Can’t see the Forest for the Niakhatés

Over a decade ago, there was a player for a few clubs in the top two divisions, but who found his most recognized home at Stoke City, named Rory Delap. Delap, a former javelin champion in secondary school, could do a throw-in farther and faster than anyone in the league. His throw-ins, later often referred to as “Delap specials” under manager, Tony Pulis, were credited as being the equivalent of free kicks, if not better. In the Potters’ debut Premier League season (2008-2009), seven of their first 13 goals were cited as being assisted by Delap throw-ins.

It became something of a meme, in that if you played Stoke, the main thing to be wary of wasn’t any of the strikers they put on the pitch (except our own Peter Crouch, of course; love you, Crouchie), but knocking a ball out of bounds anywhere in your defensive third. It was often better to just concede the corner, rather than try to put the ball past the touchline and set up for a typical throw. Steve Cooper, formerly of Liverpool’s academy sides, has obviously decided that Nottingham Forest is going to try the same thing with centerback Moussa Niakhaté. Both goals against us were direct results of his throws taking out multiple Liverpool defenders and the rest of their best chances (one saved by Alisson Becker, another saved by the crossbar) also came from his deliveries. It got to the point where, indeed, I would have been much happier conceding the corner than knocking the ball off the side of the pitch. This was obviously Set Piece Saturday, as all of our goals came from set plays, as well (two free kicks and a corner.) There’s something about that situation that makes any club who regularly surrenders that kind of goal (as we had a bit of a problem with, back in 2016-17 and 17-18) look far more the fools than letting someone stroll down the middle of the pitch and slam one in. After all, sometimes you just get beat by the guy sprinting across the grass, but you drill constantly to deal with set pieces of all kinds. Letting someone just run their routines that obviously beat yours is frustrating for everyone involved except the scoring side. But, yeah, that’s football.

Both Forest goals were also emblematic of the type of event that’s often referred to as a “smash-and-grab”, when one side has been in complete control of the match and makes one small mistake, letting the other side break in and steal a goal (see: Champions League final, 2022.) We almost couldn’t have been in more control of this and still called it a game; that term usually requiring two teams actually trying to win. Indeed, I was complaining on Twitter that the first half was just a training exercise, where the manager says that “for the rest of the day, we’re just going to break down a packed-in defense. Have fun!” Having 86% of possession and then conceding two goals on set pieces was about as Burnley 2016 a moment as you’ll ever see. Thankfully, and through the efforts of Diogo Jota, Mo Salah, and Trent Alexander-Arnold, we finally got all three points against a side in the relegation zone, with Mo’s effort, of course, coming while he was being bear-hugged by Remo Freuler in the box. (We would’ve never, ever gotten the penalty call for that, since it was far too obvious), which is kinda reminiscent of playing Stoke City, too, so there it is. But this match also hearkened back to my enduring disdain for Forest because of 40-year-old memories of our inability to beat them, which I mentioned that last time we played, back in the fall. Granted, Peter Drury did cite the fact that Forest hasn’t actually won a game at Anfield since 1969, but in our circumstances, a draw would have been just as bad for anyone still holding out hope for a Champions League slot.

So, what else to say about this match? A dreary first half of dominance without scoring, followed by a chaotic, edge-of-your-seat second period against a vastly inferior side to finally pull out a win. If that’s not an encapsulation of the ’22-’23 season, I’m not sure what could be. Obviously, Forest’s result is worse than ours, since they’re staring down the barrel of relegation right back to the Championship. But I guess we’re trying to maintain status in the mini-Big 6 league, as well, with the realization that we’ve never finished lower than eighth in the PL. So, a climb to seventh is something. It’s about as much as you could expect from the average throw-in, I guess.


Liverpool 3 – 2 Nottingham Forest

That cluster of blue is, of course, ridiculous and highlights just how much of a training exercise this was. The extended series of bubbles farther out into the box also highlights just how much we’re focusing on the center of the pitch, as well. Some of that was Forest’s plan; staying flat and compact in order to minimize angles from the wide spaces that we so favor. But it was also something of a reflection on Trent’s new role, as well, since his deliveries are coming far more from behind the lines in his more central positioning.

That’s, um, disturbing in one respect and relieving in another. Yes, it’s great that he’s found his way back to goal contributions. It’s also concerning that it took us this long into the season for that to become a reality. Of course, there is no quick fixit to a team that’s malfunctioning. A lot of people can accuse this or that player(s) and be utterly wrong about the problem but it’s been clear for some time now that the right side has been kind of askew and it had little to do with Trent’s defense or whatever other hobby horse the ill-informed like to launch at him. The fact that Mo is having his “worst” season for us since his arrival is testament to that, as well. But you look across the pitch and see stuff like this:

That’s still working pretty well, putting aside for the moment how poor Forest are, in general, and Cooper’s plan to make them not play football, in specific. We had three players- Virgil Van Dijk, Ibrahima Konaté, and Andy Robertson -who had more completed passes than the entire Forest side combined in the first half. Don’t tell me that “defensive football” is a valid approach. That’s usually a sign of a team that shouldn’t be here, like when you’re playing League Two opposition in the FA Cup or something like that. And, yes, we still had to go to the wire to beat them so, yeah, I dunno. Another point of emphasis is how much more comfortable Fahinho looks in a double pivot with Trent, which can only be a positive after what we’ve seen this season. This was also the second consecutive match in which Trent recorded his highest xA for the season (1.26, beating his 1.17 against Leeds.) That’s a great sign for his new role. It’s also a measure of the competition. But, despite the lack of actual assists for this entire season, he’s on his third-best total of xA (10.64) for the season in his career. Football, yo. But let’s not forget the other star of the show.

A couple weeks ago, I was suggesting that he was trade/sale bait. Patience is a virtue and all that. Despite the commentators’ assertion, I don’t really see the “swagger” of Diogo Jota running around at the moment. His celebrations this week were minimal and he, like much of the rest of the squad, seems to be far more concerned with simply getting the job done, which is kind of gratifying in itself. He’s mostly just been being in the right place at the right time and still doing all the work up and down the touchline to make things happen. He still has the skill to do things like this:

Granted, Forest left him completely alone in the box for some unknowable reason, but seeing him watch the ball the whole way in and do whatever he wants with it is the sign of a guy who still has incredible value, even in a club as glutted with forward talent as we are at the moment. I’m not saying he’s immune from being part of a deal to get a really good midfielder like Mo and Darwin are, but it would be a tough argument to make right now.

And, oh, on that “worst season” thing… 27 goals and 11 assists is a helluva down season for, oh, almost any player in the history of the game. You can see those numbers there for 298 games, so I don’t need to quote them to you. It also means that only Gordon Hodgson (way before even my time, kids!) has a better games to goals ratio (1.56) than Mo (1.63) in the history of the club. After 131 years, that’s a statement. It was also Jürgen’s 100th win at Anfield in 144 games, putting him behind only Bob Paisley (131) and Bill Shankly (139) for achieving that goal. It also means that if we can beat Brentford in a couple weeks, we’ll maintain his record of not having lost both matches against one club in a single season since he arrived. But, yes, one last note of cynicism:

I mean, come on. Everyone but Alisson and Virg was camped out at the midfield line or higher for the entire match. The converse was Forest, where only three of their players were regular presences in our half. Call me biased (and I am), I just can’t regard that as either competitive or entertaining. “Greatest league in the world” and yet the gulf between the top and bottom sides is wider than it’s ever been and here we, as one of the “top” sides, sit seventh.

Anyway, we’re at the abysmally-unsuited-for-football London Stadium on Wednesday, as we rush toward the end of this distorted schedule (Thanks again, FIFA! Dipshits.) Let’s finish with yet another look at the blatantly obvious foul in the box that Mo, being Mo, still plays right through and puts away. That, too, is a nice encapsulation of the extremely mixed feelings on this season.

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