HERE we are the other side of Manchester United. Slightly confused by events, but unbowed, unbeaten. Normal life can begin again. West Brom at home on a Saturday at tea time is normal life.
In a sense, these are my favourite type of games. In a sense they are also the hardest to come to terms with when they don’t follow script. United could have nicked one on Monday night and left us frustrated and pointless but that wouldn’t have been half the kick in the teeth that an upset against the next lot might represent.
I don’t want to be contemplating what’s left of my Saturday night on the back of points dropped against a Tony Pulis side. Shrugging off that kind of disappointment would be an ordeal. Match of the Day would be in the bin. A nice relax and a watch of Chelsea v Man U on Sunday, would be in the bin. The entire sport would remain in said bin until the Reds next took to a field.
We drew at home to West Brom last season and although there was a bit of emotion at the end with that Divock Origi goal, a point saved and Jürgen Klopp and The Kop bonding, I wasn’t in any kind of party mood. The manager’s positivity was framed within a context of his knowing we were prone to being ‘a bit shit’ too frequently back then. He was taking progress anywhere he could lay his hands on it.
The context now is very different. At least it seems that way. It’s an amazing thing how starts to seasons can reconfigure your world view. None of us really thought Liverpool would fly out of the traps and into a title challenge at the beginning of August. Now, you’ll not find an Liverpool supporter who can envisage anything other than us remaining in the race indefinitely. How swiftly we morph. How careless and carefree we are in trading pessimism/realism for wanton optimism. We are such suckers for a few nice wins and some pretty football.
A setback against West Brom would be a nasty humbling. So I am prepared to contemplate it. As with my conviction that it is imperative for good mental health for us to consider our mortality on a daily (if not hourly) basis, I’m also prepared to plan for the life after the death that even a draw with WBA would be akin to.
So much in football is illusion, and so much success in football is flimsily sustained by the buying into illusion. Good managers are good blaggers. Good players tend to be those that can harness and maintain feeling confident in their work. It is all, so very much, in the mind.
This is why starts to seasons are important. Bad starts sow bad seeds. Bad starts anchor teams to the bottom part of the league table. Good teams become bad teams and begin to identify themselves by what only really needed to be a temporary reality. Good starts begat good habits. They show a team and their flock what might be possible. They suggest a portal to a promised land. See what we’ve just done. Imagine a world where we just keep doing that. Everything becomes possible.
It was important that Liverpool didn’t lose to United on Monday so that the fine body of work that we can label ‘Liverpool’s great start to the 2016/2017 season’ might stay intact. The fact that Liverpool were moral victors with 65% possession and the better chances made Monday’s point the embodiment of ‘a good point’.
Reality intervenes with the observation that we can get as giddy as we like and keep surfing the wave in our heads but we are still only eight league games into the current campaign. There are 30 more of these fuckers still to come. Yes, we’ve built up a bedrock of confidence – the product of the quality of the wins and the performances – but we need more in the bank and the tank if we’re to prove seaworthy for an entire season’s worth of challenging.
West Brom at home on a Saturday at tea time has become a bigger ‘must win’ than United was. The United draw spiked our winning run, and it’s therefore crucial that we don’t embark upon a damaging non-winning run. Next up after this Saturday’s game is a toughy at home to Spurs (in the League Cup) and then a never routine visit to Crystal Palace four days later. A slip against West Brom could start a non-winning blip that begins to stretch into a winless streak.
Witness Manchester City – from imperious to plagued with doubt. A sloppy draw with Celtic turned into a four-game, as yet unbroken, run without a victory. They’re not finished, but they aren’t the same people they were a month ago.
Tony Pulis, perhaps the last great British yard dog of a manager still standing, relishes the kind of challenge Liverpool will set his side. Playing Burnley or Watford at home would require him to do some thinking. He’d need tactics and stuff. For Liverpool it’s really quite simple.
The Reds are a whirlwind of skills and and crazily good players who can tie you up in knots and throw you on the back of the wagon before a match has even got going. So stop them doing that. Put all the bodies you have behind the ball. Then, look to use the one advantage a West Brom have over a Liverpool – bigness.
Pulis, the old yard dog likes to buy and pick fellow yard dogs. If he ‘low blocks’ Liverpool, they may get frustrated and resort to just tossing the ball in for his canines to expel using their superior height. That will be job part done for WBA.
Then when Liverpool have road-runnered themselves into the dirt, Pulis’s yard pups can look to contriving any semblance of a set piece from which to attempt to steal an unlikely goal. All it needs is for one of those West Brom lads to fall over 50 odd yards from the Liverpool nets for a threat to be presented. They won’t look to do this in the first-half lest they’re counter attacked, but late on. Late on, watch them go for it. The shithouses.
Our task is simple too. Let’s not be dickheads. Let’s relish the possession we will have. Let’s take their supplication and bus parking as a treat, not a frustrating problem. There is an enormous amount of guile in the current Liverpool team. It just needs to be allied to patience and resilience in the face of opponents who have only their physicality to offer.
There was much debate in the wake of the United draw about the Liverpool midfield – was its less effective performance because of the away side’s approach or because two regular components, Adam Lallana and Gini Wijnaldum, were missing?
It might have had something to do with numbers too. Emre Can and Jordan Henderson seemed isolated as a midfield duo, with the attacking three ahead of them (Coutinho, Firmino and Mane) unable to either truly back them up or to join in with lone striker Daniel Sturridge.
By adding layers to our set-up we appeared to lose the simple cohesiveness of this season’s go-to 4-3-3 formation. The 4-2-3-1 we saw against United didn’t aid the cause of our full-backs much either. It felt and looked as though our now trademark ability to swarm all over the opposition was lost in tactical nuance.
The new ‘keeper Loris Karius had a bit of a mare too, and if he makes the cut for Saturday he’ll need to start the process of winning hearts and minds in earnest. Sturridge also will be praying that Klopp sees a case for his selection, because his season just isn’t catching light and opportunities for it to do so may be diminishing. If there’s to be another glorious act to Daniel’s Liverpool career it needs to start soon.
Natural nerves and fate tempting caveats aside, if we can’t look forward to a game like this one then there’s nothing down for us. The Mighty Reds in full cry, hopefully at full strength, primed and pumped to get nasty on Premiership makeweights on a Saturday afternoon. On a Saturday afternoon at Anfield just as day is giving way to night. The best time of day on the best day of the week. This is what it’s all about kids. We so very much must win this. We so very much will win this.
The un-mockerable Liverpool 11 to pulp Pulis:
Karius; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Coutinho, Mane, Firmino.