the relegation zone. And, in fact, today was the first time we scored in an away match against a team in the bottom half all season.

So, yeah. That whole history repeating itself thing goes on. We can all point and shout and laugh about the return of Diogo Jota to scoring form after a full calendar year (plus seven days) and the brilliance that Trent has shown in his new role and the spectacular play of Ibrahima Konaté for the last two matches (with one little gray spot today…) But we can also point out the moment this evening when Alisson Becker was tearing heads off for Brendan Aaronson breaking through unmarked and getting a shot off shortly after Diogo had put us up, 3-1. Business as usual, then. The run-in is eight matches; five of them at Anfield (thankfully) and only three sides of actual interest (aka clubs above us in the table and Brentford, who are just below us.) Riding that pendulum as far as possible and winning out would leave us at 71 points, our second-worst performance under Jürgen, and hoping that Newcastle somehow doesn’t garner 16 from their remaining eight matches and Tottenham, Brighton, and Aston Villa also don’t keep pace with us. “Unlikely” is putting it mildly. But that’s what we said two seasons ago when a heroic last-minute header from Alisson kept us in contention to get into the Champions League, which led to yet another final appearance which, y’know, we just talked about and, yeah, we just keep going in circles. Or swinging, I guess. Back and forth, back and forth… It’s mesmerizing, isn’t it? You could almost accuse me of caring or something like that, awaiting the memory of forbidden things…


Liverpool 2 – 2 Arsenal

That xG total against Arsenal was our highest of the season in the PL, despite the aforementioned thrashings of Bournemouth and ManU and tonight’s pummeling of Leeds. That’s why the overwhelming feeling walking away from last Sunday’s game was frustration, not the joy you might have felt after finally waking up in the second half against the league leaders and taking the game to them for that entire period. I was stewing because that’s two more points we dropped. Again, I don’t have a great deal of faith that this side can make the CL spots. I’d kind of given up on that idea when we lost to the Cherries. But it’s aggravating to turn in performances like this against the best clubs in the league and follow them with the outright beatdowns that we should have been delivering to most of the bottom half all season and then follow those with some limp, directionless effort against Nottingham Forest, who just happen to be our next opponent and whom we also lost to earlier in the season, just like Leeds. We had 19 shots inside the box against Arsenal. 538’s xG database, with over 34,000 matches in it, has just 66 with a side with a higher xG than we posted in that match. Speaking of 66…

We’ve all seen Trent doing the “inverted fullback” thing at an increasing rate this season. Clearly, last summer, he was told that he should be drifting inside more so that we were almost playing a 3-4-3. That had some success and obviously takes advantage of Trent’s passing skills and footwork even moreso than being the world’s best right back. But the Arsenal match was the first time where we saw it wasn’t just a drift. It was a planned movement. Whenever we were in possession, Trent would move inside, Ibou would move out wider, and we’d be playing a 3-2-5; a double pivot, two effectively wingback midfielders, and the front three. It was weird, but it worked. There were some kinks to work out and some moments where a team more experienced than Arsenal’s bunch of kids might have been able to take advantage of it. (Would we play this against City? Doubtful.) But it also gave Ibou a chance to shine even brighter than he had been to date.

Easily man-of-the-match, in my opinion. He was everywhere, stopping everything, and still running forward up the right touchline when the Gunners gave him the space to do so. And he also often just created that space. Due credit to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, but Ibou should be the nailed-on starter from this point forward, especially when we’re using this new formation. Neither of them would be able to cover the ground that he could, at speed, and still put in that kind of defensive display. Joe could, at one point, but since that last injury, I just don’t think he’s at that level anymore, physically or mentally. Levels. Yeah.

With today’s goals against Leeds, Mo has 15 on the season. That’s equivalent to Marcus Rashford, who’s currently contending for PL Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Mo is having his worst season for us since he arrived. But someone gets noticed. Speaking of which, I can’t forget to mention Bob, who has now scored the most goals against Arsenal of anyone in PL history (10.)

Yeah, man.

Leeds United 1 – 6 Liverpool

As usual, the converse appears right after the first example. An xG of 2.65 somehow ended up as 6 goals. It’s kind of strange that Understat considers Diogo’s first goal to be a less likely chance than the shinner he put in for his second, but the difference is likely that he had an actual defender on him for the first, whereas he was completely unmarked for the second and just had to use the post to beat Illan Meslier. That’s a roundabout way of saying that Leeds’ defense just sucks, but their problems, often akin to ours, start farther forward than that, since their forwards are great at pressing in true, Marcelo Bielsa style, but not great at intercepting or being in the right position when the ball changes possession. Then you look at the absence of top-level skill in the middle third and you end up with their back four being bombarded on any mildly threatening forward run. That is not the way a 4-4-2 should function. The only reason they’re not rooted to the bottom of the table is the occasional ability of that attack and the fact that the four clubs below them are even less capable/more dire. But our 3-2-5 is apparently functioning precisely as intended. Trent was the distinctive star of the show tonight, controlling the middle, but still creating from out wide (Cody Gakpo’s goal) as much as he was from the center (Darwin Núñez’s.) In the two matches that we’ve employed this formation, Mo has his most touches in a match this season and his most shots ever in a PL game, while Trent also had his most touches ever in a PL match (tonight.)

That’s a 92% pass completion rate in 151 touches. In these last two matches, he’s created nine chances (three big chances) and also had 18 recoveries in the middle or defensive thirds. (Trent can’t defend!) That’s a midfielder you want running the show. There are some people online bemoaning the fact that we didn’t try this before but Jürgen mentioned in his post-match PC that there are “some teams that this simply won’t work against.” But apparently the list of whom it will work against includes 16th-placed Leeds and league-leading Arsenal? Per Alfred,Trent had the most pass attempts, the highest attacking threat, the most successful progressive passes, the most successful passes into the final third, and the most ball recoveries. Oh, and while we’re on “mosts”

Uh-huh. That’s a good most to have. We’re also back to talking about Mo(st) Salah again, as he set the record tonight for the most left-footed goals in PL history (to go with most PL goals for Liverpool, most CL goals for Liverpool, most goals in a PL season, most consecutive opening matches scored in, blah, blah, blah.) The shortlist of players eligible to be on the Premier League team of the season came out today. Liverpool had two names on the list. One was Alisson Becker (obvsly.) The other was Mo Salah.

But let’s not forget about the other Scouser in our squad, either. This is the third straight match that Curtis Jones has started after a long period on the injury table or consigned to the bench. It’s also the third straight match in which he’s excelled. Technically, he was on the left side, but he was often on the right touchline, contributing to motion over there. In fact, the killer pass that he played forward for Diogo’s first goal came from the right side. I saw that and said: “That’s a Jordan Henderson pass.” but this one came from a 22-year-old. Curtis ended up playing the whole match, completing 89% of his passes, winning 11 of 16 ground duels, completing all 4 of his dribbles, and making that assist. Oh, and making 5/6 tackles. (Curtis can’t defend! (Does anyone say that? I don’t think he’s played enough in the last couple years for anyone to say that. I’m just preparing.))

On that note, it’s worth pointing out that this formation probably suits Curtis’ skillset. With a back three and a double pivot, it means that the 8s are sitting higher and more centrally, which means that you’re seeing even more dropping back from the forward line than usual. It also means that there are more exchanges of position between the 8s and the wide forwards than usual. It also means even more possession than usual, since we have five at the back, but it means we basically don’t have players in wide positions anymore. The Liverpool Offside cited our 1034 touches tonight, only 15 of which came wider than Leeds’ 18-yard box. With more control in the middle of the pitch and the forwards dropping back more often, it also means that we’re not sending as many deep threats (e.g. no more Route 1 to Darwin.) It’s a slower form of build-up than we’ve come to expect. Despite having our second-highest possession number of the season tonight (75%), we’d only taken three shots before Cody’s goal. We also attempted more passes than any other PL match this season, so it does seem like a positive development, since we can still obviously score off the break and transitional moments. That is a phenomenon that exposes Leeds’ general lack of talent, though. That’s not to detract from our general good play which, again, also appeared against league-leading Arsenal. (Can you see me swinging back and forth on this? I’m totally in theme tonight.) Two people to point out yet again are our pair of false 9s, in Cody and Bob, both of whom did yeoman’s work in both matches to keep the game flowing and keep control even when going into a packed defense in the final third.

So, y’know, that’s positive. Next up is Forest at Anfield. Time to slip on my old man slippers again and point out that Forest was the ultimate bogeyman team for us back in the 70s and early 80s. I learned to hate them long before I cared about Man United (I was too young to have witnessed their success under Matt Busby and this was well before Ferguson took the reins, to our eternal chagrin.) They’re also another bottom half (and bottom three) side. Danger, Will Robinson! (See? I’m old.) It is at home, though, so there’s that. Meanwhile, let’s revel in the perfect pass, the perfect control, and the perfect finish once again.

That’s a striker. Doesn’t even look up.

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