FIRST things first, Liverpool don’t make a habit of conceding five goals in a game.
Prior to Saturday’s capitulation at the Etihad, you could count on one hand the number of times it’s occurred in the last half century. At a stretch, you could point out the mitigating factors attached to at least three of those instances which, though not excusing the crushing defeats suffered, go some way to placing them within a less painful context.
You could say that the 5-1 reversal against Ajax in December 1966 took place amid the kind of fog rarely seen outside TV dramatisations of notorious 19th-century London serial killers; you could also point out the devastating impact of the teenage Johan Cruyff, an embryonic superstar in the making.
You could note that the 5-1 thumping at Aston Villa in December 1976 was a mere blip in a season ending in league and European glory, a freakish anomaly provoking disbelief rather than rage.
And you could view the 6-3 drubbing by Arsenal at Anfield in a January 2007 League Cup tie as a Trading Places-style experiment to see if an otherwise unremarkable striker (Julio Baptista) could be made to look like the greatest footballer in the world.
Now this. The 37th minute sending off of Sadio Mane for the botched decapitation of Manchester City ‘keeper, Ederson, provides the perfect opportunity to rationalise and dismiss the 5-0 scoreline. In the wake of the red card, the result has been seen as both irrelevant and inevitable, a consequence of refereeing incompetence or conspiracy. It’s a freak, an outlier, something to be consigned to the darkest recesses of history without further concern or consideration. Move on to the next match without a backward glance.
For Jürgen Klopp and his staff, that’s absolutely the right approach. When the final whistle blows and the post-match interviews are complete the focus has to be on the next game, against Sevilla. After all, what good can come of dwelling on misfortune, of prolonging the humiliation?
For those of us not directly involved however, it’s fine to have a few questions. Dismiss it as negativity or pessimism all you like, but there’s something about Saturday’s 5-0 defeat that’s hard to swallow.
Liverpool, to all intents and purposes, accepted that the game was over as soon as Mane left the pitch. At 1-0, and with more than 50 minutes still to play, they threw the towel in. There was no hint of a plan to counter City’s possession game, no trace of a strategy to overcome their numerical disadvantage. Just a resigned acceptance that it wasn’t their day and a vague hope that things wouldn’t get too messy.
Now, there’s no escaping the fact that Manchester City are a very good team. In the eyes of many they’re clear favourites to lift the title. Frankly, it’d be something of a surprise if the most expensive squad ever assembled were anything other than a formidable force, despite having, in Nicolas Otamendi, a defender who manages to wear three different hairstyles on one head and another, Kyle Walker, who makes Alberto Moreno look like a footballing intellectual. Even with 11 men and a generous referee, it was always going to require a high-quality Liverpool performance to come away with a decent result.
With 10 men, a goal conceded and a referee disinclined to offer the benefit of any doubt that may exist (and, in the eyes of the law as it relates to serious foul play, I don’t really think there was too much room for doubt), it was highly unlikely that Liverpool were going to salvage even a point.
But they might have done. If only there was some kind of precedent for a Liverpool team to recover from a virtually impossible position to achieve a memorable outcome.
With Mane gone, the most important thing, the only thing for The Reds to do was to navigate the remaining 10 minutes or so of the half without further damage. That was all that mattered; keeping calm, staying organised, disrupting City, being clever, whatever it took to go in at half time just one goal down. Meanwhile, back in the real world…
Kevin De Bruyne crosses, Gabriel Jesus heads into the net. Goal disallowed. Warning signs flashing like belisha beacons.
Seconds later, De Bruyne crosses, Jesus heads into the net. 2-0. Warning signs wander off to find someone who might actually take a blind bit of notice of them.
It’s the predictability that grates. The realisation that this team continues to struggle when it comes to game management at key points. And the lack of belief among the remaining 10 men that they could come away with anything.
Klopp’s half-time reshuffle seemed designed purely to stem the flow. Emre Can moved out of midfield into what effectively became a back five. Mohamed Salah, who had provided Liverpool’s most consistent attacking threat, withdrawn. All set up for a stubborn, defiant rearguard action. Take the 2-0 beating and get out of Dodge. That kind of thing.
In fact, the manager’s approach to the second half brought to mind Rafa Benitez’s controversial decision to withdraw Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher during a defeat at Reading in December 2007. Benitez was roundly criticised for prioritising the crucial Champions League tie in Marseille a few days later and, in violation of the club’s traditions, accepting the loss too readily. With the Sevilla game on the horizon, Klopp has either displayed understandable pragmatism or flirted with the same risky strategy that Benitez stood accused of.
In the second half on Saturday, those representing Liverpool struggled to put the plan, such as it was, into practice. It’d be unfair to suggest a lack of effort or desire for the most part, but an absence of belief is every bit as damaging. From the restart, there was no evidence of the conviction required to avoid a spanking. No indication that the 10 men could do anything to stop a devastating City attack running riot.
Essentially, Liverpool crumbled. The defence was static, the midfield overrun. Cross after cross arrowed towards the six-yard box with barely an attempt to block. A leadership vacuum from front to back.
By the end of the game only one of the front six that took the field remained in place. Jordan Henderson worked gamely to put out fires, but stripped of the threat provided by Mane and Salah, the industry of Roberto Firmino, the strength of Can and whatever it is Georginio Wijnaldum does, he was fighting a losing battle. With no pressure on the ball and vast spaces in front and round the side of the Liverpool backline, City could do pretty much as they pleased.
Playing a team of City’s quality with 10 men is like trying to fend off a swarm of angry bees with a pencil sharpener. Most of the time it won’t end well. But it would have been nice to see some kind of reaction, some indication that this was unacceptable, some attempt to push back.
A Liverpool team should not lose any game 5-0. It doesn’t matter how many players they have on the pitch or who they’re playing. It’s too easy to make excuses or to regard the final score as an irrelevance. It may not matter in the wider scheme of things but it matters now and now is all we have.
The Sevilla game is an ideal opportunity for these players to prove that they’re as good as we think they are and show they’re burning to make amends.
Nothing else will do.