TTT Relaunch On Substack – The Plans, The Timings, and a Napoli Inquest Thrown In
What's happening with TTT, and how we're changing; and what needs changing at Liverpool FC
Well, once again I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
(That said, it was just Pritt Stick, and the tube kept getting stuck up my nostril.)
First, before the post-Napoli inquest, the important news about The Tomkins Times. Scroll down if you just want the footy talk.
As you may have seen by now, we're moving TTT fully from WordPress, where we've been since 2009 – but now have all kinds of legacy issues with different subscription software (and a slew of costly and awkward plug-ins) to Substack, which seems a more stable platform, that has everything we need built in, thus needing zero plug-ins, in contrast to the fifty-one on WordPress (some of which are to fix problems that fixed problems that fixed problems, whilst creating new problems).
It'll be faster, more efficient, more stable, and leave us with a greater proportion of each subscription payment. It will need no constant updating, no fixes, patches or other constant plugging-holes-in-dykes.
But we are not quite ready to launch!
Much is in place, but not everything. Some people are jumping the gun. Hold tight!
We had to activate the paywall on Substack this week, in order to start transferring the existing TTT subscribers over and assigning them "paid" access (for free), and as such, we don't want anyone to pay on here until their legacy subscriptions (from TTT on WordPress, with WooCommerce or the older payment software) have expired.
I started yesterday with the benefactors, who always pay a bit more for no real privilege. They have been transferred first, but they're less than 20% of the subscriber base. The rest will follow in the next week or two.
As such, it was weird when an email went out with my name on it suggesting people upgrade from the free newsletter to the paywalled Substack TTT, when I didn't write it – and I specifically don't want people to start paying yet!
This may be a standard Substack tool for people who've just turned on their Substack paid subscriptions, but obviously I wasn't happy, given that it's not time yet. (If you've never had a TTT subscription and you want to pay now, that's different – but we don't have any paywalled content yet, beyond one test page for those granted early access. So there’s little point.)
So, if you're a subscriber at www.tomkinstimes.com (the WordPress site), then please don't do anything unless directed to do so.
By all means subscribe to the free newsletter if you haven’t, but for now, click the option where it says to continue without paying.
There will also be other TTT Substacks, which I'm calling sub-Substacks, that will be cheaper, and focus on different aspects of the club, which will be run by the people like Daniel Rhodes and Chris Rowland, where I'll contribute too (and where the overall concepts are my idea), so that they can build something and profit-share, rather than being paid a set rate (which I could no longer afford to do with TTT as it was, given the income the faulty subscription system was costing us, allied to a drop-off in numbers, beginning the exact month Covid hit). Those guys, as well as Andrew Beasley and Gary Fulcher, will continue to be part of the main TTT experience.
These sub-Substacks are currently being developed too, behind the scenes, but will launch slightly after we stop all commenting on legacy TTT and open up all the debate (and start introducing paywalled content) on this, the TTT Main Hub.
So, if you're an existing TTT subscriber via www.tomkinstimes.com, please keep an eye out for instructions, and don't jump the gun, or the shark, or the River Mersey.
Right, onto the football…
The Napoli Inquest
Okay, some thoughts, beyond what I wrote the other day on here, which I still stand by, in terms of extenuating circumstances, additional concerns and the proven ability of Jürgen Klopp and co. to reverse a nightmarish period (which all teams go through, but not all emerge from)
This feels slightly different as this side is now on the older side.
"We have to reinvent ourselves" Klopp rightly said last night, in a searingly honest assessment. I feel that most of the tools for that reinvention are already at the club, but January additions (even just one who can make an impact) seem important as things stand. I explain in that piece about how, while there are some crazily tough league games now until the World Cup, there will be 22 after the tournament, and 20 after the transfer window opens.
Transfers aren't always a solution, but someone like Naby Keïta – the team's best presser – should be entering his peak years, if his injury issues were solved; instead, there was talk of downing tools for a move – which is unacceptable, if true, after clearly owing the club and fans more after being so injury-prone (which may not be his fault, but the sense of shame should be upon him if he wanted out, even if I understand his frustrations over the Champions League final). Injured or disinterested, Keïta is in his final year.
Last night drew to mind the 7-2 at Aston Villa, with the same defence and the same issues. As Andrew Beasley noted on TTT's post-match analysis:
"When they lost 7-2 at Villa Park, or 5-0 at Manchester City having played with 10 men for about an hour, Liverpool conceded six clear-cut chances. Napoli racked up that many in about half an hour, and finished with nine.
NINE. Number nine. Revolution 9. My head is spinning like I’ve been listening to The Beatles’ sound collage on a loop for the last 90 minutes."
Jamie Carragher gave an excellent talk on why the high line is fine, but not with a midfield like this:
It's not the midfield Klopp would have wanted to start the season with. It’s a long way from ideal.
Fabinho is often too "nice", and doesn't have the recovery pace to rescue defenders caught by a high line, and no one tracks the runners anyway.
James Milner is too old, and as I've said, should be 5th sub, there to help close out games, and to help the kids in the domestic cups, and to set the standards in training (where I imagine he still excels at pressing, but in smaller spaces than a full-size pitch).
Jordan Henderson is one of three thirty-somethings, along with Van Dijk and Mo Salah, on long-term lucrative contracts that went against existing club policy (which existed for a reason).
Salah’s pay-rise broke the club’s wage structure, to put him on almost double what anyone else earns, even if it wasn’t as high as was being touted a year ago. That’s rarely a good idea, even if it seems merited. (It didn’t work at Arsenal with Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at a similar age, albeit I think Salah has been better for Liverpool than either of those were for the Gunners, and has a better attitude. But it’s another example of moving away from the things that made Liverpool so great: the chasing of the rewards, rather than receiving them up front.)
All three have looked like they've been phoning in their displays this season, but each could simply be finding themselves dragged down by the imbalance to the team, which is too slow, too small, and at times, too old, and with their own lack of sharpness adding to the malaise.
None of those shortcomings, in isolation, is an issue; but once a team has too many short players, or too many slow players, or two many old players, too many unfit players, or too many unimposing players, it can become a shadow of its former self, even if any individual may still be offering qualities.
As I noted in my post-match analysis, it's weird how Thiago looked so fit after barely training, and almost everyone else looked knackered. Thiago, while 31, was totally "at it". You didn't get the sense from anyone else, perhaps bar Harvey Elliott (who tried, but tired, understanably), and Luis Díaz.
Robbie Fowler on BT Sport highlighted how lazy Trent Alexander-Arnold was in several situations, which most of us have been noticing all season.
I've defended how he can't be expected to get up and back all game, or stop an attack if he's already gone on the overlap; but to not even get beyond a jog when there's danger – early in games – is what we saw from Man United's players last season, from the likes of Ronaldo, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
I don't want to see Trent go down ‘Dele Alli Alley’, where erstwhile teenage sensations get wrapped up in a world of self-love and superstardom by the age of 23, and stop doing the hard yards.
Rashford appeared to be another, but he looks rejuvenated right now. For all the doubts I have about certain United signings, Erik ten Hag shipped out the lazy players, the slow players; and had all the players running the distance they failed to run against Brentford. He gained power by sidelining the egotist who was undermining his power, and made it about the team. Had ten Hag not laid down the law, you sense United would be in the relegation zone now.
Liverpool continue to be outrun in every single game this season. You can't run just for the sake of it, but if you are not covering the KMs and not making the sprints (on and off the ball), what are you doing as a team?
The side Klopp picked at Old Trafford and in Naples lacked pace at the heart of the team (midfield and striker), with the clever but slowing Roberto Firmino lost up front on a big pitch (again), and James Milner somehow supposed to be supporting from midfield. Elliott is also clever, but not rapid.
With Mo Salah unable to sprint in behind like he used to (for whatever reason, hopefully temporary but maybe also a sign of age, or certainly something after a gruelling 2022), everything has to be too feet. If Milner tries to support the strikers, there's a chasm for Fabinho to cover, and like Milner he's never been the best in bigger areas, as he's not rapid. No one presses the ball, the centre-backs make mistakes, and teams are in behind.
Andy Robertson was dreadful the first half of last season, but his return to form, along with the introduction of the incredible pace and power of Ibrahima Konaté, and the addition of the hungry, ever-willing Díaz, helped revive the side in 2022, from January to June.
Klopp has been massively hamstrung by a short preseason after an extra-long one, injuries (and Keïta's actions, if true), but also had money to spend on a midfielder and wouldn't compromise. He also wanted Núñez, but isn't playing him in away games (on bigger pitches than Anfield) now that he's available, when to me, he's a "big pitch" player, who stretches defences and pushes teams back; and who can sprint 60 yards on the break without slowing. If the idea is for Firmino to hold the ball up, then why hold it up for James Milner?
Núñez's touch does look iffy compared to the silkiness of Firmino's, but in the early games he was causing chaos. Konaté also feels like a big-pitch/high-line player, as the one who can best recover. (He's injured, but only got injured in a freak clash of knees after being overlooked for Joël Matip at the start of the season.)
I don't see enough players willing to run through brick walls. Or even around brick walls. Liverpool have become United: sluggish, one-paced, lacking verve, with a few egos that seem to be puffed up.
Teams are clearly testing the Reds with passes in behind. But one weird stat I found when parsing the data the other day is that Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez rank 2nd and 3rd for aerial duels contested by all defenders in the Premier League so far this season, with a staggering 60 between them. That's ten per game.
Van Dijk won his usual excellent percentage of his 29 contested (75.9%, which he manages to hit every single season with freakish regularity), while the smaller, less-good aerially Gomez won just half of his 31 (51.6%), as is par for him. Between them, it’s pretty average.
(EDIT: it’s just occurred to me that almost all of the defenders to contest 20 or more aerial duels have played 540 minutes, or all of all six league games. Gomez has contested 31 in just 393 minutes, with no one else in the list below 450 minutes, which suggests some serious targeting, unless anyone else can explain it?)
Aside from going up for corners to contest them (as Van Dijk does), are teams hitting high balls to then pick up the second balls and play it in behind? Have Liverpool simply faced a lot of long-ball teams? By contrast, Lesandro Martinez has faced just eight aerial duels in six games, in part having played against only smaller strikers (all under 6ft, some as small as the same height as him, 5'9") since the second game of the season.
Liverpool have faced Aleksandar Mitrović at Fulham (6'2"), Kieffer Moore of Bournemouth (6'5"), Alexander Isak of due-to-be the tallest team in the league, Newcastle (6'4"), and some 6ft options from Crystal Palace. (Napoli's centre-forward was also both big and super-quick.)
Are Liverpool winning these duels (van Dijk), only to then not deal with the second balls? And Gomez has lost twice as many aerial duels as some centre-backs have even faced. Martinez, again, has faced just eight aerial duels, and five were in one game. Surely teams will start targeting Martinez when he faces the big guns (so far he's won a mediocre 62%, but almost exclusively against 5’9” Che Adams), but why are Liverpool's centre-backs facing so many aerial duels? – especially as Gomez doesn't go up for many corners (but did win a key header for the winner against Newcastle). Is there a tactic for those second balls, or is it just random?
Or are teams simply bypassing the fading Liverpool press, as Man United did, with long balls? If so, what’s the remedy?
I noted in 2020/21 how there was a direct correlation (and possible causation) between how tall Liverpool were and the points won. When Liverpool fielded their shortest 13 lineups that season, the PPG was dreadful: 0.7 per game. The other 25 line-ups had a title-winning PPG, even when two key players were essentially 2nd-tier backup rookie defenders.
While I obsess over height, as I think it's one of those things people assume is an old-fashioned concern (pressing is increasingly vital), I believe you still need to be sufficiently physically imposing in the Premier League.
If you're not physically imposing, you need to fast, sharp and hungry, to compensate. I’m not seeing that from Liverpool.
(Look at how many giant strikers were signed in the league this summer, to dispel the notion that height is no longer an issue. Look at the giant midfielders. Look at how many giants Napoli had.)
Liverpool don't look fast, sharp or hungry, in addition to being a bit more lightweight, and not as tall as any of the teams at the top of the table (Arsenal rank 4th, City 6th and Spurs 1st, albeit Newcastle will be taller with their first-choice XI.)
Liverpool rank 11th for height this season in the league, but every team they've faced so far, bar Palace, ranks 2nd-9th. (Napoli were also far bigger than the Reds last night.) And Liverpool should have beaten Palace, but didn't take their chances and then had a (tall and fast) man sent off.
It actually stirred a reaction from Liverpool, and especially Luis Díaz, who makes a mockery of the idea that losing Sadio Mané from that wing is the problem. Liverpool need more like Díaz, and fewer like Mané in terms of age profile and likely powerful running going forward. Mané was great, but the club cannot keep all its 2017-2022 players as they head into their 30s.
Spurs and Newcastle have recruited only 6-footers, and some who are much taller than 6ft. Other clubs have recruited young, hungry and super-fast players. Liverpool are slowing up, all over the pitch.
The good news?
Thiago is back. And like he's defying age, at least in terms of when he's able to play. Of the older players, he's the only one who seems to be getting better with age. He's still fairly mobile, but he moves the ball forward faster and more accurately than anyone in world football. He can speed the game up, so I don’t care that he’s not some powerhouse sprinter, but it still needs fast players to find, too, otherwise everything has to remain "into feet".
Díaz is more like peak-years Mané than the Mané of 2022. Konaté will hopefully be back soon.
Harvey Elliott is a gem, who works his socks off, and has real quality, but not a lot of physical presence. Firmino has still ‘got it’, but needs faster runners off him, and cannot cover the big distances like he used to.
Temporary or not, Mo Salah is no longer looking quick enough to terrify opposing defenders to push them back, and Alexander-Arnold is not getting up to support, not overlapping to cross, and not doing a lot beyond pinging a few worldies about and grabbing wingers as they try to run past him.
If Salah can no longer out-sprint full-backs (and this is a player who made 100 more sprints than any other player in the league in 2019/20, and 200 more than others in the top 10), then maybe he needs to play as the centre-forward, with pace on either side. (Núñez on the left, where he used to play, and Díaz on the right?)
But that seems to be too much chopping to get two quick players into the front three, instead of just one. Núñez and Díaz in their usual positions would surely help Salah, but Alexander-Arnold can't remain a passenger only hitting Hollywood balls.
The ones who don't appear to be working hard enough, or be fit enough, or be imposing themselves like in the past? – Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Fabinho, Salah, Henderson, van Dijk. All part of the long-established core. All men who have won every single trophy with the Reds, as of the end of last season.
Milner is trying, I feel, but showing his age, especially on bigger pitches, and especially as younger, faster, stronger, hungrier players emerge every season. He has amazing stamina, but zero explosiveness. Milner, Henderson and van Dijk are the three main leaders.
That the core key men who have won it all with the Reds are looking so mediocre might suggest a 5% drop in hunger, which is huge at that level, as well as in some cases, a 5% drop in pace or stamina. Add in a drop in confidence as a result, and it can look ugly.
If there is to be a reinvention, is that sacred core now ready for some time on the bench?
How good is Calvin Ramsay? Now he's fit again, can he provide the Reds' no.66 with a jolt, to stop him sliding fully into complacency?
Or could Trent finally be moved to midfield, where even though he'd still have to run, he wouldn't have to cover the full length of the pitch, and just be more box-to-box. He looks like he's lost the appetite to do those hard, hard yards, but which are vital for the success of Liverpool's full-back roles, just as Salah looks less quick on the long runs uo the wing.
(Robertson just looks knackered, after playing almost every minute in the league and Europe for about five seasons now, and at 28, is at the older end of explosiveness).
It maybe needs the raw energy, quality and intensity of young Stefan Bajcetic, even if still feels earlier than is ideal; but sometimes transitions work that way: the old guard sometimes gradually fade away, other times lose their spot and never get it back.
Bajcetic is 6ft, strong (but not yet fully filled out, at just nearly 18 years old), but maybe an issue is that Elliott is just 19, and Carvalho, another bright spark (quick, skilful, but small), has just turned 20, while Ramsay is 19.
It means too many teenagers, and not enough younger players aged 22 or 23, who are more experienced and physically tuned, at the peak of their explosive powers. Again, Konaté and Núñez fit the profile here: big, strong, fast, young enough and hungry.
The good news is that these teenagers will likely improve massively in the next 1-2 years, but to throw in too many right now could cause new problems, rather than solve them.
I also think Ben Doak's astonishing pace and power for a 16-year-old has to soon put him in contention for the bench, as this team lacks that kind of pace and power. He's the best teenage attacker I've seen at the club since Michael Owen (and maybe Raheem Sterling), and last season played first team football for Celtic; if his attitude is right, I'd possibly have him as a wildcard on the bench, to run at teams in the way Salah no longer can.
But Diogo Jota returning to fitness is more important right now. He's 25, like Díaz, and the team, going forward, needs to be built around Konaté, Díaz, Núñez, Jota, Elliott, Carvalho, Bajcetic, Ramsay, Curtis Jones (and Gomez, if he recovers his confidence). These are all 25 or younger. (I’d throw in Doak and Kaide Gordon as potential additions, too.)
I also think Arthur Melo, 26, has a lot of talent and experience, but worry he could be another small, one-paced midfielder, lacking fitness right now. He certainly looked that way last night, in a brief cameo.
Also 26 is Kostas Tsimikas, who I like a lot, but who also seems perhaps a tad short on all-round qualities; but you have to love his desire, and the quality of his set-pieces (another issue this season has been the floaty corners). Robertson at his best was a force of nature, but he's nearly 29, and it feels like rivals are filling up on young, super-fast full-backs. Fabinho turns 29 very soon. It’s up to Klopp to detect, at closer quarters, if players are losing the hunger, and/or their physical power. The Intensity has certainly gone about as AWOL as is possible.
Not all of those aged 25 or under listed above will make it into Liverpool's best XI in, say, 2023 or 2024 – not least as several play the same position (attacking midfielder/winger), but the quality and hunger seems there, and you could rejig things to get most in the side, while retaining maybe three 30-somethings at most in the XI, excluding Alisson who turns 30 within a month (and using the rest from the bench).
Some, like Elliott and Díaz, are already in the XI, but Konaté, Núñez, Jones and Jota have issues with injuries, form and/or settling in (while Gomez may have just played himself out of contention for a while); and Carvalho, Bajcetic and Ramsay have started one league game for the Reds between them. Ramsay has barely even trained.
It's important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater (this is how I once ended up homeless for six months a child), but equally, Klopp has talked of reinvention. Is he deadly serious, or was it just a warning shot across the bows of those underperforming?
Even to reinvent the tactics will likely need at least some changes of personnel, from the squad as it stands. It will need energy in midfield, to press, if the high line is retained. If the defence drops a few yards deeper, then Núñez and Díaz will have to work hard to make the most of longer passes. It will need pace, strength, commitment, no matter the height of the line.
Alisson – who probably halved Napoli's goals-scored last night with many great saves – has a good few years left at the top, and Thiago, when fit, seems a shoo-in, for his unique talents.
Virgil van Dijk's career can be extended by the ideal partner (as much as I love Matip, it feels like Konaté long-term, for his pace, power and enthusiasm). Maybe Matip can move to his old temporary Schalke position of the DM, as Fabinho is not at the race right now, and has never been the best athlete. Then again, that just makes the team older.
Salah will only thrive with the right players around him, if his physical powers are starting to wane. If Alexander-Arnold is no longer supporting him, and Elliott is still learning the game, it won't help the Egyptian to thrive. A lack of pressing a quick turnovers in midfield also won't free Salah quickly enough.
Recoveries From Adversity
Liverpool have been here before (4-1 Spurs away, 7-2 Villa away) and turned it around, if not immediately. Every full Klopp season has ended with strong run-ins in the league – or rather, either strong or insanely strong – even with key players missing, as in 2020/21.
Almost every season has combined that with a run to a European final. That's insane stuff.
It may genuinely be too good to keep repeating, year on year, but the World Cup allows for a reset after 16 (tough!) league games. The window allows a chance to bring in at least one high quality player, with availability actually almost certain (at least compared with late-on in the summer window, when Liverpool were casting about in desperation) as clubs will go out of the Champions League and be willing to sell, as happened with Díaz. (Again, more on the way things can be turned around, from my last piece.)
All the younger players will be six months older (which feels like a lot of time when so young, with all the brand new experience gathered), then next summer, a full year older.
Things will start to make more sense. Chelsea won the Champions League recently (before sacking their manager even more recently, and bizarrely) after a season when they blooded some kids and took the hits, as they were banned from buying players.
It sounds like everyone at Liverpool understands the mistakes and missed opportunities this summer – after the failure to land 6'2" powerhouse all-rounder Aurélien Tchouaméni – and Klopp was aware of how things could be improved, even before the Napoli pummelling forced him to essentially admit to a period of transition.
And we need to be okay with a period of transition, as all great teams reach this point, and it's very tough to keep discarding key men who have massively contributed, even if it was one of Bob Paisley's greatest strengths (albeit he never did it with Kenny Dalglish; it's not about age per se, as much as letting players lose their legs on someone else's pitch, if running was vital to their game. Thiago, for example, strikes me as someone – like Dalglish was – who can play at this level until he's 35, if he can stay fit).
I don't mind Liverpool losing, and I don't mind a season of transition. I can forgive an injury crisis. I can understand the lack of preseason, and the hangover from last season. I get that transfer plans go awry, especially if you get gazumped by one of the few bigger draws in world football.
But I don't like the lack of effort, and players strolling around when the need is to sprint, and last night, almost all of this was from the "won it all" core.
Whatever happens to the baby, at least some of the bathwater has to go out the window.