I think the last match I got to was the same fixture in February, when we came back from 2-0 down to get a draw, thanks to Jermain Defoe and the now disgraced Adam Johnson. Johnson had come on as sub for Jan Kirchoff, another of the eight who were on the team sheet in February but missing from it this time around.
Not all of their eight replacements started at Anfield but yesterday’s midfield was different enough to give me trouble in recognising players and patterns. Plus, of course, we had a new manager and a new system for me to accommodate, so I hope you won’t expect a thrilling blow by blow account of the game such as you might get from ace reporter Pete, whose knowledge of the team and its playing system, earned by week-in, week out observation, cannot be bettered. Instead, all I can offer is an overview and an impression.
One midfield player I had no trouble recognising was Denayer, however. Not because of his dreadlocks but because of his prominence. He slotted in in front of the back four, a la Kirchoff, where he was soon busy, and effective, in spoiling Coutinho’s playmaking for the first half hour and in breaking up whatever came at him after Coutinho was subbed.
Denayer’s play epitomised that of the four behind him. O’Shea was as classy as ever, despite a booking for starting an undignified wrestling match. Alongside him was Kone, who seemed to thrive on O’Shea’s presence and was more like his old self after some iffy performances earlier in the season. This excellent central pairing was complemented by Patrick Van Aanholt and Billy Jones, who both did better than OK defensively.
And it’s just as well they did because Liverpool pressed from the start. I’d managed to get into the Dark House (not its real name) for a couple of pints with Tony Fay, season-ticket holding Koppite and one-time WAY guest. Tony had said Liverpool needed to score in the first fifteen minutes or they’d begin to get frustrated and their game would suffer. In return I’d said they needed to move the ball quickly down the right wing, or through the centre, or down the left wing and cross it and they’d score. It turns out we both were correct.
Liverpool didn’t score in the first fifteen minutes, thanks to the aforementioned back four and Denayer, and also to Duncan Watmore, who did a good job of patrolling Milner, and they did become frustrated. Instead of quick balls to bypass our backs they kept playing it short to build attacks and we kept them out despite Firmino’s efforts to create chances. With one notable exception, a far post steal-in header from a Jordan Henderson free kick, shots were mainly from a distance and Pickford coped well with those that didn’t go wide.
And so we got to half time, with a break from the pressure, a chance for me to explain to Ronnie (the person I was sitting next to, who just happened to know both M Salut and Sixer), why the Dark House was called the Dark House, and a little refreshment courtesy of the pork pies which I’d put in my pocket on the way out and which weren’t found by the young lady conducting a search at the turnstile. (Actually, the young men in front of me were all searched but when it came to my turn she took one look at me and waved me past. Oh, the indignity of pensionerhood).
With the start of the second half we saw a different Liverpool. A much pacier one, getting the ball forward wider and quicker, and being consequently much more dangerous. A few close shaves and we were wondering how long it would be before they scored.
Long enough to give us hope, as it happens. We held them for the first half hour and even managed a couple of breakaways of our own. Anichebe, always troubling the opposition, held the ball in the box and played in Watmore but he couldn’t keep the ball close enough to get a shot away, and Patrick went on a couple of his mazy runs but they came to nothing, as is usually the case with Patrick.
But, possibly because we tired, our fighting for the ball became less effective and we lost more and more 50-50 challenges. Our passing and distribution, never brilliant, became less accurate and the pressure increased until Origi got the ball on the left of the box and sent Watmore the wrong way to create enough space to get in an effort. A shot? A cross? I’m not sure but from where I was it seemed to bobble its way across the box and pass Pickford when it shouldn’t have done so.
And that was that. Anichebe continued his attempts to get the ball forward and create chances for others and Defoe ran for everything but their efforts just didn’t come off; Liverpool’s defence remained solid and they (Anichebe and Defoe) didn’t get much help from a midfield that was finding it difficult to get forward as Liverpool looked for the clincher.
And that clincher, when came, was dead on 90 minutes and of our own making. You can just see the end of it on MOTD but the build-up was dreadful. We had a throw in well inside Liverpool’s half. Billy Jones took the throw, we lost possession and the ball went out – we had another throw in. Billy Jones took it again, we lost possession again and it ended up with Mane, who legged from their half to our box, where he was felled by Ndong. Last season Yedlin’s throws were pathetic, and now this. Is there no-one in our coaching staff who can get our players to take a decent throw in?
So there we have it. Liverpool were a better team and we can’t complain about the result. But we weren’t disgraced. We had a shape and we kept to it, we battled and didn’t give in. There are improvements we can make – van Aanholt and Watmore need to make their runs more productive, Defoe and Anichebe can grow their partnership and, above all, our midfield needs to be more creative going forward. I’m sure Moyes is working on all of this.
At the end of the game I sent a seven word text to M Salut, as a good Sixer’s sub should, but it didn’t arrive:
“We did not play like relegation fodder”.
We didn’t, and with players coming back from injury and the transfer window opening we still have hope. We’re bottom again but there’s a long way to go and the season’s young. Keep the faith.