SEVEN minutes in and Leicester have a corner. Mark Albrighton swings it in and it doesn’t come to anything, but that was when I started to mentally turn off from the game. Liverpool were going to lose. It wasn’t based on an incident or a goal, but it was a repeat, a deja-vu moment. An episode of ‘The Football’ we’ve all seen before. Liverpool lose this one.
For that entire opening seven minutes Leicester had been in Liverpool’s half. They had started the game by forcing Jürgen Klopp’s men onto the back foot, racing around and putting boots into challenges; including a reducer on Sadio Mane within 60 seconds. Chasing, harrying, gegenpressing. The Reds have given us plenty of examples this season for us to know that when someone gets in their faces, they allow them to and wilt accordingly.
It had the inescapable feeling of Southampton away in the League Cup. Leicester started strongly, Liverpool didn’t, and at no point during the night did the visitors give any indication as a team that they intended to wrestle the game back. At best they would wait for Leicester to tire and hope that they weren’t too far behind.
They were too far behind. By the time the Foxes did ease off, Liverpool were 3-0 down. They were 3-0 down to a team that previously hadn’t scored in 2017 in the league. They’d conceded twice to a player who previously hadn’t had a shot on target in 2017 in the league. At the other end they readily let Wes Morgan, who had spent all season looking like he’d be a liability in the backline of someone like Guiseley, take the ball off them time and again.
Even in the latter stages when Phil Coutinho pulled it back to 3-1 and Liverpool were allowed to have more of the ball, there was no belief in the team that they could score another. In every ball up to Roberto Firmino or Divock Origi you could see from their actions the fear that they were going to get tackled, because they acted like they were about to get tackled, and then they were tackled.
First touches were atrocious, as if none of them had done any football in La Manga. For many, it looked like the first time they’d been asked to trap a ball. Like when you over-hit a shot in the street and ask the 78-year-old lollipop lady to kick it back. It takes a good few touches for her to get any kind of control, and she probably hasn’t been on a training excursion to southern Spain, which is just as well as it’s tricky to cycle to training and hold a lollipop at the same time.
Every deflected ball went straight to a Leicester player, because Leicester knew every loose ball would belong to them. When the Reds had the ball there were either static players ahead or those who were making runs for the sake of making them. Not particularly moving into space, just moving to stand next to a different Leicester player for some reason.
Liverpool were outfought by a team that believed in themselves more and put more effort in. That was the worst part of the night for me. Klopp said when he first came to the club that there may be more talented teams, but no one would try harder than Liverpool. Last night they got obliterated on the ‘try harder’ side of things.
Are Liverpool too reliant on being a team? The problem with being so in-sync with one another is that for every time you blow away the opposition when everyone is on it, there are games like last night where you lose badly because absolutely nobody is on it. Brilliant as an 11. Dire as an 11.
That’s the difference between the Reds and their rivals. I watched a Manchester United side on Sunday where eight or nine of their players were probably as bad as Liverpool were yesterday, but two or three weren’t, and so they won the League Cup. That almost feels like an alien concept to Liverpool. The very idea that they could largely play poorly but somehow end up winning. Rivals have won trophies and oodles of points doing that. From memory, Liverpool haven’t won a single game this season where they weren’t at least marginally the better team.
It must be said that Leicester were outstanding. Back to their effervescent and fearless best (which was a tad fishy to a Claudio Ranieri sympathiser like me). They were allowed to be so of course by the wonky Reds, but let’s not forget that they also did exactly the same thing against Manchester City earlier this season. They were always going to be capable of it against a team who didn’t learn any lessons from last season. In fact Liverpool actually played fairly well in this fixture last season, and the game only turned when Jamie Vardy scored the goal of his life after outpacing Dejan Lovren.
Speaking of which, there’s been some pretty harsh criticism of Lucas Leiva in the wake of last night. In particular it came following the first goal after Vardy sped away from him to open the scoring. People must have wanted that other defender to play, the one who’s faster than Vardy.
The line appeared to be inexplicably high on first viewing, but just seconds earlier Liverpool had the ball. Gini Wijnaldum unaccountably gives it straight to Albrighton, who quickly releases Vardy to do what he does. When Wijnaldum had the ball there wasn’t any particular reason for Lucas and Joel Matip to be stood any deeper than they were.
“Why is Lucas playing centre-back?” is all I saw last night, presumably from people who didn’t see him completely own Harry Kane just two weeks ago. I’m not saying I want him playing there regularly, or even ever again, but his stellar showing against Spurs is probably why he was trusted to be there last night, and again, if people thought he was too slow to play against Vardy, name a centre-back who wouldn’t have been. Joe Gomez is quick but not that quick, and certainly not while still getting back up to speed following his long injury break. Getting blitzed by Vardy would have been the last thing his comeback needed.
For all the talk of the 16-day break being a good thing for Liverpool, it quite clearly wasn’t, for this game at least. It might have longer term benefits with regard to fitness and team spirit, but the difference between having a winter break in Germany and this enforced one was that everyone had the same break. Liverpool looked like a team that hadn’t played for a while, and Leicester were just a few days removed from an exhilarating game in Seville. The home side looked as sharp as the away side looked blunt. Hopefully once Klopp’s men get into the swing of regular games again, the fruits of their La Manga labours will be evident, but with only 12 games to go in 2016-17 they can’t afford to wait too long to show them.
In terms of what Liverpool were doing last night, or largely not doing, I’m not sure there’s much value in dissecting the tactics of it, or the intentions of Klopp. As was the case against Hull, from his post-match comments it seems that the manager told them to do something, and the players went out and failed to execute.
“It was not good enough in the beginning, it was not good enough in the middle and it was not good enough in the end,” Klopp said after the defeat.
“I think it was 100 per cent clear what would happen tonight from the Leicester side. (They’d go) back to their roots, the line-up was clear, I was 100 per cent sure they would bring (Shinji) Okazaki back and all that stuff.
“It was clear how emotional the game would be, because if Leicester cannot show emotion tonight that would have been really strange.
“But in the end it was not even THAT intense, and yet we were still not ready for this. We tried to be absolutely ready from the first second, but trying was not good enough.”
“It looked like a friendly game,” he added. “A player down, a throw-in, header, one pass. If that is all you have to do to be free in front of our goalkeeper, that’s really not cool.
“We were not ready for the situation.”
Klopp will come in for his fair share of criticism, and that’s normal and somewhat justified, but when every player on the pitch is playing at the low levels they have on far too many occasions in 2017, the squad really need to take a good look at themselves and ask what it is they really want to achieve and if they’re willing to put in the hard work the manager requires of them to achieve it.
Numerous things have been and will be written about this Liverpool team and where on earth they are heading, but they feel like empty words at the moment. All there is to do is improve.
Plenty needs to be done with the squad in the summer, but that’s another article for another time.
“Not a lot more to say, but a lot to work on.”
Is right, Jürgen. Is right.
Up the lots to work on Reds.