The Gamer: Reds Edge Eagles at Anfield, Chelsea Stun Spurs and Barca Finally Win a Game

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Photo: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda

In the 73rd minute, not long after the travelling Crystal Palace support had serenaded Jordan Henderson with chants of “You’re just a shit Steven Gerrard,” Sadio Mane broke a scoreless deadlock that had no business being a scoreless deadlock, giving Liverpool the advantage. Jurgen Klopp had made five changes from the side that beat Hoffenheim away in Europe four days earlier, and still Liverpool were the demonstrably better football team; they had outshot Palace 23-4 by the time it was all over, with 13 efforts on target to Palace’s solitary one. On the day’s evidence, Palace fans would have a shit Jordan Henderson patrolling their midfield in a heartbeat.

The Liverpool captain may not have had a vintage performance, but with the exception of Mane you could likely say the same for most, if not all, of his teammates. At this stage of the season, the Reds are still struggling to get out of third gear when it comes to putting inferior opposition to the sword—we saw this at Watford seven days prior, when they should have made it 4-2 and put the game to bed. As in that contest, the Liverpool midfield found itself wanting for the forward-thinking creativity so often provided by Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana last season, the trio of Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum tidy yet blunt (as they were with Emre Can in Milner’s place at Watford). Still they were able to dominate proceedings and, with a bit of Mane magic, were able to make that dominance count and end Palace’s absurd three-game winning streak at Anfield.

But by now, everyone and their dad has made the observation that, with Lallana gone ’til November and Coutinho on the lam, Liverpool look like they could really use another attacking midfielder. In the first half, the Reds found themselves too flat in the final third. They managed only three shots on target (Palace had the one) despite having 70 percent of the ball, as the front three of Mane, Dan Sturridge and Bobby Firmino failed to gel as fluidly as they have in the past (such as their vintage dismantling of then-champions Leicester City at Anfield 11 months ago).

What Liverpool were able to create came from the left—more specifically, the left foot of Andrew Robertson, who made his club debut and was, in the first half, his side’s most influential player. It was his gorgeous cross that found its way onto Joel Matip’s head, when the towering center-back should have bulleted it into Palace’s net but missed wide; it was Robertson who led the game at the break with 46 passes and three chances created, whose delivery not only proved a novel threat for Liverpool (the Reds out-crossed Palace 12-3 in the first half) but who also showed himself comfortable playing the more intricate, short, on-the-carpet stuff that Jurgen Klopp surely demands from all of his fullbacks.

Robertson finished the game strong as well, ending the contest with 93 completed passes (second only to Milner’s 100), one shot on target (a driven effort that forced a fine save out of the immense Wayne Hennessey), and 10 of Liverpool’s 22 delivered crosses. Defensive question marks aside—he scuffed a clearance and looked uneasy backpedaling on a couple of occasions—it’s hard not to be excited by what Robertson brings to this team.

The second half was when the Reds really managed to impose their will, kicking up the intensity after the break both in and out of possession and, eventually, bringing about the desired result. Even after Christian Benteke somehow skied a clear opportunity in front of Simon Mignolet’s goal after a rapid Palace transition on 55 minutes, Liverpool still looked the likelier side—Firmino cutting in from the left and forcing an acrobatic save from Hennessey at the very next opportunity. A gimpy Sturridge made way for Mohamed Salah just after the hour mark, but it was not until Wijnaldum came off for Dominic Solanke in the 71st and Liverpool found themselves with four proper attacking players on the pitch that they were finally able to make the requisite breakthrough—shutting up the Hendo-needling Palace support in the process.

Solanke and Firmino spent their time on the pitch together intermittently switching positions up top, each taking turns playing behind the other in what looked a fairly conventional 4-4-1-1 / 4-2-3-1 (Solanke, interestingly, looks more of a handy all-rounder than one might have expected). All in all, Liverpool were a much more dangerous football team after the half, effectively quadrupling their shot production over the second set of 45 minutes to end up with the impressive, game-wide offensive stats provided above. They also managed to outplay Palace in categories they typically cede to more physical, bottom-10 opposition: out-crossing them 22-6 and winning more aerial duels (20 to the Eagles’ 13).

Palace, who made their way through the match looking defensively competent but dreadfully guileless in attack, ended the contest seemingly more than happy to leave with their pride intact, particularly after the 0-3 shellacking that Huddersfield Town gave them on their home turf the week before (the most telling statistic at Anfield on Saturday was arguably Hennessey’s 12 saves). For the Reds, it proved a slightly-too-hard-earned but deserved win, a big three points that will settle those less-than-cool heads populating the club’s trophy-starved, global fan base—at least for now.

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Photo: Reuters

Tottenham dominated Chelsea for much of the first 45 minutes at Wembley on Sunday. When Marcos Alonso curled his a brilliant free kick past Hugo Lloris in the 24th, it felt like Chelsea were positioning themselves for a classic smash-and-grab. Maybe, despite being second-best on the day, they’d be able to sneak out with a result that would kickstart their season after last week’s horrorshow defeat at home to Burnley.

The numbers back this up: Spurs had 64 percent possession and were outshooting Chelsea significantly (13-4, 6-1 on target) when the whistle blew for half, while the Blues couldn’t manage to get a save out of Lloris (Thibaut Courtois had to make six in the first half). For me, Spurs’ shape was the story of the game up to that point, with Eric Dier (who led the game with 39 passes in the first half) ticking things over from a hybrid center-back/defensive midfield position. As Dier occipied the space to the right of Toby Alderweireld and holding mid Victor Wanyama, Spurs kept flitting between the 3-4-3 they deployed to beat their opponents 2-0 at White Hart Lane on January 4 (ending Chelsea’s incredible 13-game winning streak in the process) and a 4-3-2-1 that saw Dier, Wanyama and Mousa Dembele form a solid midfield platform—a setup that enabled fullbacks Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies to function more as high-pressing wingbacks.

Chelsea—damn near depleted with Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill serving suspensions, Pedro not fully fit and Eden Hazard still out with a broken ankle—pushed David Luiz into midfield behind N’Golo Kante and debutante Tiemoue Bakayoko. Andreas Christensen filled in at the heart of the back three, and performed admirably throughout. And yet, despite Alonso’s free kick giving them the led, one would have had to assume Spurs’ superiority would eventually manifest itself on the scoreboard.

So much for that. Spurs couldn’t manage another shot on target in the second half as Chelsea continued to grow into the game. Willian’s threat and ability on the counterattack continues to be one of the great underrated skillsets in the modern game, the Brazilian carving out an opportunity to double the lead virtually by himself in the 70th minute. Michy Batshuayi came on for Alvaro Morata in the 78th minute and headed it into his own net in the 82nd, setting Wembley alight. But then Spurs gave the ball away in the half own some five minutes later and Marcos Alonso yet again made them pay, making it 2-1 and effectively ending things.

You can’t help but think this Wembley situation will end up costing Spurs in what looks to be the most competitive league in recent memory.

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Photo: Getty

At the Camp Nou, Barcelona hosted Real Betis as the blaugrana kicked off their Spanish league season. Paco Alcacer, Gerard Deulofeu and Sergi Roberto all found themselves on the Barca team sheet as a million heads across Catalonia and the world over went, but at least Deulofeu and Roberto acquitted themselves well in a sorely-needed win.

In a helter-skelter three minutes toward the end of the first half, Leo Messi and Deulofeu teamed up to force a Betis own goal (it technically went off the visitors’ Alin Tosca as Messi looked to get on the end of Deulofeu’s ball); Javier Mascherano had to chase down Sergio Leon and make a last-second, potentially goal-saving tackle in the Barcelona box; and Roberto found himself wide open in the Betis box after a quick Barca counter to stroke it in and make it 2-0.

The second half was essentially a formality and Barcelona were unlucky not to build upon their lead. Messi, in particular, appeared to be starving for a goal, having fired off 10 shots by the time the final whistle blew (he hit the woodwork on three occasions). Not that Barca looked to be enjoying their football or anything—smiles were few and far between on the pitch, both Thursday’s tragic terror attack and the two-legged Supercopa capitulation at the hands of Real Madrid still fresh in the memory—but at least they could be satisfied with the day’s work.

Deulofeu, Roberto, Alcacer, Denis Suarez, even Andre Gomes—these are all, at the end of the day, very good footballers who will likely go on to have long careers at an elite level. The question is whether they’re of the quality demanded week-in, week-out at Barcelona, and in that regard it’s hard to argue against the need for a handful of more experienced reinforcements: a skillful, goalscoring wide forward; a creative midfielder; a quality center-back to compete with Gerard Pique, Mascherano and Samuel Umtiti.

And yet, as Jean Seri (a player who, functionally at least, resembles more Paulinho than Coutinho) appears to be on his way and Dortmund finally seem willing to talk about Ousmane Dembele, Sunday evening saw noises being made about Messi taking the leap to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City—noises that, in this wild and unprecedented summer, do feel somewhat ominous.

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