Liverpool 2-1 Leicester: The Reds fight back to end 2017 on a high

Time wasting within the first 10 minutes. Kasper Schmeichel taking 30 seconds for every goal kick. Harry Maguire not giving the ball back after Mo Salah’s equaliser. Wilfried N’Ddidi kicking the ball into the corner flag rather than back to Loris Karius as is conventional practice. Leicester fans ringing out the old “Feed the Scousers” chant, because poverty and hunger is absolutely hilarious and something to mock. Then the Steven Gerrard songs.

Liverpool were having none of it. Here, there was an absolute collective refusal among the players, the manager and, crucially, the Anfield crowd (with a certain £75 million Dutchman in attendance) to let Leicester walk away with anything from the game. These were Liverpool’s three points.

All across the pitch there was a willingness to fight, to scrap, to battle for 90 minutes against a side who are probably the best of the rest outside the top six in this league. Even when Joel Matip’s careless loose pass gifts Jamie Vardy the chance to open the scoring just three minutes in, there was always a sense that Liverpool could claw this one back. The players sensed it, the crowd sensed it. They drove each other on.

It was perhaps the clearest example this season of why Jürgen Klopp puts so much emphasis on the role of a positive atmosphere in shaping what happens on the pitch. The contrast with the 0-0 draw against West Brom, for instance, was stark. That day, the mood in the stands was toxic. Fans slating their own players, spreading anxiety and impatience throughout the stadium. Not this time.

Against Leicester, all the vitriol was directed at Leicester and the referee, as it should be. Rather than moaning at Loris Karius, the crowd were vociferous in their howling and hissing at Schmeichel’s blatant attempts to run the clock down and the referee’s endorsement of that in refusing to take any kind of action.

Conceding the early goal galvanized, rather than knocked Liverpool’s confidence. The players continually surged forward, carving out openings, putting doubt into the Leicester collective mindset. Sadio Mané has two goals ruled offside and Salah misses a couple of very presentable opportunities, but rather than feel sorry for themselves and accept another “one of those days”, Liverpool kept on going, kept showing an incessant belief and determination to turn the game round.

Eventually it came, seven minutes into the second-half, via a sublime backheel pass from Mané- a real moment of quality from a player you feel just needs a goal to regain his lost confidence of late. Salah, in the right place as ever, showed enormous composure and skill to dance his way past a multitude of blue shirts, biding his time until pulling the trigger and lashing the ball home past Schmeichel for the equaliser.

Such is the Egyptian’s self-assurance that missing chances never gets to him. He knows if he keeps putting himself in the right areas, he’ll stick one or two away. It’s a rare degree of mental strength which sets him apart from most players- aside from his phenomenal footballing ability. Salah came close to notching his second after looping a shot just over the bar from Philippe Coutinho’s dinked ball, which would have been a terrific goal had it nestled in the net.

Sure enough, he bagged the winner in remarkable fashion, spinning away from a helpless Maguire before cleverly slotting the finish at the near post for his 23rd of the season. It wasn’t even a half-chance, but the sheer physical strength for a player which such a low sense of gravity and close ball control makes it almost impossible for defenders to cope with, as Maguire found out in humiliating fashion. There are very few players in world football playing at this level at the moment.

Having fought their way into the lead, there was to be no late collapse this time as Liverpool demonstrated steel and grit in abundance to see the game out and protect those precious three points they’d fought so hard to earn. It was encapsulated by Emre Can hoofing the ball into the corner- just as Ndid had done in the first half- to run the clock down late on. A gorgeous piece of snide play to give the visitors a piece of their own antics.

Despite a late aerial bombardment from a series of Christian Fuchs long throws, hurled menacingly into the box, Liverpool were able to stand firm and clear the danger. Dejan Lovren was robust and aggressive when he needed to be, as was the outstanding Joe Gomez who displayed composure and maturity of a consummate, seasoned professional, in his work both on and off the ball. Even Karius, who has so often been the target of mass-criticism, stood up to be counted and exhibited some excellent distribution to get his side quickly on the front foot, while also commanding his penalty area with great assurance.

This Liverpool side have repeatedly shown their capacity to steamroll teams by four or more goals this season. This kind of victory, however, comes with a special sense of satisfaction at having won both the sporting and psychological battle to overcome the early setback. This Leicester side might not be the league-winning outfit of a couple of years ago, but they do still possess real quality in attacking areas and always make it into a proper contest.

Liverpool were up to the task, however, and demonstrated character, grit and determination in bucketloads to ensure their current surge of momentum continues into the new year, with a squad now well-equipped to navigate January much more successfully than last season.

This was the perfect way to sign off 2017- a year of ups and downs- but, undoubtedly, one of significant and sustainable progress for Liverpool.

 

Virgil van Dijk signs for Liverpool: comment

Finally, it’s official. News broke this evening that Liverpool and Southampton had been in advanced discussions over a deal for Virgil van Dijk, having repaired their relationship after the summer’s transfer fiasco. Significantly, the player still had his heart set on working with Jürgen Klopp despite strong interest from run away league leaders Manchester City. Within the hour, it was confirmed.

Van Dijk is a Liverpool player. £75 million- a world record fee for a defender. The Dutchman will join the club officially on 1st January, wearing the number four shirt. It’s the biggest statement signing of FSG’s tenure and crystal clear evidence that they are willing to back Klopp to the absolute hilt to get his prime targets, having now secured Van Dijk, Mo Salah and Naby Keita in a matter of months.

It’s about time Liverpool acted like a big club in the transfer market and regardless of whether the fee seems excessive, this was a deal which the club simply had to get done. For too long, the defence has been neglected with hardly a penny spent on investing in new players since Klopp’s arrival. At Anfield, the defensive record has been superb this season but familiar frailties on the road have already proven costly and with a Champions League last-sixteen tie on the horizon, Liverpool needed reinforcements in the centre back department.

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and pay the asking price to get the best players- and Van Dijk is just about the best possible centre back Liverpool could realistically buy at this moment in time. Klopp has been patient in refusing to pursue alternatives in the summer and keep faith in his current options and finally he has his man.

It’s important to remember that Van Dijk hasn’t been in top form for almost a year now, with a severe injury curtailing his game time and subsequent form in early 2017, while his performances for Southampton have been below par this season- perhaps a direct consequence of having his head firmly on Merseyside, following the frustration of not been allowed to make his move in the summer.

The Dutchman will not immediately solve all Liverpool’s defensive issues but he will go some way to improving them. A new goalkeeper, for instance, is still something which needs to be looked at in the very near future. But Van Dijk’s arrival means a constant weak spot in this Liverpool side has finally been addressed- a centre back with virtually all the attributes needed to thrive in this Liverpool team.

It’s an expensive, but wholly necessary piece of the Klopp jigsaw- much like Keita. Van Dijk is a player Klopp can now build his defensive unit around for years to come. Not only supremely gifted in terms of his defensive instincts, quality in possession, aerial dominance and composure- Van Dijk is also a strong character and vocal leader capable of effectively organising a back line- qualities this Liverpool side has so often been accused of lacking.

Playing centre back in this Liverpool side, where the emphasis is heavily on attacking and scoring goals, is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for any player in this league. They’re often left more exposed than centre backs for almost every other side in the league, without a solid midfield shield. To be able to play in such a system requires exceptional individual quality which the likes of Dejan Lovren in particular have been unable to consistently provide in recent seasons when tested by quality attackers.

Liverpool’s defensive structure under Klopp has gradually improved, such that they generally don’t give the opposition many opportunities in dangerous areas. However, a tendency for individual errors to gift opponents goals has proven costly on multiple occasions, which, regardless of tactics, can only truly be solved by buying better players.

It’s unrealistic for Van Dijk to immediately slot in and perform at his highest level. Klopp may choose to bed him in slowly at first until he adapts to the style of play and his new team mates. It’s also not clear who will be the main partner for Van Dijk once he fully settles in, given the impressive recent form of Ragnar Klavan alongside Lovren in Joel Matip’s injury absence. Matip would perhaps be the most obvious choice- another comfortable ball-playing defender- but crucially, Klopp now has a wealth of options in that department from which to choose.

In the short term, Van Dijk’s arrival could well be a game changer in terms of how far Liverpool can progress in the Champions League this season and how high up the league table they can finish. In the longer term, the club have acquired a centre back who has the potential- under Klopp’s management- to become one of the very finest in his position in Europe.

That he chose to stand by his desire to join Liverpool rather than taking an easy Premier League title by choosing Man City speaks volumes of his attitude and desire to be part of what Klopp is building here. Van Dijk should be afforded patience regardless of the transfer fee and it might take him a while to get fully up and running- some initial bedding in time should be accounted for.

It’s not only the most expensive transfer Liverpool have ever made, but a genuine statement of intent from both the owners and the manager that they are willing to do absolutely everything to give the club the best possible chance of competing for silverware, both domestically and on the continent, for years to come.

Arsenal 3-3 Liverpool: Match analysis

How many times can Liverpool get themselves into a commanding lead and contrive to throw it away? How many times can Liverpool come away with a draw away from home against a good side and feel as though they’ve been beaten? How many times can Liverpool be the better team for 95% of the game and somehow manage not to win?

And here we are again. If it were a one-off occurrence, you could perhaps write this one off as one of those freak games which simply happens from time to time. It’s the nature of football. Yet the reality is that Liverpool have dropped points from comfortable winning positions numerous times this season against inferior opposition, such that it must now be considered a habit- and a very damaging one at that. Entertaining for the neutral, undoubtedly, but that’s not the aim of this enterprise for Liverpool if it doesn’t return the points they need.

Watford, Burnley, Newcastle, Man United, Chelsea, Everton, West Brom and now Arsenal. 16 points dropped to draws, the vast majority of which ought to have been comfortable wins. It’s difficult not to feel as though Liverpool should be sitting on a much healthier points total than they currently have- even if the current tally of 35 is just one off the pace at this stage in 2013-14.

When Mo Salah finally makes it 2-0 early in the second-half, the game should be dead and buried. In truth, the game should be put beyond Arsenal before half-time, such were the opportunities Liverpool spurned. And yet, they still managed to score three goals at a ground where very few teams have found much joy all season. Three goals should be more than enough to secure the victory, but such is the inability of this Liverpool side to effectively close out games that two goals never feels enough- even three, as seen against Sevilla, still feels like a precarious situation.

This is a strange, confusing, brilliant-but-flawed Liverpool side whose capacity for the absurd never ceases to amaze. They have gone to the Emirates and absolutely played Arsenal off the park up until 53 minutes, only for heads to fall off in the most calamitous of five-minute spells imaginable. From 2-0 up on 52 minutes, to 3-2 down on 58. Until then, Arsenal had hardly touched the ball inside Liverpool’s penalty area and yet managed to haul themselves in front as Liverpool rolled over and capitulated.

The manner in which one goal quickly became two, then three, was reflective of the collective mental fragility of this Liverpool side. They defended impeccably for the entirety of the first-half, giving absolutely nothing away. Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan turned in excellent performances and still came away as part of a defence having conceded three goals. The lack of leadership is often levelled as a major criticism of this team and it was laid bare on this occasion as Arsenal duly profited.

The first goal is a momentary lapse in concentration by Joe Gomez- otherwise excellent- but no one is giving him a shout to let him know Alexis Sanchez is steaming in behind him to get on the end of the cross. He should be more aware, but this Liverpool defence doesn’t half fail to communicate properly in key moments.

The second is simply an appalling piece of goalkeeping by Simon Mignolet which any competent goalkeeper should be comfortably catching, or punching away at the very least. Instead, Mignolet contrives to punch the ball into the net- more a hologram than an actual goalkeeper- and Granit Xhaka’s speculative effort further swings the momentum in Arsenal’s favour.

Again, the third goal can be attributed to poor goalkeeping even if it is an excellent move engineered by Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette. Mignolet goes to ground so early and rather than making himself big and narrowing the angle down, does the precise opposite to allow Ozil an easy chip into an empty net.

None of this should come as a surprise. Goalkeeper is a position where you do not mess about if you’re a team with serious ambitions to win trophies and compete at the top end of the table and yet Mignolet still holds the number one spot in his fifth season at the club. It’s gone too far. It’s an obvious weakness which has been repeatedly neglected and continually proves costly with individual errors undermining superb attacking displays.

Of course, it’s overly simplistic to attach all the blame to the goalkeeper but this is a consistent pattern over nearly half a decade now and it needs fixing. Mignolet is 29 now and what we see now is probably the best he will ever be- which isn’t good enough for Liverpool. Jürgen Klopp surely has to recognize this and at least give Loris Karius the chance to prove himself for the remainder of the season. Karius might not be the long-term solution, but he has largely played well when given the chance this season and it’s worth seeing what his true level is before reassessing in the summer. He cannot be worse than Mignolet, regardless.

In and among all this is another demonstration of the devastating potency of this Liverpool attack. They were far, far from their best level against Arsenal and still scored three. They should have scored at least five or six. In Salah, Liverpool have the Premier League’s top scorer- now on 21 in all competitions- right up among Europe’s most prolific forwards in the major leagues. Roberto Firmino has yet another outstanding performance, notching his 14th of the season and picking up another assist with an exceptional piece of play to set Salah through on goal.

Philippe Coutinho continues his phenomenal goalscoring form with a wonderfully deft header, while Sadio Mané- last season’s main man- is still well off the boil. He’s simply too good a player not to come good and this is the first real dip in form he’s suffered at Liverpool. It’s been a stop-start season for him, but it speaks volumes of Liverpool’s forward line that they’re firing on all cylinders even while Mané isn’t performing anywhere near his capability.

As much as the attack may well be brilliant (if wasteful at times), the midfield is once again an area of concern and the failure to control the game when in the lead against Arsenal contributed significantly to the team’s ultimate downfall. Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner all have their relative strengths and weaknesses but there is no current partnership which is truly capable of controlling games against the best sides. The ease with which Arsenal were able to stroll through empty spaces in parts of the second half completely unchallenged was unfathomable.

The same could be said for the hosts themselves, with Jack Wilshere (although impressive in possession) and Xhaka offering very little protection to their own defence, but the need for Liverpool to strengthen in central midfield was ruthlessly exposed once more. The arrival of Naby Keita cannot come soon enough and it’s not difficult to see how much the RB Leipzig man will bring to Liverpool’s midfield, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that a top-quality, defensive-minded midfielder is a necessity for this team to strike the right balance and ensure greater solidity and pragmatism to effectively see these kinds of games out from winning positions.

The issues are obvious and there for all to see, but ultimately it is for the manager to identify them and address them- and how he now deals with the goalkeeper situation going forward may well be a defining factor in his time at the club. Again, Klopp waited too long to make changes when Liverpool clearly had lost their grip and both the Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain substitutions ought to have come much earlier when Arsenal had begun to seize the initiative.

It was a game which showcased the very best and worst of Liverpool under Klopp- a further demonstration of just how good they can be, but another painful reminder of their tendency to self-sabotage. Liverpool have outplayed Arsenal twice this season and find themselves just one point ahead at the half-way mark. That gap should be much larger and for that they only have themselves to blame.

Amid the immense frustration in the immediate aftermath, it feels like a huge missed opportunity- and it is. A point is never a good point when it comes from being 2-0 up. However, the target for the four fixtures over the Christmas period should be 10 points from 12 and therefore how Liverpool respond to this will define this block of games. Back it up with three wins against Swansea, Leicester and Burnley- by no means easy, but eminently achievable- and the table will paint a very encouraging picture heading into the new year.

But, it could- and should- be already so much better.

 

 

Bournemouth 0-4 Liverpool: Match analysis

Following a couple of immensely frustrating draws, this was the perfect tonic which suggested that despite dropping points against Everton and West Brom at Anfield, Liverpool’s momentum has not been halted by these recent setbacks. This was just about as emphatic a victory and all-round performance as you’ll see away from home in this league, as Liverpool became the first side to win four consecutive away games by a three-goal margin in Premier League history.

From the very first whistle, the difference in intensity compared to the recent home draws was stark, with Liverpool looking like a side with a point to prove, eager to return to winning ways. There was a steely determination to get the job done and even when Philippe Coutinho’s early free-kick inexplicably stayed out having hit the inside of the post, the opening goal felt more like a matter of time, rather than a question of whether it would come.

Indeed, it arrived courtesy of Coutinho in sensational fashion, picking up Andy Robertson’s pass mid-way inside Bournemouth’s half before dribbling past a helpless chasing pack, weaving his way into the box before slotting the ball coolly past Asmir Begovic. Robertson’s overlapping run was pivotal in opening up the space for Coutinho to drive into, but this was all about the Brazilian’s individual genius- the kind of goal only a tiny handful of players in the league are capable of scoring. He has a sumptuous collection of long-range strikes to his name, but this was right up there with his very finest in a Liverpool shirt.

Having made the breakthrough, Liverpool kept their foot on the pedal as Bournemouth found themselves suffocated by the intensity of the press and unable to work their way up the pitch. The lead was doubled just six minutes later, with Roberto Firmino displaying a touch of class to hook the ball back into the six-yard box from a corner, as Dejan Lovren showed bravery to stick his head in a melée of boots to nod the ball into the net for his first goal of the season.

At 2-0, Liverpool found themselves in a position of authority but not a scoreline which put the game beyond all doubt, as Jermain Defoe provided a reminder that Liverpool cannot afford to switch off in situations such as these. The striker found himself one-on-one with Simon Mignolet after Gini Wijnaldum carelessly surrendered possession in midfield, only to hit the post with his effort which ricocheted away to safety- a major let-off at a crucial point in the game.

Scoring just before half-time is always crucial for momentum in games, especially when it comes after the opposition had squandered a golden chance of their own. Liverpool managed to do exactly that, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fed Mohamed Salah down the right, the Egyptian bursting past Charlie Daniels before cutting back on to his lethal left foot to curl the ball home through a body of players. It took Salah’s tally to 20 goals for the season, making him the joint second fastest Liverpool player to reach that landmark, alongside Daniel Sturridge- in just 26 games.

Although Salah’s left-foot is a well-known weapon by now, defenders are simply unable to cope with his sheer speed and technique even when they know exactly what’s coming next. It’s the kind of signature move Arjen Robben has built a career on, as Salah confirms his status as the most prolific wideman in Europe.

There was to be no repeat of last season’s capitulation against Eddie Howe’s side, even despite the half-time introduction of Ryan Fraser who had turned the contest on its head around this time last year. Liverpool controlled the second-half well, as Jordan Henderson put in arguably his best performance of the season in midfield after much recent criticism, aided by playing alongside a partner in Wijnaldum.

To put the three points beyond all doubt, Firmino nodded in Coutinho’s cross for the fourth, capping of just the latest outstanding display from Liverpool’s no.9 who has now surpassed his best ever goal tally for the club in mid-December.

In truth, it ought to have been more as Oxlade-Chamberlain was unfortunate to see his shot cannon back off the post after a superb tackle and driving run forward which would have put an extra gloss on his man of the match performance. His pace, energy, technique and work-rate were evident throughout- the clearest evidence yet as to how he fits Klopp’s system so well.

It leaves the manager with a welcome dilemma for his team selection against Arsenal and with Oxlade-Chamberlain having made such a positive impression, Sadio Mané may well have to sit tight and bide his time to earn his place back as the games come quick and fast. To have such a wealth of attacking options, with Adam Lallana having made his return too, is a very healthy situation to be in at this busy stage in the season.

He continued his excellent display in the post-match interview, stepping in for Coutinho having been pressed about his future, as Oxlade-Chamberlain emphasised his team mate’s quality and professionalism, labelling the reporter’s question as unfair. It was his finest day as a Liverpool player so far, with many more yet to come.

Jürgen Klopp could take great satisfaction not only in the emphatic attacking display, but also in his side’s 5th clean sheet in the past 9 league games as the back four remained organised and focused throughout, with Joe Gomez and Robertson among the team’s standout performers at fullback.

Given the context of Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United having all won this weekend, while Spurs dropped points in their defeat to Man City, it was an especially crucial three points for Liverpool ahead of Friday’s visit to the Emirates. Klopp’s side now have the opportunity to cement themselves in the top four and start to put some light between themselves, Arsenal and Spurs.

 

 

 

 

 

Anfield moaners and the home burden

Wednesday night was grim in every sense. The weather, the quality of football on show, the result. All of it was not conducive to any kind of great atmosphere, which is to be expected for a mid-week game against West Brom. Yet, the sheer amount of negativity, moaning and derision virtually from kick-off was unfathomable given Liverpool’s excellent recent form- despite the recent frustration of the Merseyside Derby.

As a disclaimer, Liverpool obviously should be capable of beating a dire West Brom side at home regardless of the atmosphere and although unfortunate once again with a key refereeing decision to deny Dominic Solanke the winner, they didn’t do nearly enough throughout the game to make it difficult for the visitors.

That said, this home crowd really don’t help the team at all. In fact, they do very much the opposite on occasions like this. Rather than making Anfield a hostile cauldron for away sides, it seems to have more of a negative effect on Liverpool, acting as a burden rather than the advantage it ought to be.

From very early on, Loris Karius was getting pelters from all across the stadium, people howling at him to release the ball quicker even when the option wasn’t there to do so. Throughout the game, the crowd were constantly on his back, howling and shouting whenever he had possession. For what purpose?

Karius actually had a decent game- one of very few Liverpool players to emerge with any credit, making a couple of important stops and distributing the ball swiftly and accurately, despite the ridiculous slaughtering from the crowd for no apparent reason. Of course, people have their doubts over his ability and it is perfectly legitimate to feel that Simon Mignolet is a better goalkeeper, but ultimately the crowd ought to be supporting whichever eleven players the manager puts out to get a result, regardless of personal agendas.

You often hear that social media- namely Twitter- accentuates the very worst in fan bases with reactionary opinions and criticism, but it felt like that kind of hyper-critical mentality filtered into the stadium on this occasion. It’s not the first time, either.

The degree of impatience even within the first twenty minutes was something else, with plenty of people screaming at players to shoot from impossible positions. West Brom aren’t a very good side, but they were well organised and dogged in their approach, which proved difficult to break down- as these teams often are. An ounce of patience and positivity from the crowd would be no bad thing, rather than hounding their own players when it’s 0-0 at the half-hour mark.

It’s understandable that people get frustrated when Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum are as pedestrian and lacklustre in midfield as they were, but it surely cannot help the players at all when their own supporters howl and moan at them incessantly throughout the game. People get annoyed at Philippe Coutinho for forcing the issue and playing ambitious passes which didn’t come off, but to expect players to relax and keep knocking the ball around the box patiently waiting for an opening is somewhat incongruous with the impatience coming from the stands telling them to blast one at goal from distance.

Of course, it’s a two-way thing in that sometimes, the players have to give the crowd something to get excited about first- but the level of background negativity and criticism from the home crowd last night was frankly ridiculous. Other big teams have similar problems at times, trying to break down compact opposition, but rarely do you hear home supporters lambast their own players from so early on in the game.

It’s perhaps part of the reason why Liverpool haven’t scored a single winning goal in the final 20 minutes of any game this season. Rather than that sense of inevitability and belief that the goal will eventually come, it’s more a feeling of dread and frustration which translates on to the pitch. Having been at the Emirates and White Hart Lane before, those grounds don’t seem to have that same ambience in those situations- while both Arsenal and Spurs have been masters of scoring important late goals in recent seasons.

That anger and frustration would be better directed at West Brom players for their persistent time-wasting and at the referee for not punishing them for taking a good half-minute for every goal-kick or throw in. Make it a cauldron of intimidation so that the referee feels he has no option but to award the Solanke goal. Imagine that exact goal had been Marcus Rashford at Old Trafford, it’s not easy to imagine how it most probably would have stood. Atmosphere does make a difference in these kinds of moments.

Ultimately, the crowd wasn’t the reason Liverpool failed to beat West Brom. A lack of urgency, creativity and composure were to blame for that. But when we have a manager like Jürgen Klopp who continually emphasises the importance of having the crowd on side, what happened on Wednesday night goes against that very philosophy and makes it more difficult for the players to deliver. Anfield should not be a burden, but at the moment it feels like exactly that.

 

 

Liverpool 1-1 Everton: Derby daylight robbery

Liverpool have not faced a side with as little attacking ambition as Everton showed up with at Anfield today for a long, long time. They are unlikely to face another team quite as toothless again all season- and yet Liverpool once again managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory despite their vast superiority and sheer dominance throughout the 90 minutes.

This was an Everton side who’s game plan appeared to be putting ten men behind the ball and whenever they had possession, hoofing it as far forward in to touch as possible. They had absolutely no interest in trying to construct any kind of attacking move.

It’s a game defined by two key moments, both of which fall in Everton’s favour. Sadio Mané decides to shoot, dragging his shot horribly wide, rather than passing to any one of three teammates with an open goal. It would’ve have been 2-0 and game over before half-time, a wasted opportunity which ultimately proved hugely costly.

The penalty which gifts Everton the equaliser is virtually their only chance of the entire game, having hardly touched the ball inside Liverpool’s penalty area at all. It came not from a sustained period of pressure or intricate build-up play, but a simple lump forward. Much has been said about the referee’s decision, but the replays show quite clearly how Dominic Calvert-Lewin threw his body into Dejan Lovren before going to ground.

Of course, one might argue that Lovren shouldn’t even be giving the referee a decision to make, as Calvert-Lewin is going away from goal and poses no threat whatsoever, but the Croatian does not initiate the contact and is very unfortunate to be penalised for the kind of challenge which happens multiple times every game and goes unpunished (the exact same thing happened for Man City against Man United but they weren’t awarded a penalty).

Such is the Croatian’s reputation that he is an easy target for blame, but this was the second incredibly soft penalty awarded against Liverpool in consecutive league games. Other than that, Everton offered absolutely nothing and Liverpool were entirely in control of the game, defending very competently when they needed to (which wasn’t much, in truth).

Nonetheless, it was the fifth time this season where Liverpool have drawn after having been winning in the 70th minute, while they have not scored a winning goal in the final 20 minutes of any game- a worrying habit. Dropping points to a side with three shots on goal and 21% possession is a bitter pill to swallow, especially given the opportunity to kill the game in the first-half.

Much of the talk has focused on Jürgen Klopp’s decision to rotate heavily once again, leaving the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum all on the bench. While there is certainly a case to argue that Liverpool’s strongest XI might have obliterated this Everton side, the manager clearly felt he put out a side capable of getting three points and in truth, he was very nearly vindicated. Had he started Firmino and Coutinho, who both played in mid-week (while the latter hasn’t trained since) and either one picked up a knock, it’s easy to imagine what the reaction might have been.

His rotation policy is with the bigger picture in mind, to keep legs fresh and avoid burnout during the January-February period which saw Liverpool run out of steam last season. Had Mané done the right thing- or the referee made the correct decision for the penalty incident- the team selection would have been justified, yet neither of those game-deciding instances were down to the manager.

This was far from a vintage performance, but one where Liverpool did more than enough to get the three points and despite the enormous frustration about the final result, Liverpool have still gained points on both Man United and Chelsea this weekend- even if they weren’t able to fully capitalise.

Mo Salah’s opener was a moment of sheer individual brilliance more than worthy of winning any match, taking him to 19 goals for the season and thus matching his tally from the whole of last season at Roma already. Bustling past two opponents before curling a delicious strike into the top corner, it was the kind of goal Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez would have been proud of. His star continues to rise.

Elsewhere, Joe Gomez was imperious both in defence and in possession of the ball, playing like a Derby veteran- despite it only being his first appearance in the fixture. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a promising performance in midfield, bringing drive and aggression in central areas while also displaying an impressive range of passing.

Klopp’s decision to substitute Salah mid-way through the second-half was a strange one, as Dominic Solanke would have seemed the obvious choice to switch for Firmino or Coutinho, while one of Can or Wijnaldum would have made sense to bring more guile and impetus in midfield, as the workman-like James Milner-Jordan Henderson partnership lacks balance and variety. For all Klopp’s many strengths, his subs are still perhaps his biggest Achilles heel.

Nonetheless, an infuriating result still maintains Liverpool’s current unbeaten streak and leaves them just five points off second place, and still clear of both Arsenal and Spurs in fourth. It could and should have been more, but the manner in which Liverpool respond to this minor setback is now what matters most- which means beating West Brom in midweek.

Liverpool are still in excellent form and were ultimately punished by a dodgy refereeing decision (and perhaps a lack of nous on Lovren’s part, although he was unlucky) and one moment of bad decision-making in the first-half by Mané. It’s very easy to blame the manager in hindsight, but there was not a whole lot wrong with the overall performance. Draws don’t come more “smash and grab” than this by the visitors. This time, the fine margins fell their way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liverpool announce their return to Europe’s high table

There we have it, finally. It’s taken far, far longer than it ever should have done, but Liverpool are into the last sixteen of the Champions League for the first time in nine years. It is the landmark achievement of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure so far, the clearest evidence yet of the vast progress which has been made since taking the job in October 2015.

Back then, Liverpool were a side lacking an identity and purpose; a fan base divided and without much hope for the future. Just over two years on, Liverpool have announced themselves emphatically back among Europe’s elite with a swagger. They’re a fearsome proposition which no side will want to come up against in the next round.

In truth, Liverpool made hard work of a group in which they were by far the best side and having been just seconds away from securing qualification against Sevilla, a last-minute equaliser put all the pressure on the final game against a Spartak Moscow side who came to Anfield also in desperate need of a win to have any chance of progressing.

There was simply no margin for error on the night, but Liverpool played without any signs of nerves despite the pressure, delivering one of the most remarkable European performances Anfield has witnessed for many a year. Granted, Spartak were hardly robust opposition- although the Russian champions thrashed Sevilla 5-1 and came into the game on a four-match domestic winning streak.

They were far from minnows, but such was Liverpool’s sheer brilliance that Spartak looked exactly that- amateurs against professionals. From the moment Philippe Coutinho dispatched his penalty inside five minutes, the contest was effectively over as Liverpool overwhelmed and mesmerized their opponents with a scintillating attacking display of the very highest calibre.

It should not come as a total surprise, however, as Liverpool were creating an abundance of chances earlier in the season without converting them into goals. Now it’s clicked and confidence is in abundance, that creative spark is being matched by clinical finishing- although Liverpool could quite easily have scored double figures given the opportunities carved out on this occasion.

The second goal involved all four of the imperious attacking quartet, with Sadio Mané sliding the ball into Mo Salah, who released Roberto Firmino, the Brazilian squaring for Coutinho to slide the ball into the bottom corner, first time, on his weaker foot. It’s an attacking unit with the potential to devastate virtually any defence on their day- one which very few sides in Europe can come close to matching. For all the talk of the need for a 20-goal striker, it’s not unfeasible that Liverpool could have four players reach that tally this season if they continue at the current rate.

While Liverpool’s last great attack consisted of the Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge striking duo in 2013-14, supported by a younger Coutinho and an emerging Raheem Sterling, this quartet plays with an almost telepathic understanding which makes them even greater than the considerable sum of their individually outstanding parts. The pace, technique, movement and selflessness makes it almost impossible to defend against- different threats from different angles, ruthless both on and off the ball.

The game quickly became a procession, with Firmino rifling in a third to match his goal tally from the whole of last season following an excellent driving run by Mané having latched on to a controlled pass in midfield. It was another example of a complete number nine’s performance by Firmino who is slowly but surely earning the recognition his all-round contribution deserves. Mané himself scored the goal of the game shortly after half-time with a stunning volley, executed to perfection from James Milner’s teasing cross, dispatched like a bullet into the roof of the net.

Having been Liverpool’s main man last season, Mané finds himself with three others of a similar level all regularly contributing goals and assists such that there is no longer the same degree of reliance on his presence. The burden on his shoulders has been greatly lessened and he is benefiting hugely from not having to play every minute of every game, with Klopp possessing the attacking options to rotate and keep his best players fresh for the big occasion.

Coutinho sealed his hat-trick soon after- his first in Liverpool colours, taking his tally to 51 goals for the club on a night when he confirmed his world-class status with yet another quite phenomenal display, underlining exactly why Liverpool must hold firm once again should Barcelona come calling in January. While a departure at some stage seems inevitable, the Brazilian is simply too good to be letting go half way through the season- no amount of money could account for such a great loss.

We’ve witnessed his development from a precocious but inconsistent talent who offered flashes of genius, to a player who is now scoring, assisting and dominating games on a regular basis. Aside from the lack of a trophy during his time here, he has a credible claim to being considered a Liverpool great.

Mané then helped himself to a brace, managing to scrape the ball home from a Daniel Sturridge pass, before Salah capped off the victory by adding his 18th goal of the season to ensure that all four of Liverpool’s attacking unit were on the scoresheet, continuing his own remarkable goalscoring run- his 12th in the past 11 games.

Klopp seems to have stumbled upon a 4-2-2-2 shape which gets the very best out of his supreme attacking options, while also providing better defensive balance and control in midfield, more so than the 4-3-3 of last season. With Salah stationed closer to Firmino up front, with a license to drift wide, the front two are constantly interchanging and dragging defenders all over the place, while the guile and creativity of Mané and Coutinho in behind provides another dual threat, continually linking up and slicing their way through Spartak’s helpless back line with unfathomable ease.

The solid base provided by Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum helped Liverpool control the tempo and provide an effective shield for the back four, leaving the defence far less exposed than was the case in the earlier parts of this season. Ragnar Klavan continued his recent run of impressive form, while Dejan Lovren also deserves credit for his response since the Spurs debacle. Joe Gomez, meanwhile, again performed like a seasoned professional with maturity and confidence well beyond his years.

Liverpool have now scored three or more goals in eight of the last nine games since losing to Spurs and are also showing significant signs of defensive improvement. Upgrades must still be saught in January, as the addition of a top-class centre-half could be the difference which ensures Liverpool go far in this competition having set an all-time record for goals scored in a group stage for English teams (23).

Rarely will you ever see such a dominant and explosive performance in the Champions League and regardless of who Liverpool draw in the last sixteen, this was the clearest showing yet of a side which has hit their stride- but one which still has much, much more still to give.

 

 

 

Brighton 1-5 Liverpool: Match analysis

For a manager often accused of being somewhat “one-dimensional” and tactically stubborn, Jürgen Klopp threw an absolute curveball at Brighton with his starting lineup, which featured two midfielders- Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can- as part of a three-man defence, with Dejan Lovren in the middle. On the one hand, it exposed just how thin on the ground Liverpool are in terms of defensive options, but also how innovative Klopp can be, demonstrating enormous faith in his players to operate in such an unorthodox system- especially away from home.

While Klopp’s default 4-3-3 system was magnificent when everything clicked last season, it was far less effective when any one of the key components were missing. Liverpool became predictable and struggled to break low-block opposition down- but he has clearly adapted and that is now the fifth consecutive win against “lesser opposition” by at least a three-goal margin in recent weeks, with Huddersfield, West Ham, Southampton, Stoke and Brighton all put to the sword.

This Brighton side have been anything but cannon fodder since their promotion, however, with Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City the only side to have won at the Amex all season. As recently as mid-week, Manchester United scraped a 1-0 win at Old Trafford courtesy of a freak deflected cross. This had all the potential to be a really tricky encounter.

Yet Liverpool made a complete mockery of those slating the lineup before a ball had been kicked in what was, under the circumstances, one of the finest performances of the season so far. With far greater strength in depth than Klopp has had at any point in his tenure until now, Liverpool were able to make six changes- including a rarest of starts for Andy Robertson, while not experiencing any kind of drop-off in quality.

Five goals were plundered without the league’s top scorer, Mo Salah, even getting on the scoresheet, while Sadio Mané was afforded an afternoon off as he rested his legs on the sidelines. In almost every respect- other than the absurdity of the referee’s decision to award Brighton a penalty for nothing at all- this was near enough the ideal afternoon for Klopp and his team.

The unusual shape clearly dumbfounded the hosts- as happened with Klopp’s surprise 4-2-2-2 used against West Ham several weeks ago. It allowed the wing backs to bomb forward, while the front line had the freedom to cause havoc with Jordan Henderson and James Milner controlling proceedings in the middle. While the need to buy at least another centre-back remains crystal clear, on this occasion the ball-playing abilities of Can and Wijnaldum enabled Liverpool to build attacks from the back, while there was little in the way of ‘typical’ defending to do as Liverpool dominated possession high up the pitch for large periods.

Importantly, there appears to be no sense of panic or rush if the score is still 0-0 after half an hour or even 45 minutes. Liverpool are rarely starting games lightning fast this season, but ease their way in and gradually move through the gears in a calm and professional manner.

Continuing the new-found habit of goal-scoring prowess from corners, Can head-butted Liverpool in front with a typical centre-half’s bullet on the half-hour mark from Coutinho’s out-swinging delivery. The kind of goal Sami Hyypia, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel delivered with some regularity, but that Lovren and Joel Matip are seldom able to produce despite frequent opportunities to do so.

The cheapest of ways to gain a lead, Liverpool doubled it in just over a minute with a passage of play which neatly encapsulated everything Klopp’s style of football is about. A crisp pass from Lovren to Roberto Firmino, who nips in front of his marker to flick the ball on to Salah, whose first touch and burst of pace takes out the entire Brighton midfield. Salah judges the pass out wide to Philippe Coutinho perfectly and the Brazilian’s low, left-footed cross is laser-guided to Firmino who arrives at the back post to dispatch it with aplomb for his 10th of the season. A lethal, sumptuous counter-attack which highlighted the sheer gulf in class between the two sides.

The third goal, coming straight from a superb Simon Mignolet save from point-blank range, was yet another demonstration of the devastating potency of this Liverpool attack- even without Mané on the pitch. Coutinho this time flicking the ball into Salah’s path, the Egyptian struck terror into the heart of Brighton’s back line, surging forward with menace before sliding a delightful ball into Firmino who again finished with the assurance of a bonafide number nine into the top corner, first time.

Despite the referee’s best efforts to create a proper contest, awarding the daftest penalties you are ever likely to see, Liverpool were this time able to ride a brief wave of Brighton pressure and continue to assert their superiority, despite the hosts having been given a glimmer of hope.

Coutinho added the fourth in audacious style, rolling a 25-yard free kick under the wall past a helpless Matt Ryan for his 6th goal of the season- the kind of strike very few players in the world would even consider, let alone execute. It was a special performance from the Brazilian who had Brighton chasing shadows for 90 minutes, playing with all the guile and quality of a genuine world-class midfielder. His dribbling, touch and vision were on another level to anyone else on the pitch- other than his compatriot, Firmino, who continues to go under the radar despite enjoying a quietly terrific season so far.

An own-goal was awarded for the fifth, although it was all down to Coutinho’s brilliance once again, this time with a driving run from deep and a clipped cross, deflected into the back of the net to cap off a virtuoso display- just the latest reminder of why Liverpool were absolutely right to dig their heels in to keep hold of Coutinho in the summer (and why they must do so once again in January).

The goals are now flowing freely for Liverpool, regardless of the personnel and tactical shape. Yet what is perhaps just as pleasing is the fact that Liverpool aren’t conceding many goals- that’s just the third Liverpool have conceded in the past six league games, and it should never have been given as a penalty anyway. It’s all the more impressive given the absence of Matip and Joe Gomez, too. Wijnaldum looked uncomfortable at times, but coped admirably with a completely unfamiliar role- remember this is a player who was signed from Newcastle having played predominantly as a number ten. To step in at left-sided centre-back like this deserves great credit and shows the extent to which Klopp trusts his ability.

Elsewhere, Robertson looked slightly rusty at times- which was to be expected given his lack of game time- but grew into the game and did his reputation no harm at all with an unspectacular but solid performance at left wing-back. On the other side, Trent Alexander-Arnold had a few hairy moments at the back, but made a sublime block to deny José Izquierdo a certain goal at a key moment in the second-half. He appears to be going from strength to strength- his trajectory only upwards.

That makes it 16 points from a possible 18 since losing to Spurs at Wembley, with Liverpool having now broken into the top four ahead of both Spurs and Arsenal for the time being. There are plenty more favourable fixtures soon to come and Liverpool must continue to rack up the points as they have been doing so efficiently as of late.

A season which appeared to be rapidly approaching crisis point is now one full of opportunity, with Liverpool having built up some serious momentum at a very useful time. While the winter period was ultimately what saw Liverpool fall away last season, Klopp has meticulously planned and juggled his squad to ensure this time, Liverpool surge into the New Year as a force to be reckoned with.