Adam Lallana’s late equaliser at Old Trafford the other day kept Liverpool’s long unbeaten Premier League run going, but for me it also highlighted one of those wonderfully subtle moments that tend to go unappreciated in our new stat-mad, VAR-warped reality.
It wasn’t so much the goal itself – all told, it was a simple tap in from three yards out. It wasn’t even the assist, an unremarkable low cross from Andrew Robertson that a more alert defensive unit would have seen off without fuss.
What caught the eye came before that, and it came from Naby Keita, the late substitute who had fed the ball out wide to Robertson prior to his cross. But again, it wasn’t that his pass was remarkable in itself. It’s what came before that truly opened up the way to that goal. It’s the way Keita moved bodies out of the way and bought Robertson the time and space to make the telling cross that truly caught the eye.
It’s important to understand the context of this game to fully appreciate what happened in this sequence. Liverpool’s creative threat from wide is no secret and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had quite successfully shut down Liverpool’s wings by pushing wing backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ashley Young high to counter Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold respectively. That is, until with eight minutes left, Jurgen Klopp played his last hand, tossing Keita into the mix to find a way through United’s defensive mire.
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When Keita receives the ball, his intention is quite clear: feed the ball wide to Robertson. He’s turned towards him and looks set to release his pass. What is also clear is that Wan-Bissaka knows exactly what Keita wants to do and starts sprinting out to close down the left back. He’s close enough to cover the space.
But, Keita reads Wan-Bissaka’s reaction and holds on to the ball, turning inside as though to feed the ball to one of the other options on the edge of the United box.
That leaves Wan-Bissaka with little choice but to reverse course and tuck inside to help out.
That is exactly what Keita wants, though. With Robertson now left unattended, Keita’s pass goes out wide and the left back has the time and space to control and cross for Lallana to score. Just notice how far Wan-Bissaka is from the Liverpool left back now.
It was simple yet brilliant. There’s no dribble, no take-on, no through-pass, nothing of obvious note. At face value, it’s just a simple 10 yard pass from midfield out to the flank – a simple sideways pass. Yet, it was simply brilliant. Keita, from a distance, moves defenders out of the way for Robertson and opens a chink in United’s hitherto impregnable armour.
Without it, the goal doesn’t happen. Yet, it’s one of those subtle things that get lost in the highlight reels and post-game reviews. I was surprised to hear Ryan Giggs criticise United for leaving Robertson free to cross with zero regard for the reason why he was that open. (Neil Mellor on LFCTV does it justice, though).
There’s certainly no place in the stats sheet for this – it’s Lallana’s goal and Robertson’s assist – and zero credit for the awareness, the recognition, the delay, the timing and the execution of the pass that opened up the space in the first place.
Yet, without all that, the goal does not happen. It’s important to remember that when some smart Alec on Twitter argues – with irrelevant assist stats in brilliant colour – that Keita has contributed nothing to Liverpool’s cause this season.
There’s more to the beautiful game than the stuff we can count.
(Images are courtesy of LFCTV.com)