I guess it confirms me as an irretrievable Malorkus, but after watching Liverpool simply outlast Villareal in yesterday’s second leg of the Champions League semifinal, all I wanted to do was go back in time and show the game to the writers of Game Of Thrones. And to give them a demonstration of what really happens when you throw everything you have immediately at a far bigger and far better equipped enemy.
As Villareal found out last night, it only works for so long, and then when you’re depleted and exhausted and your opponent has figured it out, you’re fucked. Game over. Everyone go home, show’s over, Jon Snow is dead along with everyone else. There isn’t some dumb Arya trick that you don’t bother to explain, or getting away with your main advantage being Bran sitting around doing nothing except telling everyone, “Only me and Pink Floyd see things the way they really are, man. Let’s listen to Meddle for a sixth time so I can show you…” between bong rips. If you throw your best and most aggressive and go balls to the wall at the onset, and they can’t overcome and last, you get collapsed.
Now that I’ve pushed the biggest pair of glasses up the biggest nose in the world like Sisyphus, let’s get into it. That’s not to blame Villareal, because they had no choice. They were down 2-0 from the first leg, and they couldn’t just sit and defend and counter to make up two goals. Liverpool would have just run out the clock. They had a furious home crowd behind them, and really nothing to lose. Villareal wasn’t supposed to be here anyway.
So from the opening whistle, Villareal pressed. They harried. They threw themselves into everything, including the ground in the case of Francis Coquelin, who was Shakespearen in his style of tossing himself to the turf at the slightest breeze. They came out in a 4-4-2 that Liverpool didn’t anticipate, pushing their wide midfielders without the ball onto the Liverpool fullbacks, and flooding Fabinho’s space when they did have the ball to get passes and turn to face the Liverpool defense. They chucked a barely fit Gerard Moreno, their talisman, onto the field and just told him to go for as long as he could on one leg.
And Liverpool were awful in the first half. Rattled by Villareal’s early goal (the first of two that came from attacking Liverpool’s fullbacks in the air), they couldn’t come to terms with the fury of Villareal. Trying to bypass the Spaniards’ press, they tried to be more direct. Except every long ball skipped off the drenched turf and away from Liverpool players. Or they couldn’t connect on the simplest of passes. It had echoes of what Man City has done to Liverpool twice in the league, where Fabinho gets disconnected from the other two midfielders, the fullbacks get caught too far upfield, everything feels out of sync. The ball is turned over far too easily, or passes sprayed out of bounds, or the desperate clearances start to pile up. Out of the madness Villareal found a tying goal, and suddenly, and for the first time in months, Liverpool looked vulnerable.
But it’s Liverpool, and it was Villareal, and despite their pluckiness and fortitude, are still the team in 10th in La Liga. They don’t have a bottomless tank. They have limited resources. The only teams that can play this way for a full match are Chelsea and City, which is why Liverpool only has one win against either of them in six tries so far this season (though no losses either). And even that was against a severely changed City side in the FA Cup. When you throw everything your smaller army has and only end up tied halfway through, you’re going to lose. And you’re going to lose badly.
Michael Cox of The Athletic has a fantastic breakdown of the tactical changes Liverpool made at halftime. The short version is that Liverpool started finding Fabinho from the sides instead of from their centerbacks, and they started moving him around so that the Villareal central midfielders couldn’t find him. In their scrambling, Liverpool found space behind them and in front of the defense to launch attacks.
But Villareal manager Unai Emery knew he couldn’t go hell-bent for leather across 90 minutes. And Moreno’s body eventually gave out. He pulled the press back, defended deeper, and then Liverpool made them defend even deeper than that. They seized control by simply standing there, taking the best shot, cracking their neck, and slowly moving forward. Those Yellow Submarine punches that were haymakers in the first half slowly drizzled out into mere waves of the hand slapping against Liverpool’s chest. Three goals in 12 second half minutes later, and Liverpool were off to Paris. While Villareal fans will have those 15 halftime minutes to reminisce on, the brief time where the impossible seemed real. This is what really happens when your first and best move is to charge the Dothraki into the night.