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16 Conclusions on Alisson, Barnes and…

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1) From the first minute to the 70th against Manchester City last Sunday, Liverpool had eight shots to five, 53% possession, five corners to zero and were level at 1-1. The post-match analysis focused on many factors from injuries to form, but the most striking of all was how the champions simply collapsed: in the final 20 minutes they had no shots, conceded from all three of Manchester City’s and folded in on themselves in a mistake-ridden spell that confirmed their defeat.

It was no one-off or freak occurrence. From the first minute to the 70th against Leicester six days later, Liverpool had 15 shots to six, 61.1% possession, ten corners to one and led 1-0. The aftermath here may again centre on the absence of Virgil van Dijk or the fresh, disruptive injuries to Fabinho and James Milner for some. But their propensity to crumble under pressure is of the utmost alarm. In the final 20 minutes at the King Power Stadium they had no shots, conceded three of the five Leicester managed and a valuable victory suddenly morphed into another crushing loss.

Few will doubt that Liverpool are suffering physically. But if this past week has taught us anything, it is that their previously impervious mentality has been utterly eviscerated. This was the team that once carried opponents away on a wave of sheer attacking momentum, but the tide has turned. They conceded thrice in ten minutes against Manchester City and thrice again in seven at Leicester.

 

2) This is the first time Liverpool have lost three consecutive league games since November 2014. By one of those quirks the sport so often throws up, that is also the same month and year that Jurgen Klopp last lost three in a row in the league. If anyone doubted the challenge that faces both manager and team going forward, then the sight of Klopp raging from the touchline at the countless bad decisions made by his players in the final attacking third, followed by his acceptance of fate as they proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot in front of their own goal, clarified the situation.

 

3) Again, many will pore over the growing list of players unavailable to Liverpool, point at that as mitigation to this latest setback, blame the owners a lack of investment and shut out the mere suggestion that other elements could be at play. But Van Dijk has been sidelined since mid-October and they won their first five games without him, eventually embarking on an eight-game unbeaten run. Diogo Jota has been out since early December and they scored seven goals against Crystal Palace in his absence. Joe Gomez has been injured since mid-November and Liverpool kept their opening clean sheet of the Premier League campaign in their first game without him. Joel Matip has never been reliably available.

This is an otherwise uniquely brilliant collection of players under an absolutely sensational manager. The injuries have been constant and forced a number of changes to accommodate them but if they were so inhibiting then how were those resounding victories over Tottenham and West Ham recorded a matter of weeks ago? And how did they play so well in the first half here, at least until venturing to within 15 yards of the opposition goal? This is down to so very much more than injuries and it is lazy to boil it solely down to that. Liverpool look a little broken and vulnerable, and if that’s because Van Dijk was injured four months ago then their dominance was built on remarkably fickle foundations to begin with.

Their response to setback was once determined, resolute and unfaltering. Now, with their title-winning captain still at the heart of an experienced squad, it is panicked, agitated and rattled.

 

4) The identity of their opponent exposes the blind infantilism behind blaming the loss of key players. Leicester have been without numerous leaders in every position at certain points yet they sit second in mid-February. Their selection issues have barely received a mention because their form, squad depth and squad management has not warranted an inquisition.

Ozan Kabak and Jordan Henderson was Liverpool’s 13th – and probably unluckiest – central-defensive partnership in the Premier League this season. That is faintly ludicrous. But Leicester have had seven different combinations there and Daniel Amartey on the right with Ricardo Pereira on the left was also their seventh different pairing of full-backs or wing-backs so far. Liverpool have had only three different full or wing-back partnerships.

They have been incredibly unfortunate with injuries. So have Leicester. One of those teams uses it as an excuse while the other embraces the challenge and need to adapt.

 

5) In a table of results between Big Six teams and Leicester, Liverpool lead with 17 points from nine games while the Foxes are second with 16 from seven, ahead of Manchester City (11 from seven), Tottenham (ten from eight), Arsenal (seven from seven), Manchester United and Chelsea (both five from seven).

Considering Leicester have predictably and understandably been dead last in that particular table in 2019/20 (nine points), 2018/19 (11 points), 2017/18 (eight points) and 2016/17 (eight points), that is a quite astonishing turnaround. They already have as many points and goals (and more wins) against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham this season than they did when they won the title in 2015/16. They belong in such company.

 

6) As does Brendan Rodgers, who had never beaten Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho before this season. Each have been vanquished by a coach whose reputation unfairly precedes him. Each of us have been guilty of scoffing at the quotes, the Brentisms, the regular flirtation with a glory he subsequently fails to consummate. He does sometimes get carried away but that should never have obscured what a sensational coach he is.

This was not a commanding performance based on tactical innovation. Rodgers made Leicester harder to break down than in previous meetings with both this team and other members of the elite. That provided them the platform to strike and capitalise on some sensational panic. But that should take nothing away from a manager whose career restoration has been exemplary. Liverpool were right to sack him as the situation felt irretrievable and the ideal replacement was lined up, yet Rodgers deserves credit for rebounding at Celtic and making that job look so much easier than it was, before timing his Leicester ascension to perfection. There is not a single club in the world that should consider themselves above him.

 

7) The game’s best player did not score; he only had one off-target shot, laid on a couple of chances and got one assist. But anyone who judges Wilfred Ndidi based on his attacking output is a fool. The most effective defensive midfielder in the entire league was exemplary here.

There was one delightful slide tackle on Thiago in the first half, soon after the Spaniard was introduced. Not long after that, Ndidi dispossessed the same player to create a shooting opportunity for James Maddison. He ended the game with five tackles, three interceptions, five clearances and three blocks.

As brilliant as Maddison, Harvey Barnes and even Youri Tielemans are, Leicester must hope that when the vultures do inevitably circle again this summer, they will come for those flashier players who benefit far more from a much stronger spotlight, ignoring the potential game-changer. Ndidi will continue to operate and thrive in the shadows.

 

8) It does help being put up against Thiago both in this form and as a substitute ill-prepared to come on after about a quarter of an hour for James Milner. He really was rotten and for all the jokes about idea balls and no player dictating the tempo more often (427), there is cause for genuine discussion as to whether he is helping or hindering Liverpool now.

So much of what he did at the King Power just seemed so slow and lacking in urgency, as if he was playing on a two-second delay. To see Henderson chastise and berate this glorious, generational footballer for dangling a lazy leg that allowed Barnes to win the free-kick from which Leicester equalised was sobering. The same player breezed past him again minutes later and all Thiago managed to do was run into Robertson

The 29-year-old has played more than 45 minutes of ten separate Liverpool games this season. Their record in those matches is W2 D2 L6 F12 A17. That is absolutely dreadful. But also precisely what you get when splash out on another coat of paint for a Ferrari before its engine breaks down. It is no-one’s fault in particular, it just really doesn’t look like it’ll ever work.

 

9) Liverpool did start well enough. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane both found space in behind the Leicester defence from wonderful Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold passes, but on neither occasion could they capitalise. Then Salah went down under a challenge from Pereira in the 12th minute, with referee Anthony Taylor unmoved.

It was not difficult to predict what the Egyptian would do when receiving the ball from Alexander-Arnold on the edge of the penalty area, tapping it to the side with his left and quickly going to ground. Replays showed perhaps a semblance of contact but nowhere near enough for a penalty.

As quick as Liverpool fans were to point out the inconsistency in the decision-making, citing the penalty Danny Welbeck won against them earlier in the season for a vaguely similar incident, that really is an incredibly boring discussion. More interesting is how VAR has contributed so much more to this sort of thing, where players go down in the area with even the slightest touch in the knowledge that a slow-motion replay will emphasise the guilt of the defender. If the referee gives that as a foul the VAR does not overrule it. But Taylor was justified in ignoring it.

 

10) Leicester grew into their own, Barnes clipping a ball over the top that Jamie Vardy lobbed over, while the pair combined for Vardy to test Alisson with a header. In first-half stoppage-time, Marc Albrighton sent a speculative ball over the top that Henderson misjudged and headed into Vardy’s path, but Alisson was out well to block him.

What would later transpire might have undermined Klopp’s suggestion that the goalkeeper had a “super game” for some, but the manager was actually right. Alisson did play well, thwarting Vardy on a couple of occasions early on and producing a stellar double save from him and Barnes at 2-1 down after his mistake. The second goal was a simple case of a lack of communication with a new teammate, for which both he and Kabak must shoulder the blame. It was a shame because he genuinely was good otherwise and had put the Manchester City debacle behind him.

 

11) Kasper Schmeichel managed the sublime without the ridiculous. He closed the space so well in the 20th minute when Salah was clean through, Amartey clearing his chip. He saved well from Firmino soon after and just exuded calm throughout. It is strange because whenever the discussion over the best goalkeeper in the Premier League crops up, it never feels like he is included. Perhaps his ceiling is lower than the likes of Alisson, David de Gea or even Hugo Lloris, but his floor is undeniably higher. His consistency is quite something.

 

12) Liverpool almost found the breakthrough in the 26th minute when a patient move ended with Henderson’s cross being flicked on by Mane to the unmarked Firmino about three yards out. His side-footed finish seemed destined to result in a goal, albeit one that would have been ruled out for offside in the build-up. Yet Schmeichel kept it out regardless with the sort of save that leaves Jerzy Dudek nodding knowingly and reminiscing fondly of Andriy Shevchenko and 2005.

The Dane called on his family heirloom of Make Yourself Big to repel the effort in a wild vortex of flailing limbs. In the opinion of someone who once fractured their arm literally just by saving a shot, it was quite breathtaking. Probably best not to speculate where that sort of wrist strength comes from.

 

13) After Alexander-Arnold’s deflected free-kick hit the crossbar, much like Vardy’s first-half effort after Kabak’s slip, the game seemed to open up. Ten minutes later Liverpool were in front thanks to an unbelievable assist to a clever Salah finish.

Firmino was otherwise fairly anonymous but went from silhouette to roulette to find Salah in the Leicester area, who curled the ball with precious little backlift into the far corner. It was a wondrous goal. But Andy Robertson was the key. He intercepted and burst down the left, carrying the ball 30 yards or so before being tackled by Tielemans. The Belgian dallied on the ball and Robertson, who had slipped, pressed him into misplacing a crossfield ball straight onto Alexander-Arnold’s chest. One blocked shot and a low cross for Firmino later, and Liverpool were ahead thanks to the unrelenting energy of their dependable left-back.

 

14) But Leicester persisted and were level soon after, Maddison’s free-kick from a narrow angle going straight in and, following a lengthy VAR check for a potential offside, being allowed to stand.

It would not have been possible without Barnes, who stood alone on the left wing with no teammate within ten yards of him. Faced with Alexander-Arnold and Thiago, he ran straight at the uncertain pair and earned a free-kick from the latter’s awful tackling.

Klopp name-dropped the winger among Leicester’s three “unbelievable” players before the game, alongside Vardy and Maddison. His later goal was a more tangible reward but even without that he was the best, most purposeful attacking player on the pitch. And Leicester will reinvest the £60m they get for him impeccably.

 

15) Amartey and Albrighton deserve so very much more credit than they will receive for their displays. This was the former’s fourth Premier League start of the season and he dealt so well with Mane, while the latter continues to confound all expectation. Marc Albrighton cannot possibly be 31 years of age in the year of our lord 2021. Neither he nor Amartey were spectacular but they were not required to be. Rodgers needed them to be reliable and that is precisely what they were in difficult circumstances. Leicester seem to have more players who can come in from the cold and step into the breach when needed than any other team. That is testament to the manager and his squad.

 

16) One thing that should be said is that Klopp should take no flak for this particular result. There is blame that is inevitably apportioned to the manager overall when a team is in this sort of form but the defeat to Leicester is on the players.

Liverpool played really well up until the collective mental trip that they suffered when Leicester’s first goal was awarded, followed by the subsequent collapse upon the Kabak-Alisson mistake for the second. The reaction was bizarrely pathetic and the manager was justifiably apoplectic. A solid away display with a return to their ferocious, concentrated pressing went completely to waste thanks to brittle belief and poor choices in front of goal; Mane and Salah had two of the best opportunities of the entire game in the first half yet neither managed to even conjure a shot from those situations.

At their best, Liverpool felt like a team that could solve problems by themselves on the pitch with or without the manager’s input. At what is their worst for some time, they look aimless and not even Klopp can instruct them.

Matt Stead

Gizza vote in the FSA Awards for Football Media of the Year, won’t you?

 





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