Passionate expectations

There’s an old cliché about sports that usually is cited after a hard-fought effort by the expected loser of a game or at least in a situation where two sides that are more evenly-matched finish with one winning without anything that’s obvious to point to as to why they won. When that happens, people usually go back and point out various moments that may not have been game-defining but which, to them, demonstrate the X element that led to the victory. That winning side is usually described as having “wanted it more.” Now, pro (and some college) athletes who’ve been playing their respective games all their lives and whom often have millions of dollars/pounds/Euros already can’t really be described as underachievers or people that lack motivation. (Unless they’re Gareth Bale?) This is especially the case if they’ve basically constructed their entire lives around maintaining their fitness so that they can continue to play at a high level, if not the top, for as long as they can. People with that much ego generally aren’t lacking in desire. So, I find that cliché to be more of an excuse for those who want to point to an unexpected result and have a quick and easy answer for what they think is the undefinable. In short, I generally think it’s ignorant bullshit. But there’s no doubt that the desire to do things the right way can certainly be lacking. Ego comes into play here, too, as many players can think that they know better or that 75% effort is good enough in certain matches and so on. That kind of underestimation of the opposition certainly can occur and has been the source of upsets in major organized sports since time out of mind. (I won’t say it was why the Greens beat the Blues on any given day in the chariot races in Constantinople because I honestly don’t know enough about it to say, so in this case, “time out of mind” basically means since the 19th century or so.)

This lack of willingness/ability to play the way the boss wants has shown up a lot this season. I’ve cited it repeatedly as a potential cause of The Dortmund Problem. During Jürgen’s last season at BVB, they were plagued by injuries (Hello!) and a horrible dose of luck when it came to finishing, but it was also pretty clear that his motivational tactics had lost some of their impact and he admitted as much himself when he made the decision to leave the club. Dortmund have since said that they would have sold every player on the squad before they would have been willing to give up Jürgen, but he had seen the problem and decided to solve it in the most expedient manner possible. Coming into this season, having just signed a lengthy and unexpected extension, that option really isn’t present, so we’ve had to grind through the fact that he’s had trouble motivating a bunch of players who’ve been exhausted, mentally and physically, by the number of minutes that all of them have put in for the past five or six seasons. (And the injuries.) So it’s been something of a delight to see this current squad not only keep fighting for a potential Champions League spot (doubtful) but also responding more positively to situations like going behind (West Ham) or running into a side that was willing to fight back after being dominated (Forest and, well, today.) A number of people cited the fact a couple weeks ago that even in a still-dominating position over Leeds, Jürgen’s favorite moment of the match was seeing three players descend on a guy in a white shirt as soon as they lost the ball. That’s motivation. That is, to some people, “wanting it more.” (That was also happening with a 5 goal lead.) In some respects, Tottenham Hotspur today showed us what that kind of motivation can produce and we had to be durable enough to take their push back and still come out with the win.

Given the even worse situation that Spurs have been in for the past few weeks, there were a lot of people who came into this match with the expectation that we would win it. We were playing at home. We’d been in improving form for the past month or so and they’d just come from a humiliation so dire at St. James’ Park that their players had offered to refund the tickets of all of their traveling fans. But they’d also just come from being 2-0 down at Old Trafford and scraped out a draw. So, even when they were 3-0 down at our place, I felt good, but I didn’t feel like we were dominating. You could say, on the one hand, Spurs look awful, because they did. But you could also say that, over the last 10 minutes of the first half, they were becoming more and more threatening and were also the first side to really test both the wide space on the right that our back three has to rush to cover when Trent Alexander-Arnold is in the middle and apply some real pressure on Andy Robertson in his less-protected role as left-sided CB in that situation. We didn’t go into a shell. We didn’t stop playing. Indeed, with Mo Salah as the finest example, we were still putting in effort all over the pitch. Just citing Mo saw him sprinting back from a corner in the 18th minute to retrieve the ball, losing the ball in the box in the 23rd to chase down Harry Kane and take the ball off him, and chasing down an overhit pass from Trent in the 59th to keep it right on the endline and try to make a chance out of it. Those first two instances took place when we were up, 3-0, and the last one when we were still up, 3-1. That’s not a lack of motivation, even accepting the fact that Mo is among the most competitive in the squad.

But, as I’ve mentioned a thousand times, football is a funny game sometimes (even without the manager celebrating in the fourth official’s face and then pulling a hamstring (Only Jürgen…)) It’s the most random of the major sports and there are events that occur, even when every statistic known to the sport indicates that this shouldn’t be happening, it still sometimes ends up happening. This is the universe saying “They want it more”, even when the performance of our players indicates nothing of the sort. Sometimes we have to live with that frustration (see: Champions League final, 2022) and the constant nattering of disbelief that Peter Drury and Lee Dixon were subjecting us to. Other times, it all turns out OK in the end like it did today, not because we “deserved” it, although the numbers will imply exactly that, but because Lucas Moura decided to provide the perfect assist to Diogo Jota, 90 seconds after Spurs (and Richarlisson) thought they were going to steal a point at Anfield. I walked out of Magee’s still kind of steaming, despite the excitement of the win, because my attitude hadn’t really changed from halftime: Spurs aren’t that good right now and we really should be winning this. But, as we all should know by now, this is what the game is like sometimes, and this is what this particular season has definitely been like, and three points is three points, no matter how you got there. My expectations were met, even if it took a pair of last-minute goals to both crush them and make them come true. My passion as a supporter is what keeps me coming back, even after the year-long disappointment that this has been. Their passion as players is what keeps them coming back, no matter whom the opponent is or what the scenario is. We all expect it to be this way. Now’s the time to live up to it.


Liverpool 4 – 3 Tottenham

The xG numbers from various locations are generally in agreement on one thing: This match was definitely within the boundaries of “could have gone either way”, with the caveat that Liverpool was still the favored side, based on chances and the quality of said chances (hence, xG.) But, like Understat’s, all of them have the margin between two sides at less than a goal, which is how it turned out, despite the Reds dominating most of the other fancystats. We had a 2-1 advantage in xT (2.05-0.97), over a 3-1 advantage in field tilt (76.9%-23.1%), our defensive action height was much greater (i.e. where our defensive actions were taking place, relative to our endline and theirs to theirs; 56.8-34.6), and our passes per defensive action (PPDA) was 19(!) to their 8.2 (In other words, we only allowed an average of 8.2 passes before attempting a tackle or other action, whereas they allowed 19.) All of that sciencey-talk means that we dominated the damn game on both sides of the ball and, yet, had to win in the 95th minute. I don’t often rewatch matches right after I’ve seen them the first time, but I did for this one, just to try to examine where things were going right and where they were going wrong. I glommed onto the fact that they were trying to exploit the positioning of both FBs, by pressing Robbo and by running to the empty spot re: Trent, but I saw that the first time around, so I don’t know that the second viewing provided much other than a memory refresh on some details. One of those details is that we’ve scored 41 stoppage time winning goals in the PL era; at least 11 more than any other side. In contrast, Tottenham have given up 26 stoppage time winning goals in the PL era; also more than anyone else.

But just from that diagram you would know that this was, in principle, not that different from Leeds, Forest, and West Ham. Spurs sat back and tried to beat us on the counter, often with Route 1 balls over the top to Heung-Min Son. The few times they tried to maneuver through the middle third usually didn’t end well for them. The exception was Ivan Perišić, who has long been one of the canniest players on the European circuit and one of the better players to ever emerge from Croatia (which is a pretty high bar.) He also used to play for Jürgen at Dortmund, so the pedigree is there. But we have some in that vein, too.

Luis Díaz’s return to a starting role has been long anticipated and his absence can definitely be considered one of the telling factors in this season’s troubles. Like usual, he was causing Spurs’ defense absolute fits on that left side and his connection with Robbo seems as solid as ever. I’d like to see him try to pass from his spot a bit more when he’s closed down by more than one opponent, but he’s so good at keeping the ball and dribbling (4/7) that it’s probably best to just let him continue to create. Also, make no mistake, the finish on his goal was spectacular, especially since Cody Gakpo’s tight cutback was behind Luis.

Speaking of creating, I thought Curtis Jones was, once again, one of the best players on the pitch for us. He’s doing a great job of being both Gini Wijnaldum and Captain Jordan Henderson in many ways, since he’s able to retain the ball like Gini and move the ball like Hendo, in addition to setting up opportunities for Robbo and Luis on that left side. The fact that he got onto the end of one of Trent’s status quo crosses this time was just a bonus for him (and us, of course.) That’s his sixth straight start and I can easily see him riding out the rest of the season as the first name in the XI on that left side, especially now that Thiago Alcântara is down with yet another injury… Not to be left out, I thought Harvey had some great moments, as well; not least his killer pass right onto Cody’s feet in the box in the 12th minute that the latter was unfortunately unable to produce anything with. The young guys are really producing in these late stages of the season.

Oh, yeah, creating. And (still) young guys in the midfield. What more can be said about Trent that hasn’t been said before? He’s even better now in the inverted role and has been fortunate to show that off in front of Gareth Southgate, who might finally find a space for one of the most talented footballers England has produced in the last few decades on his national squad. Or not. I could care less if Trent gets more time off between club matches. But at least he’s been putting to rest some of the unfounded assessments of his defensive play, as the problems we’ve run into in this system haven’t really depended on him. One other mild downside of today was Alisson Becker having an unusually difficult day with the long passing, putting no less than four of them right out of bounds, which isn’t typical for him. Whoever was running the Liverpool Offside’s Twitter feed today was arguing with me that it was because we hadn’t given him any movement to aim to but, no, on the rewatch he was just shanking them. It happens. To Ali’s credit, the fingertip save on Dejan Kulusevski’s shot late in the first half was brilliant. The other irritating stat of the match was that we only had four shots on target and scored with all of them… which means we had no shots on target for the entire period between the 15th minute (Mo’s penalty) and the 95th minute (Diogo’s winnner) which is, y’know, kinda aggravating. But, again, three points… However, the most irritating thing of all can be traced back to five letters: PGMOL.

The Athletic

So, yeah, Paul Tierney. We’ve known for a long time that he doesn’t like Jürgen and the feeling is mutual. The boss spoke after the match saying that he deserved the yellow card for running up to the fourth official and celebrating Diogo’s winner, but that he didn’t deserve what Tierney said to him during that carding. PGMOL has already said that they had no problem with whatever Tierney said (the officials are recorded throughout the match) and Jürgen won’t repeat it, so there it is. But the calls that he continues to make or not make in his matches with Liverpool (to whom he’s been assigned more than anyone else this season and with more dates than any other official to a single club this year) just seem to get worse as time goes by and not always just to us. Yes, Diogo’s high boot against Oliver Skipp was a straight red card, without question. There’s rarely one more obvious than that. Ryan Mason complained that Diogo shouldn’t even have been on the field to score that winning goal. But if that’s the case, then Skipp shouldn’t have been on the pitch to get fouled so egregiously, since the ankle-breaker he doled out to Luis was just as worthy of a straight red and would be in any other match in the world not officiated by Paul Tierney and, yet, not only didn’t get a red card or even a yellow, but didn’t even get whistled for a foul. So, should Spurs have been playing against 10 men for the last nine minutes of regulation? Yes. Should Liverpool have been playing against 10 men for the majority of the match? Also, yes. What else does that say other than PL officiating, and especially Tierney, is still awful? Dunno.

We’re on Wednesday duty (not the Addams kid) again, with Fulham coming to Anfield. They gave Man City about all that the defending (and impending) champions could handle, so this might be another of those games. After that, we’re home with Brentford while some old dude is getting gold put on his head and not Khal Drogo-style. These people and their ceremonies. It will be entertaining to hear the booing if the club does concede to playing the national anthem. Meanwhile, it’s time for more celebrating

and what will now be one of the all-time memes:

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