For the third game running, Liverpool absolutely mullered Leicester on xG, with Sky showing the Reds’ two best ‘expected goals’ scores since December 2019 have both been against Brendan Rodgers’ men (while the 2-1 league game last season fell before that timeframe and was another mass of good Liverpool chances in what xG had as a 4-0 win). Both were about as one-sided as big games get, with Leicester touted as title challengers at kickoff on both occasions.
It meant yet another all-time record for Jürgen Klopp’s Reds, passing the Bob Paisley team of the late 1970s – for which the recently and sadly departed Ray Clemence was an absolute legend – for unbeaten home league games: now set at 64, which also included the club-best winning sequence of 22.
As such, it’s worth making this piece a freebie and getting out the metaphorical cigar.
And this was a very under-strength Liverpool side that absolutely battered the Foxes. (Indeed, the xG was over a goal better than Villa’s in their 7-2 win over the Reds, which was a black swan event in terms of bad fortune.)
While I think it’s difficult to talk extemporaneously on a microphone live on national TV without making some odd word choices (I’d be crap at it), I did wonder why Jamie Carragher had to say in the first half that Liverpool were “slightly depleted”? Does he feel obliged to underplay Liverpool’s achievements at times, given his allegiances?
I do worry that some commentators (like referees at Anfield) are more concerned with looking unbiased than sticking to facts. Mo Salah, Thiago, Virgil van Dijk, Trent-Alexander Arnold, Joe Gomez and Jordan Henderson would be in the Reds’ best XI, so that’s six starters missing. Over half the team!
Four of them would probably also get into a World XI. Another of them would be in a world XI if it was picked on leadership and will to win.
Meanwhile, Xherdan Shaqiri, in fine form (and fitness) of late, was due to start, but he suffered a muscle injury, as did Naby Keita, who did start, only to be the latest to succumb to a problem in an insane schedule. (Liverpool will need to build a bigger rehab centre at the new training complex.)
In addition, many of the Reds’ players had played two or even three international games this past fortnight, several in different continents, and Gini Wijnaldum has started six games for Holland since the middle of October. The man is an absolute machine; Dirk Kuyt once said that his compatriot had “the lungs of a horse”, and he has needed those gigantic lungs this season. (As an aside, I hope Gini signs a new deal, but I also wouldn’t begrudge him a new challenge in another league. He’s been a wonderful asset, and – touch wood – not susceptible to many injuries.)
Leicester, meanwhile, had the same matchday 18 as their game two weeks ago; although they did also have a small number of players out already. Yet again they looked clueless against a purring Liverpool team, except this was a makeshift Reds side with two midfielders in defence, and which played the final 30 minutes with another teenage rookie in the backline.
But it is a show of the strength in depth that the Reds could still field a fairly strong XI (and maybe that was the point Carragher was making), but that obviously meant a weaker bench. Yet another teenager (the stylish midfielder Leighton Clarkson) was thrust onto that bench for the first time, to show how deep the injury crisis runs. Liverpool have already fielded several 19-year-olds in major matches this season.
The elusive third goal, which looked like it would never come – to the point where Roberto Firmino found the ball repeatedly hitting him with an open goal at his mercy (and then, in one ricochet, the ball was 99.9%, if not 100% over the line) – but it finally fell to the Brazilian to kill the game, with the second goal from a “first” header at a corner in the game; the opener expertly directed into his own net by Jonny Evans, as if the back of his head was the front of van Dijk’s forehead. Boom!
However, the lateness to the much-deserved third goal meant it was hard to freshen things up with subs, other than Keita’s latest muscle twang. (Yet again Takumi Minamino came on in the 90th minute.)
It takes Liverpool joint top, although Spurs have still only played two Big Six games, albeit they won both (and those Big Six sides, from Manchester, are currently mid-table).
Their tactics remain quite basic in the games I’ve seen, calling to mind the Leicester of 2016 – defend in numbers and hit on the break with searing pace (albeit Spurs have a better team and squad) – but it can occasionally be effective enough, especially in seasons where fewer victories are required, which should be the case this season, with such a bonkers fixture list. And it feels a long time since Jose Mourinho got teams into the 90+ points range – I think it must have been all the way back at Real Madrid in 2012 – in contrast to his record up to that point. It’s also effectively a Champions League squad (albeit wisely assembled over the years) that doesn’t actually have to endure the Champions League.
Mourinho has the advantage of being able to use the Europa League strategically, and to not deploy his best players unless they actually need the extra minutes. Liverpool, by contrast, have already played Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Leicester, and it’s just nine games in. The Reds have also gone away to Ajax and Atalanta, in the first three Champions League fixtures. The chance for Klopp to rest players would be lovely, if the Reds can beat the Italians at Anfield this week.
While it took a long time, I’m not sure I’ve been as happy for what was possibly a meaningless goal (albeit it did kill off any faint chance of a late two-goal Leicester revival) than when Firmino thumped the header in, having already hit the post and scored 99.9% of a goal in a move that also saw Sadio Mané strike the woodwork. This has been the most surreal season in living memory – as outlined in our new mini-book The Quarterly – and the denial of a goal by about one pixel on a video screen keeps happening to Klopp’s side.
This time it was the goalline technology, which, as some crumb of comfort, is ten times more detailed (500 frames per second) than the offside cameras (a measly 50 frames per second). That said, if that’s “10mm over the line”, as they said on Sky, then the ball is about three metres wide!
Add the injuries to so many key players, and they look every inch a team that can retain the title, having looked like a team losing its way as recently as the trip to Aston Villa in early October.
Since that game, which – surreally – had three times as many deflected goals as were seen in all Liverpool’s league games last season (for and against, 118 goals in total), defenders have fallen like flies. Yet Liverpool are generally defending superbly, with an ever-changing backline. With Villa 7th, and West Ham in 8th, as well as the fact that the Reds can’t play themselves, it means it’s only Spurs they haven’t faced from teams in the European places, in addition to the match-ups with Man City and Arsenal.
But Klopp’s trust of fringe players paid dividends yet again, with the most mature performance yet from from Curtis Jones, who is learning when to dribble, when to pass and when to cover back, and James Milner is defying time, logic and gravity; as well as defying the laws of physics, the Highway Code and the Night Poaching Act of 1828. He was one of the best players on the pitch and he is due to turn 100 later in the season.
Andy Robertson has been much better this season, after some struggles (with extenuating circumstances) last season by his own high standards, even if he was often still effective in the title win. His powerful surges forward look stronger than ever, and this is a player currently running on only one hamstring.
Meanwhile, at the back, Joel Matip has oozed class and calmness, as has Fabinho alongside him. There’s no blistering pace there, but they both read the game so well, and have legs longer than a giraffe.
If anything, maybe the team – in his absence – no longer feels it can just rely on van Dijk. I do wonder if the Reds got a bit sloppy in thinking he could solve every problem, but while his laser-guided passing and his unstoppable set-piece threat have been missed, so far his defending (which had grown a bit sloppy) hasn’t.
Still, it would be far better to have him available, but after two years when barely missing a single game, maybe he was a little jaded, and feeling the pressure as the team’s quasi-leader; but a couple of weeks off would have been far nicer than a totally fucked-up knee.
And as great as Matip and Fabinho have been at the heart of the defence whenever each has played this season, it leaves zero experienced cover, with the main two out for the entire campaign. That may catch up with the Reds later on in the season (although I presume Milner will just drop in there).
Up front, Mané is an unplayable live-wire, and Diogo Jota is a superstar goalscorer, whose game has gone up a level already, as have so many players as soon as they start training with Klopp and his team. Jota is so thrillingly alive to any bouncing ball, with excellent anticipation – and has great speed in getting his shots away, which is also a massive asset to have. He is such a clever footballer, and clever footballers with pace, and who can score goals, are worth their weight in gold. (Although presumably, footballers these days exceed their worth in weight of gold?)
The game was a joy to behold, and was so comfortable for Liverpool that I spent the final part spellbound by how much Marc Albrighton looks like Brendan Rodgers, and wondering how I’d never noticed before. From the side they look like twins.
And the bonuses of Liverpool doing so well without so many key players actually multiply: not only do the fringe players still win the Reds games (and the younger ones gain valuable experience), but the key men – aside from the two centre-backs – will presumably be fresher later on in the campaign. It may be a surreal season, but it’s also been fairly incredible in the difficult circumstances.