I guess it confirms me as irretrievable Malorkusbut after seeing Liverpool overtake Villareal in yesterday’s Champions League semi-final second leg, I just wanted to go back in time and show the game to the authors of game of Thrones. And to show them what really happens when you immediately throw everything you have at a far larger and better equipped enemy.
As Villareal found out last night, it only works for so long, and then when you’re exhausted and exhausted and your opponent has figured it out, you’re screwed. Game over. Everyone goes home, the show is over, Jon Snow is dead along with everyone else. There’s not a stupid Arya trick you don’t bother to explain or that involves your main benefit being that Bran sitting around doing nothing but telling everyone, ‘It’s just me and Pink Floyd seeing things as they really are, man. Let’s listen to Meddle a sixth time so I can show you…” between bong hits. If you start throwing your best and most aggressive balls at the wall and can’t get past and hold them, you’ll collapse.
Now that, like Sisyphus, I’ve pushed the biggest glasses onto the world’s biggest nose, let’s get started. Villareal can’t be blamed for that because they didn’t have a choice. They were 2-0 down in the first leg and they couldn’t sit back and defend and counterattack to equalize two goals. Liverpool’s clock would have just run out. They had an angry home crowd behind them and really nothing to lose. Villareal shouldn’t be here anyway.
So Villareal pressed from the start. they harassed. They threw themselves into everything, including the ground in the case of Francis Coquelin, who was Shakespearean in his style of throwing himself onto the lawn at the slightest breeze. They came out in a 4-4-2 that Liverpool didn’t expect, pressing their wide midfielders down on Liverpool full-backs without the ball and flooding Fabinho’s space when they had the ball to get passes and face the Liverpool defence . They threw a barely fit Gerard Moreno, their talisman, onto the field and just told him to walk on one leg for as long as possible.
And Liverpool were terrible in the first half. Startled by Villareal’s early goal (the first of two goals scored by a mid-air attack on Liverpool’s full-back), they couldn’t face Villareal’s anger. They tried to avoid the Spanish press and tried to be more direct. Except every long ball has bounced off the sodden turf and Liverpool players. Or they couldn’t connect on the simplest of passes. It had echoes of what Man City did to Liverpool twice in the league, where Fabinho is separated from the other two midfielders, the full-backs are caught too far down the field and everything feels out of sync. The ball is turned around far too easily, passes are sprayed out of bounds or the desperate releases are piling up. In the madness, Villareal found a crucial goal and suddenly and for the first time in months, Liverpool looked vulnerable.
But it’s Liverpool, and it was Villareal, and despite their guts and bravery, they’re still the 10th-placed team in La Liga. You don’t have a bottomless tank. You have limited resources. The only sides who can play a full game this way are Chelsea and City, which is why Liverpool have only won once (or lost) against either of them in six attempts so far this season. And even that was in the FA Cup against a much-changed City side. If you throw everything your smaller army has and only tie halfway, you will lose. And you will lose hard.
Michael Cox from The Athletic has a fantastic breakdown of the tactical changes Liverpool made at half-time. The short version is that Liverpool started finding Fabinho from the sides instead of their centre-backs and they started pushing him around so Villareal central midfielders couldn’t find him. In their mess, Liverpool found space behind and in front of the defense to launch attacks.
But Villareal manager Unai Emery knew he couldn’t reach for leather for 90 minutes. And Moreno’s body finally gave up. He pulled the press back, defended deeper, and then Liverpool had them defend even deeper. They took control by just standing there, taking their best shot, cracking their necks and slowly moving forward. Those Yellow Submarine punches, which were haymakers in the first half, slowly drizzled into mere waves of the hand slamming against Liverpool’s chest. Three goals 12 minutes later in the second half and Liverpool went to Paris. Whilst Villareal fans will have those 15 minutes of half-time to remember the brief time the impossible seemed real. This really happens when your first and best step is to charge the Dothraki into the night.