By the time that referee Anthony Taylor decided, upon further review, to show Paul Pogba a red card last weekend, Manchester United already could have, indeed should have, been down one or two players.
In addition to Pogba’s dangerously high and aggressive two-footed challenge on Naby Keita, Cristiano Ronaldo’s petulant, arrogant, and violent kick-out against Curtis Jones would’ve seen most players, for most teams, in most fixtures, given their marching orders. Harry Maguire was also a lucky boy to only be shown a yellow after his cynical tackle on Diogo Jota when he was about to run through on goal, which could have, again should have, been seen as the denial of a goal scoring opportunity, and therefore a red. And let’s not forget Bruno Fernandes’s sideline challenge on Jones, which was at the very least on the moodier side of yellow card challenges.
Although Manchester United was a pretty extreme example of a team losing their heads against Liverpool (no doubt exacerbated by the derby atmosphere and the historic drubbing), it has been far from the only example this season.
Indeed, in 14 competitive matches so far, Liverpool opponents have already received 4 red cards. You could look at these incidents as one-off events, “these things happen in football matches.”
However, I think these isolated incidents are part of a larger trend, one that causes some of the game’s top professionals (margin of error +/- Harry Maguire) to momentarily lose their heads and put in red card worthy challenges the process.
Simply, I think the pressure and intensity that this Liverpool team are inflicting on others this season, is directly leading to these infractions. And that crowds returning to stadiums are injecting adrenaline and in some cases panic into players when they would otherwise be keeping a cool head.
Let’s start with the first and only non-violent incident (unless you consider denying Sadio Mané a goal violence, which I do), Reece James’ goal-line clearance. With his hand. This is the most “things that happen in football” of all the examples, but also one that was a direct result of the intense pressure Liverpool were heaping on Chelsea. Liverpool forced this mistake through pressure, leaving James to react instinctively.
Perhaps, in another situation, and against another opponent, James keeps his arms low or behind his back, and likely stays on the pitch. But against Liverpool? At Anfield? He momentarily lost the plot, committed a by-the-book denial of a goal scoring opportunity offense, thereby gifting the Reds a penalty and an extra man advantage.
The next red card came in the second half against Leeds United, and sadly, this was a truly nasty challenge, one which will see the promising Harvey Elliott out for a majority of the campaign.
Liverpool were leading Leeds at Elland Road 2-0. Despite a dominant performance from the visitors, Leeds were still in it and threating in patches. Elliott was having yet another impressive performance, and after yet again beating his marker and going on the attack, Pascal Struijk had had enough. He went in with a leg-breaking scissor tackle from behind. Despite the post-match “narrative,” it was absolutely the right call to send him off. Once again, the opposing player lost focus in the moment, and chose violence instead of football.
And finally, that brings us to Antoine Griezmann’s red card for booting Roberto Firmino in the face. This is perhaps the most interesting example, because Atletico really had Liverpool on the ropes, and should have been ahead at this point. And yet, there was Bobby, tracking back into the defensive third—as we have seen so much from all of our attackers—to try to win the ball back and spring a counter.
Did Griezmann panic? Did he really have no idea that Bobby was there? Did he mistime the challenge? Only he knows, but whatever the reason, the end result was the same.
Again, this is another incident that, on its own, is “one of those things that happens.” We saw the same, infamously, when Mané got sent off for exactly the same infraction against Manchester City a few years ago. [Insert joke about a boot to the face not really being a danger to Ederson’s looks here].
In the Man City example, Liverpool were the team playing from behind, and pushing hard to catch up. Although Atletico and Liverpool were tied 2-2 at the time, a draw would have been a better result for Liverpool, and still would have left Atletico with a lot of work to do in the group. Atletico were, in a sense behind Liverpool, despite the scoreline and having momentum on their side. In both cases, players who should have been (and generally are) in control, got shown a red card for an unmistakable red card offense.
These things can happen in such intense football matches. James Milner, again against Manchester City, probably should have seen red for a second yellow earlier this season. Thankfully, his “moment of panic” was not as obvious as a boot to the face.
With each of these red cards, the matches were in “big” matches.
- Liverpool-Chelsea is always a big Premier League clash. This season’s early match-up was especially spicy, as both teams appear to be genuine title challengers this season.
- Leeds United-Liverpool was a big rivalry in Premier League campaigns from a bygone era, and because of the pandemic, it was the first time Leeds United got to welcome Liverpool in league play in 17 years.
- Atletico knew that their best chance of qualifying from the group, and qualifying top, was to deliver a knockout blow against Liverpool at home.
- Manchester United-Liverpool? Speaks for itself.
In addition to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool just being a nightmare to play against, there is another factor here: crowds are back in the grounds. It’s especially interesting that 3 of the 4 reds came away from Anfield.
Fans the world over want their players to “get stuck in.” That generally means “leaving it all on the pitch” (among other sports clichés), but that can also easily boil over into a bad challenge, especially in matches that aren’t going your way.
In every example but the Chelsea match, things were not going the home side’s way.
Despite playing pretty well in patches, Leeds were being outclassed on both ends of the pitch.
Despite absolutely battering Liverpool for most of the first half, a combination of fluky, impossible to save goals for Liverpool plus a world-class performance from Alisson Becker, kept things on level terms.
And then 5-0 at Old Trafford happened.
In the last three examples, you saw players going well past the “trying to show the home crowd something,” into being dangerously aggressive.
Hopefully Liverpool will continue forcing opponents into situations where they panic and commit costly errors. It seems likely. And equally, hopefully there won’t be too many literal leg-breakers thrown in because opponents just can’t live with these Reds.