Liverpool 2017-18 Premier League end of season review

Job done. For the first time since 2009, Liverpool have achieved back-to-back top four finishes and have guaranteed their place in the Champions League for the 2018-19 season, courtesy of the fact that 4th place in the Premier League automatically qualifies four the group stages.

Granted, it became a slightly more complicated task than it ever needed to be, as points were spurned against the likes of Everton, West Brom (from 2-0 up), Stoke, all of which could be attributed to a combination of tired legs from the Champions League exertions and the selection of players whose lack of minutes this season meant they lacked any kind of rhythm.

The defeat against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge set up a potentially nail-biting final day for the second season in a row, only for Antonio Conte’s side to buckle with just a point from the final two games versus Huddersfield and Newcastle, thus making the task at hand a whole lot more comfortable for Jürgen Klopp and his players.

Yet Liverpool still had a job to do against Brighton, not least to make certain of top four, but also to regain some lost momentum in recent weeks ahead of the Champions League final in Kiev in less than two weeks time. As final days of the season go, this was just about the perfect afternoon in every respect, as Liverpool became the only side in the entire English Football League to finish the season unbeaten in the league at home.

An emphatic 4-0 thrashing, with Mo Salah breaking the record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season (32; his 44th in all competitions), while Dominic Solanke and Andy Robertson bagged their first goals for the club. Klopp was even able to substitute the entire front three in order to avoid any unnecessary risk of injury, giving valuable minutes to the returning Adam Lallana, who appeared sharp and will be an important asset to have as an option on the bench against Real Madrid.

There should be absolutely no underestimating what an achievement this is for Liverpool. While top four is often treated as the minimum expectation, the reality is that there are six strong sides in this league now- including two financial behemoths in the Manchester clubs- and that to finish in the top four is a difficult feat in isolation.

But to do so while also reaching a Champions League final with a squad down to its bare bones due to injuries to the likes of Joel Matip, Emre Can, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez- and until recently, Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne- is a remarkable accomplishment which deserves enormous credit.

The physical and mental energy this group of players have expended in order to reach the Champions League final has been vast, such that there has been an inevitable drop off in the league form. To haul themselves over the line- and to do so in the end with a five-point cushion over Chelsea- represents another season of significant progression, despite the slightly lower points tally in comparison to last campaign.

To put this into context, no English side has finished in the top four AND reached the Champions League final since 2011. On top of that is the fact that Liverpool have by far the lowest net spend out of any of the top six clubs since 2014, with £18 million. Spurs are 5th in that period with an overall net spend of £50 million, while Chelsea (£119 million) and Arsenal (£166 million) still linger well behind the two Manchester clubs, both of whom have a net spend of over £400 million in the same period.

What Klopp has done since his arrival in 2015 is to bridge this financial divide through astute signings and improving players on the training ground, building an identity and a distinct brand of football which has produced some of the most scintillating and memorable performances of any Liverpool side in many a year.

Consider that Liverpool’s two first choice full backs this season have been an £8 million signing from relegated Hull City and a 19-year-old academy product, both of whom have been outstanding and look set to be permanent features of the side for the foreseeable future.

We’ve witnessed Loris Karius display the kind of form which earned him his impressive reputation in Germany, while James Milner’s magnificent midfield renaissance has been another unlikely success story in a season largely dominated by the sheer and utter genius of a certain little Egyptian signed from Roma for what is now a scarcely believable £36.9 million.

It’s an individual season from Salah which goes down in the history books having surpassed even the very wildest of expectations. It’s now almost laughable to think that there were some doubts and concerns from some corners when Liverpool were initially linked to him. 44 goals, 14 assists and several cabinets full of individual accolades- including the prestigious PFA Player of the Season, and of course the Golden Boot- Liverpool have themselves a bonafide, world-class superstar who must now be considered alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the highest echelons of the elite bracket of the world’s finest footballers.

He’s scored virtually every type of possible goal, both against the lesser sides and in the biggest games in high-pressure moments, while his goalscoring exploits have also been astonishingly consistent across the course of the campaign, scoring against 17 different sides in the league (another record) with his longest goalless run being just three games (which has only happened on two occasions). There aren’t really enough words to describe his genius.

It speaks volumes of Salah’s brilliance that Roberto Firmino has developed into a world class number nine with 27 goals to his name, and yet finds himself only the second best player for Liverpool this season. The Brazilian’s unique skillset mark him out as the perfect fulcrum of this Liverpool attack, as it is Firmino’s movement, pressing and linkup play which creates the optimum environment for Salah to thrive.

Sadio Mané, meanwhile- Liverpool’s Player of the Season last time out- has somewhat been overshadowed by both Salah and Firmino, enduring a patchy first half of the season before finding his groove and adapting his game to fulfil the role of a quasi-number-ten link man between midfield and attack, knitting play together and taking up unorthodox pockets of space in slightly deeper positions, rather than playing as an out and out winger. His sheer intelligence- as well as his obvious physical and technical assets- make him such a precocious talent who remains a vital cog in the machine Klopp is building.

It speaks volumes of what Liverpool have achieved that Philippe Coutinho’s name has hardly been mentioned since his £149 million move to Barcelona in January- a decision which has seen the side move on to another level in his absence. While many were deeply concerned about the lack of a direct replacement at the time and the potential impact on Liverpool’s top four and Champions League prospects, Klopp has been absolutely vindicated in letting a player go who had made it clear he did not want to be a part this project any longer.

In came Virgil van Dijk, whose impact in his first half-season since his protracted transfer from Southampton finally came through, has been nothing short of sensational. The Dutchman has been entirely unphased by his status as the most expensive defender all time, such that the £75 million price tag is barely ever spoken about these days.

Winning 72.6% of his duels, van Dijk has the highest duel success rate of any player in the Premier League and on top of that, his Xabi Alonso-esque raking passes and Jamie Carragher-esque leadership and organisational qualities have made him a tremendous acquisition, fully justifying Klopp’s choice to stay patient and wait for his man, rather than sign an alternative centre back in the summer.

Although van Dijk alone has not been the saviour to all Liverpool’s defensive issues, he has certainly played a significant role in transforming the back line and instilling a new sense of assurance and confidence in the way Liverpool defend, such that set pieces are no longer a cause of panic.

Quite incredibly, Liverpool have conceded the fewest goals (22) of any side in the last 29 league games and have therefore had the best defensive record in the league for 75% of the season after the early hammerings against Man City and Spurs away from home. It’s a stunning statistic and one which defies the general narrative around Liverpool’s defensive frailties, and one which, if Liverpool can continue and build upon next season, could be the crucial difference in sustaining a serious title challenge.

The other obvious area for improvement lies in the number of points dropped at home by drawing games against the likes of Burnley, Everton, West Brom and Stoke. A few penalty decisions wouldn’t go amiss, either, as Liverpool end the campaign having won just one penalty at Anfield (fewer than Spurs), with some quite staggering fouls completely ignored by referees who appear hellbent on ‘proving’ how they won’t be swayed by the Kop- an absurd and worrying trend.

There has been a plethora of joyous moments to saviour, from Ragnar Klavan’s 94th minute diving header winner against Burnley away, to the second-half blitz which demolished Man City at Anfield, to Salah’s stunning four-goal haul against Watford in the snow. Upon reflection, those two 2-1 victories against Leicester City and Burnley either side of New Year’s Day stand out as pivotal games in terms of defining how the remainder of the season played out, as Liverpool dug in and scraped out 6 points despite being well below their best level.

The only real sour note come the end of the season is the cruel injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose debut season has been a pleasure to watch, overcoming much initial scrutiny and unjust criticism to become an integral part of the side, bringing pace, drive, dynamism and creativity to the midfield, forging a hugely promising relationship with Salah.

Reports suggest that Chamberlain won’t return until November at the earliest, which is an enormous blow both for the player, who now misses the Champions League final and the World Cup (in which he would probably have warranted a starting spot), as well as Liverpool. Both on and off the pitch, he has shown himself to be a class act, immersing him in the values of the club and becoming a genuine favorite among the supporters.

We find ourselves at what feels like a critical juncture in the club’s modern history, living through what is one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating periods supporters have experienced in a long while. Most importantly, none of this feels like the end of the road, or a flash in the pan, rather it is just the latest step forward in a journey of perpetual progression under Klopp which has seen the club catapulted back among Europe’s elite, and well on the way to re-establishing themselves as a regular Champions League outfit.

For prospective transfer targets, it’s a hugely attractive proposition and there can be few players in world football- other than those already at the very top clubs- who wouldn’t want to be a part of this project, playing alongside this group of players for this manager. Klopp has restored that elite status and with Champions League football on offer once more, one can expect a couple of significant acquisitions to follow in the footsteps of the incoming Naby Keita in the coming weeks.

Whatever happens in Kiev now, Liverpool have already achieved their basic objective at the start of the season and have yet another European campaign to look forward to next season. There is an ever growing sense that something truly special is brewing and while Pep Guardiola’s centurions will present a formidable obstacle once, there is every reason to believe Liverpool are positioning themselves for a serious title tilt as City’s strongest challengers next season.

The Reds are on the march.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crystal Palace 1-2 Liverpool: Match review

In many seasons of recent years gone by, Liverpool do not come back to win that game. Selhurst Park has felt like something of a cursed stadium for Liverpool ever since the infamous debacle at the end of the 2013-14 season, but since Jürgen Klopp has arrived he has now won three consecutive games there.

It’s a ground which is right up there among the most hostile atmospheres of any Premier League club and as an opposition player, it cannot be a pleasant place to play football for 90 minutes. To be able to rise above that and come out with three points despite a performance which was well below par, coming off the back of an international break, speaks volumes of the mental resolve this Liverpool side have.

There was the comeback against Leicester at Anfield in late December, when Mo Salah’s brace delivered a crucial three points after Jamie Vardy’s early opener. Again, away against Burnley, Liverpool found a way to grind out three points in difficult circumstances thanks to Ragnar Klavan’s stoppage time winner.

Here, it was Salah who delivered the killer blow to send Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace plummeting further towards the drop zone, while simultaneously ensuring what could prove a hugely significant victory in terms of securing Champions League football for the Reds again next season, opening up a 10-point gap on Chelsea before their encounter with Tottenham Hotspurs on Sunday.

There was a sense of deja vu when Palace took the lead after 13 minutes when Loris Karius collided with Wilfried Zaha who had reached the ball first. It was a tactic which Man United deployed effectively at Old Trafford, targeting Trent Alexander-Arnold with long, diagonal balls into the right channel, and one which Palace were able to exploit multiple times on this occasion.

Luka Milivojevic made no mistake from the spot, dispatching an excellent penalty into the bottom right corner. As is often the case against lower quality opposition, when they are given a lead to protect, they can prove very difficult to break down as there is little incentive to commit many numbers forward. In truth, Zaha carried Palace’s attack almost by himself, constantly tormenting Alexander-Arnold with a wicked combination of speed and trickery.

The first half’s major flashpoint came when Sadio Mané picked up a booking for simulation in what was the first of a number of controversial refereeing decisions in the game. Mané’s leg had clearly been tripped up inside the box, but it was his theatrical and delayed collapse to the floor which drew the yellow card, as opposed to a penalty.

As both Jamie Redknapp and Graeme Souness explained at half-time, it was both a clear foul as well as an exaggerated reaction by Mané, who delivered one of the strangest individual performances of the season in a number of ways.

Indeed, it was Mané who ghosted in ahead of Mamadou Sakho to stab home the equalizer early in the second-half after superb work by James Milner to lose his man and deliver the cross, as Liverpool came out of the blocks quickly with a point to prove.

Palace responded well, however, and began to crank up the pressure themselves with Christian Benteke missing a couple of glorious, gilt-edged opportunities to make his mark against his former club, displaying a lack of composure and confidence from a striker who has scored just twice in the league all season.

A further bizarre incident involving Mané came as he found himself hacked down on the edge of his own penalty area. It appeared an obvious foul, only for the referee not to award a free-kick. Mané then decided to pick the ball up- a clear, deliberate handball- for which the referee correctly awarded a subsequent free-kick, but astonishingly lacked the conviction to issue a second booking.

Klopp intervened soon after to remove Mané from the action before he got himself a red card in what was a very sensible change. Adam Lallana’s rotten luck continued as he was forced off with what looked like a serious injury only three minutes after entering the fray, but it was another midfield switch which significantly changed the complexion of Liverpool’s forward play.

The midfield had been lacking creativity and spark throughout, before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s introduction brought a much-needed injection of energy, drive and incision. Chamberlain had combined well with Milner to tee up Salah who was unable to get the final touch on the cross, but it was a warning sign of what was to come.

A draw would not have been a disastrous result for Liverpool here, but with the opportunity to make another significant leap towards securing a top-four finish up for grabs, there was never any chance of settling for a point.

Chamberlain delivered a precise, raking pass to Andy Roberston on the edge of the Palace penalty area, which the Scotsman cushioned perfectly into the path of Salah whose first touch and right-footed finish bore the hallmarks of a player who has the all-time Premier League record for goals in a season in his sights, bagging his 37th of the campaign in all competitions (29 in the league) to send the traveling Kop into raptures.

A crucial late interception from Virgil van Dijk and a last-minute tackle by Roberto Firmino, tracking back to his own corner flag, helped haul Liverpool over the line and withstand a barrage of long balls by a desperate Palace side to preserve the hard-fought victory.

It was one of those wins which feels very much like more than just three points, as Liverpool showed once again that they are capable of grinding out results on the rare occasions when their scintillating attacking play doesn’t quite click into gear.

It’s one more vital step towards that top four finish, helping maintain the positive winning momentum heading into the first leg of the Champions League tie against Manchester City. This was the first hurdle of a pivotal period for Liverpool, successfully passed, in the sweetest- if not most comfortable- of manners.

 

 

 

Liverpool 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Match review

For all the many valid points of praise and criticism one might level at this Liverpool side, there is never, ever a dull moment. It might not be good for the heart, but it makes for a genuinely pulsating spectacle on a regular basis. Their propensity for the ridiculous is unrivaled across the Premier League.

While the previous fixture at Wembley back in October saw Liverpool taken to pieces by a rampant Spurs side, coursing with confidence, Jürgen Klopp and his team have improved immeasurably since, embarking on an 18-match unbeaten run which only recently came to an end following the shock defeat against Swansea.

Having recovered well with a comfortable 3-0 win against Huddersfield in midweek, Liverpool came flying out the traps against Spurs, taking the lead inside three minutes as Mo Salah pounced on an undercooked backpass by Eric Dier, slotting the finish coolly past Hugo Lloris for his 27th goal of the season- making the Egyptian the fastest ever Liverpool player to reach 20 Premier League goals, reaching the landmark in 25 games, overtaking the previous record held jointly by Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres (both 27 games).

Liverpool continued to press and harry Spurs into submission throughout the opening 45 minutes, constantly forcing mistakes and asserting their superiority. The final pass, however, was lacking, and the prevailing sense was one of a missed opportunity when the scoreline was still a slender 1-0 lead heading into the break.

To their credit, Spurs were a team transformed in the second-half, as Liverpool appeared lethargic and lacking in intensity as the visitors increasingly cranked up the pressure. There was no route out for Liverpool as Roberto Firmino was unable to sustain his usual energetic defending from the front, while the gaps in the Liverpool midfield grew ever wider and more frequent.

In a bid to halt the shift in momentum, Klopp made two proactive changes in replacing Jordan Henderson (impressive, but only recently returning from injury) and Sadio Mané, with fresh legs in the form of Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The double change had scant effect on proceedings, however, as Spurs continued to probe in search of the equalizer.

It felt increasingly likely that Liverpool would eventually succumb to the immense pressure they found themselves under, having sat back so passively for the duration of the second-half, allowing Spurs to assert themselves in a manner they weren’t able to in the first-half.

Loris Karius made a superb intervention to deny Heung-Min Son from close range, but the tide eventually could not be held back any longer. The eventual equalizer came not from a carefully carved-out opportunity, but from a 25-yard piledriver from an unlikely source in the substitute, Victor Wanyama, who gave Karius no chance with the thunderous power behind his strike.

Although Karius might have done better to clear the ball with his initial punch from Christian Eriksen’s cross, sometimes one has to simply take their hat off to a truly phenomenal hit- a one in a hundred kind of strike from a player very rarely on the scoresheet.

Seizing the initiative, Spurs continued to pour forwards, this time in search of a winner, as the most chaotic of finales ensued. With three minutes of normal time left to play, Dele Alli slid Harry Kane through on goal, with the ball taking a slight deflection off Dejan Lovren on its way through. Kane made the very most of the opportunity, falling to the ground after the faintest of brushes with Loris Karius, with the striker making sure to initiate the contact

John Moss, the referee, awarded the penalty before consulting his linesman who appeared to point out Kane had been offside. Confusion over the offside rule seemed to preoccupy the pair in discussion, apparently unclear as to whether Lovren’s diversion should have altered the decision. Regardless, Moss was unchanged by the linesman’s comments, standing by his decision.

Kane, one goal short of a century in the Premier League, blasted the ball straight down the middle- a tactic which usually works against most keepers, who either dive to their left or right, rarely remaining central. Karius, however, stood his ground and parried the ball away, as Erik Lamela ballooned the rebound high and wide.

It was an excellent stop by the German who enjoyed arguably the finest performance of his erratic Liverpool career thus far, only enhancing his reputation after having been installed as Klopp’s new number one.

It appeared as though Liverpool had just about done enough to cling on for the draw, but this was only the beginning of a remarkable passage of play in which Liverpool managed to snatch what looked to be a sensational winner, only to relinquish their lead once more in the dying seconds.

Salah, jinking past four Spurs defenders before stabbing the finish high into the roof of the net, delivered a goal of the very highest order- the kind Lionel Messi would be proud of. It deserved to be the winner and it is an enormous shame that such a moment of sheer genius would be overshadowed by what followed.

Just as Liverpool appeared to have secured the three points in stoppage time, Virgil van Dijk- imperious in his all-round performance- dangled a leg in front of Erik Lamela inside the penalty area. It wasn’t the wisest of moves by the Dutchman, although any contact was minimal and the Argentine had no interest in the ball whatsoever, theatrically flinging himself to the ground.

The referee, stood several yards away, was not interested in any penalty claims, only for play to continue for another few seconds before the linesman called the referee’s attention. After another lengthy conversation, the referee this time decided to change his mind based on the linesman’s judgment (who had been stationed much further away from the incident) and overturn his original decision, awarding Spurs a penalty in the 95th minute.

For all the talk of VAR taking too long and breaking up the flow of the game, the referee and his linesman spent an excessive amount of time discussing both penalty incidents on this occasion, both of which were highly dubious to say the very least. Surely, given the technology is available, it would only be sensible for the incidents to be reviewed on a screen so that the correct decisions could be made more often than not, rather than the guesswork which appeared to be at play on this occasion.

This time, Kane made no mistake from the spot as he hit his 100th Premier League goal to snatch a point from Liverpool’s grasp right at the death.

Liverpool could feel hard done by regarding the officials, although the two penalty decisions should not obscure the fact that Spurs were much the stronger side in the second-half as Liverpool failed to manage the game effectively while in front, on two occasions.

On the balance of play, a draw is probably just about the right result, but to save a late penalty and score a stoppage-time goal to go 2-1 in front, only to surrender the victory with barely seconds left on the clock is nonetheless a difficult blow to stomach.

The draw leaves Liverpool still in control of their own destiny and on the face of it, it’s a fairly decent result against a very good side. The manner in which events unfolded, however, means it feels more like a defeat, as Salah’s solo stunner ought to have opened up a much-needed five-point cushion.

As has proven the case on numerous occasions this season, Liverpool couldn’t quite haul themselves over the finish line, and the quest to finish inside the top four for a second consecutive season looks set to be another almighty tussle.

Liverpool 4-3 Man City: match review

It might take a while to appreciate just how phenomenal a game of football this was. For the neutral, it surely goes down immediately as an all-time Premier League classic- a hectic, scintillating demonstration of devastating attacking football from the two most thrilling sides in the country.

Man City’s hopes of an invincible season have been dashed, but Pep Guardiola’s side are still well on track to stroll their way to the title on a record-high points tally. No team has emerged victorious against them all season until now, with good reason. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool have shown they are the only side capable of going toe-to-toe and playing them at their own game without getting torn to pieces. It took an immense showing of both quality and sheer effort to overcome what has, until now, proven an unstoppable force this season.

While City’s two late goals shifted the scoreline from a complete annihilation to a narrow victory, this was, in many ways, the finest performance from Liverpool during the Klopp era. Several momentary defensive lapses aside, this was a display of phenomenal verve and cohesion, such that City’s defenders had to cope with a degree of pressure they simply haven’t faced from any other side.

The midfield trio of Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain functioned hugely effectively as a unit to help stem the tide of City’s attacks while also driving forward and setting Liverpool on the front foot. Chamberlain, in particular, was simply magnificent throughout, delivering the finest performance of a blossoming Liverpool career- a player re-energised, re-motivated and clearly loving his football as part of this team.

His goal was illustrative of his new-found confidence, picking the ball up from a deeper position before aggressively surging forward and lashing a low, pinpoint finish into the bottom corner past Ederson for his fourth in Liverpool colours. It’s the kind of goal he would never have scored several months back, but one can only assume that his work on the training ground under a manager who believes in his ability and consistently deploys him in his favoured role have been integral to his upward trajectory, establishing himself as a key cog in the Klopp machine in the role vacated by the recently departed Philippe Coutinho.

While the Brazilian possessed certain qualities unmatched by any other player in the Liverpool squad, his defensive contribution while playing in midfield could often be called into question and left the side somewhat unbalanced at times. Here, Liverpool’s work rate to win back possession by closing City down relentlessly was evident from the first minute. They were hardly given a second to breathe.

Throughout the duration of the first-half, Liverpool were largely diligent in their defensive work, only to be undone by a momentary lapse in concentration with Joe Gomez caught out by a raking crossfield pass to Leroy Sané on the left flank. The German burst into the penalty area and fired the equaliser past his compatriot, Loris Karius, who ought to have done better at his near post despite the ferocious power of the strike.

For Liverpool to have expended so much energy and to play so well during the first half, only to go in level at the break, could easily have damaged morale. To keep up that intensity in the second-half against a City side with a knack of scoring multiple late winners this season would be an enormous task- but one Liverpool showed they were more than capable of stepping up to.

That spirit, grit and determination was embodied by the performance of Andy Robertson, who turned in one of the finest left-back displays from a Liverpool player in years. The Scot dealt superbly with Raheem Sterling- a player in the form of his life, constantly terrorising defences this season- with his tough tackling, well-timed headers and interceptions, as well as his lively foraging runs up the wing.

City, however, were starting to crank up the pressure, until Chamberlain set Roberto Firmino through on goal with a sumptuous through ball. The Brazilian still had plenty to do, however, proceeding to shrug off the attentions of John Stones, before lofting a sublime, curling chipped finish in off the post to regain the lead- a stunning piece of individual quality, heavily reminiscent of the kind of goal Luis Suarez used to score in his prime.

It takes Firmino’s tally for the season up to 17, and along with his colossal all-round contribution in terms of pressing, movement, link-up play and chance creation, the Brazilian is quietly establishing himself as one of the very finest players in the league this season. There’s not a single forward in Europe who executes the complex role Firmino takes up in Klopp’s system and this was just the latest evidence of why he is the perfect player to operate as the attacking fulcrum of this Liverpool side- full of quality himself, while also elevating the performances of those around him.

He’s simultaneously a creator, a defender and now an increasingly prolific goalscorer- with Firmino in the side, it almost feels as if you’re playing with more than 11 men. Just imagine having to defend against that.

In a remarkable nine-minute frenzy, Liverpool put City to the sword twice more, with Sadio Mané lashing an unstoppable left-footed drive into the top corner after excellent work by Mo Salah, before the Egyptian bagged his 24th goal of the season with a sensational 45-yard lob after intercepting Ederson’s under-hit clearance, to put Liverpool firmly in the driving seat.

Despite holding such a commanding lead, however, the game never felt quite over with City still pouring forward in numbers with so much attacking quality in their ranks. Liverpool are not a side built to shut games down by sticking ten men behind the ball, and sure enough Bernardo Silva- on as a substitute for Sterling- swept the ball home from close range with eight minutes of normal time to go.

Liverpool appeared to have successfully ridden out a late storm, only for Ilkay Gundogan to put hearts in mouths as he prodded in City’s third in stoppage time to make it 4-3. It would have been beyond devastating for Liverpool to throw away three points after such a gargantuan display of endeavour and that very nearly became the reality as Sergio Aguero flashed a header into the side netting in the dying seconds from a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick.

Rather than elation, the immediate sense at the final whistle was one of enormous relief, having managed to hold on for what is by far and away the biggest win of the season, taking Liverpool on to an 18-match unbeaten run and now up to 3rd in the table, pulling ahead of Chelsea on goal difference.

To step up and deliver such a performance in light of the blow of losing Coutinho and without the presence of Virgil van Dijk speaks volumes about the character and depth of this Liverpool side, inflicting City’s first league defeat of the season in spectacular style. While the frenetic finale somewhat took the edge off what would have been an emphatic thrashing, there should be no underestimating just how big a win this is in terms of morale for the remaining months of the season.

The target for Liverpool should be to establish themselves as the most likely challengers to City for the title next season and on this evidence, they are more than capable of doing so. City will be well aware of that themselves, too, having faced their most uncomfortable ninety minutes of the season, by some distance.

Although there still remains plenty of room for improvement and upgrades in individual personnel, this is arguably the biggest statement victory under Klopp, overcoming what is unequivocally one of- if not the most- formidable teams in Premier League history.

It ought to be celebrated as such.

 

 

Burnley 1-2 Liverpool: A slice of Estonian magic kicks off the new year in style

Of all the ways to win a football match, this just about tops it. Having conceded a hugely disappointing late equaliser, facing the prospect of two painfully dropped points, to then go back up the other end and bag the winner in the 94th minute via a combination of the much-maligned Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan from an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain free-kick right at the death, is pretty much the perfect start to the new year. Such glorious scenes.

This time a year ago, Liverpool dropped two points as Sunderland equalised with a late penalty to draw 2-2, which set about a malaise which proved hugely damaging throughout January and February. It was a real momentum killer, crushing morale and sapping belief. This feels like the very opposite.

Aside from the precious three points gained, the psychological benefit of winning the game in such a manner is something which this squad will now carry going forwards from here. Twice in a matter of days, Liverpool have responded to setbacks against two tough, gnarly opponents, by digging in and showing a collective spirit and drive to eventually win the battle.

This was a battle in every sense of the word. It’s what Burnley do. They compete, they scrap, they make the game horrible. They’re better than any side in this league at doing it. Liverpool, though, stood up to the challenge and weren’t afraid to put themselves about and engage in the physicality of the contest.

A first half which was devoid of any creativity or fluidity from either side was merely the jostling match before the real fight in the second half. It was far from a classic Liverpool performance and the attack struggled to click in the absence of Phil Coutinho, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino. It was a performance of graft, rather than guile, for the most part.

Such is extent of individual quality within this squad, however, that a moment of brilliance was always likely to occur at some point. Sure enough, it came from Sadio Mané- a player enduring the first real rough patch of form in his Liverpool career. Collecting a superb, whipped cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mané swivelled and unleashed a rocket into the roof of the net to get the goal he so clearly wanted and needed. A stunning strike on his weaker foot to give his side the breakthrough- and what should also serve as a welcome confidence booster for a player who clearly has so much ability to influence a game, even when off the boil.

As has proven the case throughout this season- and much of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure- a 1-0 scoreline is rarely ever enough for Liverpool and despite defending resolutely for the majority of the game, it was no huge surprise when Burnley eventually found a way through themselves. A momentary lapse in concentration from Klavan and Joe Gomez was all it took for Johann Gudmunsson to pounce on a flick-on at the back post for the equaliser in the 87th minute.

Gomez was largely excellent- as he has been throughout the campaign thus far- but moments like this are a notable weakness of his and an obvious area for him to improve. Eradicating these kinds of lapses is all part of his development and will surely come with time as he gains experience.

It felt like another sucker punch, coming so late on, after so much effort had been put into maintaining the slender margin. Memories of Watford, Chelsea and Sevilla this season are still fresh and to suffer yet another draw having been so close to the victory line would have dealt a real blow to the general morale around the club, as well as the points tally.

And then it happened. A trademark, driving run by Emre Can won the free-kick, which Oxlade-Chamberlain- magnificent in his performance once again- curled it dangerously into the box for Lovren to nod across goal for Klavan to bundle in the winner. For a few seconds, there was a feeling of dread that Liverpool might be denied once more by an offside flag, but sure enough, it counted this time. Absolute euphoria ensued.

Wins like these don’t come around very often. Liverpool have produced two of them in the past few days and it is a huge credit both to the players and the manager- whose rotation throughout the Christmas period has paid dividends- that they’ve been able to haul themselves over the line when it would have been so easy to buckle and drop points.

It’s a moment of sheer and utter elation which ought to be properly cherished. Liverpool haven’t scored many late winners at all this season. To do so away, against Burnley, where very few sides will take maximum points this season, having made seven changes to the side who beat Leicester, is a real demonstration of the character of this squad- as well as the depth which allows the likes of Adam Lallana to come in and make such a positive impact on his return to the side.

Another win which feels very much more than just three points and one which builds on the momentum which has come with a 16-match unbeaten run and the feel-good factor brought by the arrival of Virgil van Dijk. This was the most perfect of ways to kick start 2018, a year which holds enormous promise for Liverpool as they continue their upward trajectory under Klopp.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.