The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
What a piggish little game this was. You might have assumed that Liverpool’s first league defeat at home since 2007 would have been an exhibition of high drama, or at least of reasonable intensity, but the Kop was languid, the crowd left early, and the Liverpool players were fierce only in their complaints. Convinced early on that something was going against them, and mistaking Martin Atkinson—not unreasonably—for the will of the universe, they were wild, fell, and terrible in pleading their own case. But they forgot that football doesn’t care about arguments, and looked disgruntled and a little shellshocked whenever they stopped screaming at the referee for a few moments and tried to, you know, play.
There were two heroes in this match. One of them was Brad Friedel, for obvious reasons: the desperate hand to Torres’s header in the dying minutes of the game; the way he made Liverpool, who took three times as many shots as Villa, look like a guy playing ping-pong against the raised other half of the table. The other was the referee, who kept making the right calls, and kept getting berated for them by men in near-hysterics. By the end, Liverpool were so utterly out of ideas—no one following the attackers into the box, no clear sense whether the fullbacks were supposed to come forward, players standing around waiting for Ryan Babel to do his thing (i.e., miss) from 30 yards—that they were reduced to hauling down Aston Villa players whenever they got forward, then barking at Atkinson for whistling the blatant fouls. Skrtel looked genuinely incredulous when he was booked for what he had to know as he was committing it was a textbook bookable offense. Maybe he still couldn’t turn his head far enough to see what he was doing.
The worst moment, for Liverpool—and this is saying something in a match in which Steven Gerrard conceded a second-half penalty to put the match out of reach—was the end of the first half. There was a weird collective roar at Anfield, and a weird individual fury around Rafa Benítez and the Liverpool players, as though everyone in the place believed they’d been cheated because Villa scored 1:40 into what was supposed to be 1:00 of stoppage time. And of course everyone understands that fans and managers will always twist events to suit their team’s perspective. But there are moments when you have to swallow your bias, and one of those moments is when you legitimately concede a corner at the end of stoppage time, then watch your goalkeeper waste 45 seconds throwing a tantrum because he believes, incorrectly, that it should have been a goal kick. When you’ve just seen that happen, you don’t stand up and look at your watch. You certainly don’t stare in thwarted hatred at the referee after he finally blows for half time, and you don’t (as a team) melt down to the point that he waits to go into the tunnel until the furor has died down. This wasn’t quite Ballack doing his tight-marking-butterfly-of-Satan routine against Øvrebø last season, but there was also even less cause for it.
Villa, who were somewhat upstaged in victory by the petulance of their hosts, were earnest and competent, if not blazing with refined skill. Their defending was outstanding in the second half. Liverpool’s attack may have been clueless, but Cuéllar also stole a couple of their clues. Petrov, with his strange, staggering dribble, was tremendous. But all the talk about Villa’s demise was premature anyway, and now everyone will be saying so. Welcome to the Premier League, where for the first 10 weeks of the season you’re either in irremediable crisis or in ecstasy based on the score of your last match.
What a nasty game it was, though. Jamie Carragher, running around with a bandage cinched around his forehead like he’d just been stretchered off at the Somme; Fernando Torres with his purpling eye like a delicate Rocky Balboa; Skrtel hitching along like something out of Gormenghast, only turning to the left. It’s too early to say what this means for the season, of course, except maybe that it means the season has already gone a bit mad. (Man Utd falling to Burnley, Tottenham owning the table, Liverpool having lost in their first three games as many matches as they lost in 38 last year.) But if it were possible to extrapolate, I’d say Xabi Alonso is the European Footballer of the Year. And how desperately—even more than Villa, come to think of it—could they have used Gareth Barry in this match?
by Brian Phillips · August 24, 2009