Liverpool's Super-High-Risk/High-Reward Football Is Futurist and Cutting Edge
This Is A Whole New Level
What about those rip-roaring Reds, eh?
I'll start with a few of my own paragraphs from last night's post-match roundup (that regularly features around 1,000 words from me and roundups for various other TTT scribes), which led me onto a few more thoughts for this free newsletter.
As I’ve noted a few times recently (in the comments on TTT as well as in articles), Liverpool can be so good that it feels more of an affront (in the rarer periods) when they’re bad or sloppy.
At least when Roy Hodgson was in charge we expected dogshitball, albeit even when the Reds are now passing it into touch and colliding with each other, it’s more progressive and exciting than those dark days. (Trent Alexander-Arnold clearing his nostrils with a hearty snotty-snort is more watchable than Paul Konchesky playing football.)
But the expectations are so much higher. This team does so many incredible things that, when it starts to break down (as it did at times in the second halves against Newcastle and Aston Villa), it just seems to make no sense.
Again, as noted before, in the opposition half the Reds must "waste" possession 40 or 50 times per game when trying something intricate or incisive, yet still cut through teams at will; the rabid pressing often resulting in the ball being won back in an even better position.
It’s so high-stakes, in that it’s the opposite of sterile possession. And the way that no time is taken to make the quick pass – often "blind" flicks based on training patterns and improvised drills, rather than getting a head up to pick a pass – means defences never really get set. It’s quick-flick, move, press (in numbers), and repeat.
As such, I wanted to add to this from last night, to take the point further for this Friday mail-out.
The risk-taking is in the "carelessness" with the ball, in those moments of maximum ambition. Liverpool still tend to have 65% possession (or more), but not via safe play.
Indeed, perhaps it's in no small part down to the departure of Gini Wijnaldum.
Gini, a supreme athlete with a great tactical brain and technical skills, was the master of keeping the ball, and I spent years (before anyone else, it seemed) describing him as the most underrated player in Europe. I loved the guy.
But the one frustration I had with him – albeit it may have been down to the instructions he was given – was the safety-first pass in the final third, at times when there was a clear penetrative pass on. His mindset would be such that he'd only seem to realise the killer ball was there to be made after he'd recycled possession in a sideways manner. (For Holland he seemed much more direct.)
Obviously it worked (on the whole), as Liverpool nearly won two Champions Leagues (wining one) and two league titles (winning one). His job was the keep things ticking over, and work it to the full-backs or the wide attackers; he'd miss a through-ball to focus on keeping possession. That helped wear teams down, and at times this season, it would have also helped steady the Reds when they had wobbly moments in games, usually when a goal or two ahead, with the match not quite won.
Now it feels far more chaotic; it's heavy metal football turned up to 11. It’s thrash metal played on 2x, 4x, 8x speed.
The next part of the bravery is in how many red shirts frantically press to win it back, leaving six or seven ahead of the ball if the opposition bypass the press.
Occasionally Newcastle did so last night, getting the ball to the mercurial Allan Saint-Maximin, who seems faster than Usain Bolt, but at times, as up for the fight as Julian Clary (and is as disciplined as Liam Gallagher, which is why he won't have an especially successful career, and will be a shadow of the player the arguably less-"gifted" Mo Salah is, lest he suddenly grow up and knuckle down; bad timekeepers and lazy trainers drag a team down, no matter how good they are).
But often the Reds' hounding leads to a panicked clearance straight to Virgil van Dijk or Joel Matip (or Ibrahima Konaté), who – as a pair of giants up against one lone striker – just head it to Thiago, Fabinho or Jordan Henderson; or as we've seen so many times, it leads to a panicked pass under pressure that goes straight to a red shirt (such as when Diogo Jota scored against Arsenal).
Indeed, an issue last season with the loss of all the colossal centre-backs (by December) was that not only did the Reds’ set-piece goals dry up (and they conceded lots more than usual), but teams could use a high out-ball. Now, it just comes back at them. It also helps that van Dijk, Matip and Konaté are wonderful footballers too.
So yes, Liverpool's press will be beaten at times; but the fast hunting in packs seems to work more often than not. Teams may get two good breaks against the Reds, but suffer 25 shots at their own goal.
Equally, I keep focusing on how Liverpool do not fly into tackles, except when absolutely necessary. They mostly engage in block tackles, as showcased perfectly by Jordan Henderson on Paul Pogba at Old Trafford for the Mo Salah hat-trick goal. Contrast that to the tackle Pogba then put in on Naby Keita.
Henderson likewise could have barrelled into Pogba, or slid in to take the ball and then the player; or of course, miss the ball and get a red card. Instead, it was the standing block tackle, which can look like "bottling" it to the initiated (because it's not full-blooded), but it's legal, generally low-risk to both players, and leaves the Liverpool player able to deal with the ball if won.
(Indeed, I think this is the future of tackling, especially given the size and weight of players these days. Tackling off the ground and from behind is increasingly dangerous. It's also the bravest, most honest form of tackling as there's no self-protection involved.)
While still a pretty good player from 1997 to 1999 when he arrived to add steel, Paul Ince was a master of winning tackles for Liverpool, often after a poor first touch, and then taking man and ball, and being prone on the ground. Fans loved it, applauding wildly, as the ball ended up out for an opposition throw. By contrast, the ageing John Barnes, whom he replaced, kept the ball, didn't really make tackles, and Liverpool were actually a slightly better side.
(Jamie Redknapp alongside Barnes was similar. Looking back, Liverpool probably needed an outstanding van Dijk-like centre-back to complete that side, rather than a replacement for Barnes – albeit Barnes was 35-or-so. And perhaps a bit more discipline as a side, on and off the pitch, especially from the ill-disciplined and troubled Stan Collymore, who was a world-beater on his day, but a problem at other times. Anyway, I digress. I still think that was often a great team to watch, as a season ticket-holder at the time, but fell short of being a great team full-stop.)
One issue Liverpool have with not flying into dangerous tackles is that players know they can fly into them, as seen by the various Reds put in hospital since the start of last season. But overall, it's all part of the ultra-fast game, where you can't pass quickly forward if you're on the floor, nor can you press or chase back. You also can’t win as easily with ten men. I refuse to believe that this is coincidental.
Liverpool's football, when it's clicking, remains otherworldly, with big chance after big chance, shot after shot, press after press. They can do slower possession when required, but right now it's 20+ shots per game, several big chances per game.
And after the issues of being too open earlier in the season with two of the midfielders often higher up the pitch than in the past, the Reds have gone from conceding around 1.0xG per league game, to less than 1.0xG in the last four games combined; all the while still racking up 3.0xG or more, whatever the level or approach of the opponent. This trend is not changing, either. It's insanely effective, and currently, stunningly consistent.
The current goalscoring rate puts the Reds ahead of the best attacking sides in the history of the English game, but it's also based on a ton of chances, not pot-luck. We've been arguing on TTT for a couple of months that Chelsea's underlying numbers suggested a fallaway was imminent, but the Reds would likely keep winning if they maintained their levels. Results don’t always follow the underlying numbers, but we always track the underlying numbers as it’s still a pretty good guide to how well teams are playing, and better than just tracking results.
The key is to carry into the second half of the campaign, and, if maintained, it will take Jürgen Klopp's men past the highest total (106) in a 38-game season. It still might not be enough to win the league, but if not, it's hard to have any too many complaints as to Liverpool falling short.