YNWA Blog: Liverpool 2-0 RB Leipzig, Istanbul and the Mystique of The Champion’s League

by Tanner Pruitt

I want to start off by saying that I’ve really wanted to do this for a long time, and for some reason I can’t quite explain I felt like today was a good day to start it. Let’s make no mistake about it, I’m a diehard Liverpool fan. I stick up for the team through good times and bad. Do I take a critical approach from time-to-time? Sure. But they’re my team. I bleed Liverpool. And if for no other reason, I feel compelled to document what happens for the remainder of the season and going forward. If you are a Liverpool fan, I welcome you and I hope you find some part of this that you can relate to. And if you’re a neutral fan or even a rival fan, maybe you’ll find some warm part of your heart to enjoy this too!

Anywho, let’s get on with the blog!

Liverpool beat RB Leipzig 2-0 in the second leg of the UEFA Champion’s League matchup and with that came a huge sigh of relief from Liverpool fans everywhere. The Reds are progressing to the Quarter-finals without the possibility of possibly facing Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus or Lionel Messi’s Barcelona. The fact that we got here is quite mind-blowing: only six senior Liverpool players have been out injured for less than 3 weeks so far this season. Injuries to Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip has ended their seasons very prematurely, Captain Jordan Henderson will likely also be out for the majority of the season, and multiple players on the team have tested positive for COVID-19 at one time or another. On top of this, Liverpool have now lost a historic six-consecutive home games in the Premier League. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Liverpool fan who didn’t think the sky was falling.

This game, however, saw some changes made:

Fab is back, baby!

Klopp admits "we all want Fabinho in the No. 6" after standout display vs.  Leipzig - Liverpool FC - This Is Anfield
Fabinho finally emerged from being a make-shift Centerback back to his preferred role at the base of the midfield

Oh, boy! I’m a huge fan of Fabinho. There’s a huge argument to be made that he has been just as crucial to Liverpool’s success over the past few years as Big Virg at centerback and Alisson in goalkeeper. This season he’s been made to stand-in at centerback more often than makes me comfortable. You see, Fabinho is a wonderful destroyer at the base of the midfield and his presence can dictate any match. Combine that with Jordan Henderson who is the engine, heart, and soul of this Liverpool team and things get deadly quick. However, when you take these two out of position and have them fill-in for defense you lose so much about what made Liverpool ruthless in the midfield and the midfield becomes significantly softer and much easier for the opposition dictate the game.

In this game, Fabinho was returned to the base of the midfield, joining Gini Wijnaldum and Thiago Alcantara and you’ll never guess what happened: Wijnaldum was unlocked to shuttle the play and be the workhorse we all know and love him to be and Thiago Alcantara, who is often maligned by Twitter trolls with far too much time on their hands, showed once again he’s one of the best midfield players in the world by distributing the ball beautifully and taking much of the playmaking burden off of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Fabinho brings so much back to the midfield and showed that he was sorely missed.

Nat Phillips: The Anti-Van Dijk

Nat Phillips was immense against Leipzig

I’ll be honest, if you had asked me at the beginning of the season if Nat Phillips, a 23-year-old who has been on the outskirts of the senior team for much of his Liverpool career, would play a crucial role in the team I would’ve laughed you out of the room. And yet, here we are! Allow me to paint you a picture. Virgil Van Dijk is like Myles Davis’ Kind of Blue: measured, deliberate, often replicated and rarely duplicated, critically acclaimed and virtually perfect in every way. Conversely, Nat Phillips is much like Davis’ later work, Bitches Brew: far more confrontational, aggressive and he just jumps out at you with the unexpected.

Phillips has stepped up in a way I would’ve not thought possible. This young man is absolutely fearless! And if it wasn’t for his ruthless displays at centerback we’d probably still be clutching on to Fabinho like he was a safety blanket. And who would’ve thought that his frenetic style of defense would pair so well with new-man Ozan Kabak? I personally couldn’t be happier for Phillips. Here’s to hoping that going forward he remains part of the team, they certainly need him!

Super Diogo

Liverpool 'Switch Off' Domestic Woes To Ease Into Champions League Last  Eight | Barron's
Jota (middle) breathed new life into the Liverpool attack

When Diogo Jota went down injured earlier this season with a knee issue, it was yet another unneeded heart-in-mouth moment for Red’s fans. Jota was quickly starting to outshine Thiago Alcantara as the star Summer-signing, providing plenty of goals and assists.

And just like that he wasn’t there anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Bobby Firmino. You won’t find many Liverpool fans who don’t. But as time went on it felt like Bobby was running on fumes, with his poor form contributing to poor form for Mo Salah and Sadio Mane as well. Manager Jurgen Klopp has opted to play Bobby in the false 9 role for the last couple of seasons. In layman’s terms, he’s a withdrawn striker who tends to operate more at the top of the midfield and contributes to linking play into attack. But it wasn’t always like that. In the 2017-2018 season, Bobby was playing much more aggressively, making runs to get in behind defenders and penetrating his way to goal-scoring opportunities for either himself or providing the assist for Salah or Mane. It’s this “Ferrari-stuck-in-high-gear” style of play that drove Liverpool to the Champion’s League Finals that year, they just didn’t have the defense or midfield to back that up just yet.

So what does this have to do with Diogo Jota. Well, it seems like his much more direct-attack oriented style of play much more reflects what Liverpool where doing in 2017-2018. Feeding Salah and Mane from deep is cool and all, but they are world class wing-players, and when you finally have players like Wijnaldum and Thiago freed up to feed Salah and Mane, what’s the point of having a withdrawn forward? Maybe that’s my tactical ignorance showing, but for me it seems like Liverpool were at their attacking best when Jota, Mane and Salah were all pressing forward and causing Leipzig to make mistakes in the classic genenpressing way.

So, About Istanbul

What was the Miracle of Istanbul? Liverpool's 2005 Champions League final  comeback explained | Goal.com
Liverpool won the 2005 Champion’s League in one of the most memorable Finals of all time.

Rewind to 2005. Liverpool have made the Champion’s League Finals against arguably the best team in Europe, AC Milan, to be played in Istanbul, Turkey. This was not a Liverpool team who was challenging for the Premier League title this year, they were littered with fitness and injury issues, and honestly, at times they were hard to watch. Sound familiar?

Despite them being down 3-0 at halftime to AC Milan, Liverpool rallied to score 3 goals in the early part of the second half, forcing extra time. And thanks to some heroics all over the pitch and in goal, Liverpool made it to penalties where they put AC Milan away, winning the Champion’s League for the fifth time.

There’s something so obviously special about what Liverpool did that night in Istanbul that it immediately became part of fan folklore. And now, we find ourselves in an eerily similar circumstance. Liverpool need to either make top-4 in the Premier League this year or win the Champion’s League in order to further assert themselves financially in a league filled with moneyed giants like Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. To ask Liverpool to make Top-4 in the Premier League is not unlike asking me to change a car radiator: there will be many funny looks, and while it’s not impossible, I don’t exactly know how it’ll be done.

But we’re already seeing similarities. If our best players can perform on the big-stage (and we’ve seen that they can) and the team continues to get big performances out of club cult-heroes like Fabinho, Phillips and Jota, then anything is possible.

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