Success in any competitive field can often be quantified in myriad ways. In sport, however, it’s usually a cold and abrupt reflection on the league standings. Results. That’s the name of the game and it is ever the case in Premier League Football.
Just this weekend, in fact, we saw Mark Hughes join Slavisa Jokanovic in the group of sacked managers as the Saints fall-from-ahead draw to Manchester United saw them close out the weekend in the relegation zone. Football is an incredibly brutal profession.
The rub with viewing success through that single lens, though, is that it often robs people of context when discussing the results. That’s not to say that teams sitting in the places they’re at don’t deserve them, but rather that a quick and cursory glance at the table often doesn’t reveal the way in which lucky bounces or otherwise blessed occurrences on the pitch tip the scales. And considering that results tilt on such fine margins, one would be foolish to dismiss the effect of random moments out of hand. Better to be lucky than good, the saying goes.
Well, on Sunday, Liverpool FC were both.
By now, you’ve likely had time to re-watch the match and digest all of the various angles of that magnificent and unlikeliest of goals - not to mention the fact that it came from the unlikeliest of goal scorers. Nothing about the goal was planned and nothing about it came from anything but being in the right place at the right time and taking the opportunity. Being both good and lucky.
Because a review of the match would’ve said that while the draw was likely deserved, Liverpool fans couldn’t have felt but be aggrieved and not having opened up any kind of scoring to that point. The early frame of the match saw Sadio Mane in on goal, a half-chance for Roberto Firmino, and even a potential dangerous cross from Teen Alexander-Arnold cut out just at the last moment. Absent that all too important final moment, the Reds looked the more dangerous side.
And that’s not to turn away the fact that Everton had their chances as well! But Liverpool’s star goalkeeper and much-improved defense did what they’ve done all season: turn away all looks from opposing offenses and kept a clean sheet. If anything, on the defensive side of the ball, at least, things went more or less to script.
Looking at the xG map of the game from Michael Caley, the story looks just as described:
xG map for the Merseyside Derby. That this ended on the dumbest goal ever is still more reasonable than it ending 0-0. pic.twitter.com/BoZwi2YH0S— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) December 2, 2018
All of this is to say that a draw would have left the Red half of Merseyside incredibly frustrated because, in all actuality, the lads put in quite a shift. There were more than enough chances created and enough defense on display to ensure that Liverpool should have seen this out comfortably.
But life doesn’t always like narrative and so, headed into stoppage time, Reds fans were sat tense and, perhaps, a bit resigned at the thought of a draw. And then, luck happened.
Watching the replay on Sunday afternoon while my daughter napped, I still couldn’t get figure out exactly what happened. I see Jordan Pickford - and his reptilian arms (yes, I know that they look like T-Rex arms but that’s kinda mean to T-Rex #JurassicParkForeva) - go to push Virgil Van Dijk’s mishit volley over the crossbar. And even as he tips it, I expect it to keep rolling out and into touch.
But it doesn’t.
Then the ball is hanging in the air.
And it’s only Pickford and Divock Origi.
And then it’s the goal in the back of net.
And maybe that’s all we need to know. There’s no explaining what happened here. I’m not even entirely sure it’s all Pickford’s fault.* There’s just too much that needed to go wrong at that exact point in order for this particular ending to be scripted this way.
So, that’s the mystery. That’s the luck. That’s what happens when you grind and and grind and grind and are 100% ready when that little scrap of opportunity lands in your lap.
It reminds me of a moment in Top Gun where one of the pilots is describing how Ice Man got his nickname. Supposedly, it’s because he just works and works and works until the person he’s tracking gets sloppy and makes a mistake.
There’s a lot of words that are being spent and hands being wrung over when, exactly, the marauding Liverpool of last season will return. When that free-flowing attack will re-emerge. While I’ll never write-off an attack that features Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino, I think it might be time to accept that this is what Liverpool is. The English Premier League’s Ice Man. Both good and, when necessary, a little lucky.