Friday, 21 December 2018

At least it's a race

Given that Liverpool and Manchester City are my least favourite football teams, you might think I'm a bit depressed at the Premier League table at the moment. But I have to admit they are serving up a feast of football and, for the moment at least, it looks like we have a meaningful title race. Which is better than the alternative, given that Everton winning it by a procession still seems some way off.

I expect it to stay a race to the death as Liverpool have been hugely improved by the signings of pretty boy man mountain centre back Virgil Van Dijk and "sponsored by Brylcreem" goalkeeper Alisson Becker. As you can see by the simple stat that, after 18 league games this season Liverpool have conceded 7 goals. After the same number of games last season it was 20.

It's also the received wisdom that Liverpool's front three aren't firing as effectively this season. Yet they have scored 39 goals in those 18 games. At the equivalent time last season they had scored 38. And Mo Salah, who Mrs H had said recently looked "tired - is he unwell?" looked to have got the  twinkle back in his eye. Most people would after his classy finish for Liverpool's first goal tonight at Wolves.

Liverpool's second goal was scored by Van Dijk and I enjoyed seeing it, because of his movement after a Liverpool corner had been half cleared to Salah just outside the Wolves box. Van Dijk had not been the furthest forward Liverpool player and was close to the edge of the box. As the Wolves defence unthinkingly moved up and the Liverpool attackers moved out with them, Van Dijk spotted his opportunity and jogged forward. Salah saw him, timed the cross and Van Dijk prodded in calmly with his foot. The Wolves defenders had vacated what I call the "danger slot" (or Tim Cahill zone) 4-6 yards out right in front of the goal and that gave Salah the opportunity to play the ball over their heads, dropping well before the keeper and into the path of the onrushing Van Dijk . The mistake the Wolves defenders made was moving up when there was no pressure on the ball.

The reason I enjoyed Van Dijk's goal was a semi-forgotten memory it stimulated from 35 years ago when I was playing at centre back, as I did for 6 seasons after converting from winger via midfield and full back. Seeing a corner cleared to one of my team mates who also had time to look up we made eye contact and I made a similar run to score a free header from a similar position. Most centre backs don't get that many goals - I certainly didn't - and this was one of my better efforts.

But I enjoyed just as much watching Van Dijk hold off one of the Wolves forwards who first tried to burn him for pace (Van Dijk accelerated smoothly and closed the space down in a flash) and then tried to out muscle him but bounced off the centre back as the ball rolled back harmlessly to the Liverpool keeper. I didn't posses Van Dijk's turn of speed let alone his physique and would have been horribly exposed in the equivalent position, albeit with the game at my standard being much slower. Van Dijk makes this stuff look easy and his composure and confidence has flowed through Liverpool's back four. A Liverpool season ticket holder tells me Van Dijk directs the young players who have been his most frequent defensive partners (Alexander-Arnold, Gomez and particularly Robertson), talking them through the games. Van Dijk's transfer fee may have been a world record for a defender but he looks a bargain.

I will finish with one oddity from the Wolves-Liverpool game. At the end, as Mo Salah and a Wolves player exchanged shirts  I spotted this:

As I said to Mrs H - since when do footballers wear sports bras?

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