I’LL be honest with you, it’s not easy writing about Liverpool FC every week and trying to think of something new to write. I often find myself thinking “I’m sure I’ve said this all before,” as I start typing.
The Reds throwing a commanding lead away does nothing to help in the “write something new” stakes either. I’ve already done a joke about taking my TV back because it keeps showing me the same game over and over again, so I don’t really have anywhere else to go on that front after last night’s shambles.
On the plus side, having read a tiny amount of post-match analysis and comment since the final whistle, it may be that my take on last night’s game is different to pretty much everyone else’s.
I don’t think we were that good.
I keep reading and hearing, including from our manager, that we were brilliant in the first half, but on first viewing I simply do not agree. For those of you who listen to the TAW Player Review show regularly, you’ll know that Neil Atkinson, Sean Rogers and I tend to at least try to make some notes during the heat and emotion of games so that we can compare our thoughts during the live action with any post-match analysis from a second viewing of the game.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, as I write this, I haven’t had the chance to watch the game again, and I’ve had limited time to reflect on what happened during another crazy 90-odd minutes, so by the time we record The Review show on Thursday morning my opinion could well have changed.
But, as it stands, my notes during the match and my impression of it were that, aside from the 15-minute spell that came between Roberto Firmino scoring our third goal and half time, when the Sevilla players were clearly shell shocked and didn’t know what had happened, our overall performance was distinctly average.
You might have heard me talk previously or write on these pages about the difference between elite coaches in various sports focusing on the scoreboard and the performance. The problem with scoreboards is that they can sway our perception of what actually happened on the pitch by way of performance, and in my view yesterday’s first half was a perfect example of that happening.
We started brightly, won a corner and scored a good goal, exploiting Chuckle Brothers-style defending that the Main Stand would have expected from a Liverpool team in recent seasons.
From that point, though, we didn’t dominate the game, and between minutes 12-19 Sevilla created three excellent opportunities, which should at the very least have seen them draw level — including the one in which Joe Gomez and Mo Salah didn’t deal properly with an overlap on our right-hand side, which led to a Sevilla player lashing a shot into the side netting when well placed to square the ball.
If you’d have stopped the game on minute 20 and asked who was most likely to score the next goal, the answer would almost certainly have been Sevilla. We’d been exposed by a simple overlapping run on our right, then given the ball away twice in central areas, exposing our centre backs with our full backs either high up the pitch having anticipated us controlling the ball (Gomez in the first example), or tucked inside to close down play (Alberto Moreno a few minutes later), with one simple pass on each occasion putting their attacker through one on one with our ‘keeper.
Each of the latter two chances failed to produce goals only through a combination of poor finishing and good goalkeeping, but we were certainly not on top overall during that period and were not limiting the shooting opportunities of our opponent as we had done so well in the past four games.
After breathing two huge sighs of relief, we then sprung a break of our own from which Firmino should have scored, and was redeemed from the resulting corner when we effectively replicated our first goal and put a gloss on the opening 22 minutes which wasn’t particularly deserved.
I made a note at that point about how being in a good run of form can see a team’s luck change considerably. The initial headers from each corner could easily have fallen either side of the player running in on the back post, leading to near misses rather than goals, and in other games Loris Karius’s tip onto the post would have seen the ball fall an inch to the left and go in off the post rather than rebounding into his grateful arms. (As an aside, it was good to see the goal-line technology confirming that when a ball hits the post and comes back out it definitely hasn’t crossed the line…)
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take that kind of good fortune all day long, but we shouldn’t overlook it when analysing the overall performance, especially when we’re so quick to bemoan bad luck when it rears its ugly head.
The third was a classic new-Liverpool goal and one which you’d be furious at your side conceding if you were playing against us. To allow a simple ball over the top for the pace of Sadio Mane or Salah to run on to is such a basic error against this Liverpool side as to deserve a public lashing, but at least we were ruthless in taking advantage, as we have been generally of late.
From that point, it was clear that the Sevilla players and their supporters had completely lost their heads and we did dominate for 15 minutes until half time.
Given what we know about the potential for our defenders to have significant lapses in concentration, though, it’s during these periods that I think we should be at our most clinical and ruthless.
You may have heard Sean talking on The Review about a lack of ruthlessness in both boxes in recent seasons, and I’ve mentioned in past weeks about the defence being the main focus of attention when in many games the attack being more ruthless would have put games beyond doubt. While it’s difficult to make that claim in a Champions League away game in which the forwards scored three goals (they should be able to rely on that being enough, after all), there was a clear opportunity from minute 30-47 to put the game beyond Sevilla’s reach, making a comeback so unlikely as to render the second half pointless.
Phil Coutinho and Salah managed to replicate the run and pass from Salah’s second goal against Southampton, with the goalkeeper this time thwarting our Egyptian hero, but despite putting the home side under pressure up to the half-time whistle, we failed to create enough clear-cut chances or to kill our opponent when we were standing with our collective feet on their necks.
As we know from past experience, a 3-0 advantage is by no means game over, but most would consider 4-0 to be the end of the road as far as a game being a competition.
The first-half possession statistics also showed Sevilla having more of the ball than us, despite the dominant scoreline, which factors into the argument that we were far from the brilliant away side that seems to be the common consensus.
After all, had Sevilla taken one of their three excellent chances in the first 20 minutes, we would all be criticising the defence and midfield for its first-half performance as well as its second, and, I’m amazed to say, Karius is to thank for that criticism not materialising earlier than the 51st minute.
The irony of the above is that, if you agree with me, it makes a 3-3 draw a little easier to swallow, given how poor we were in the second half. While we shouldn’t be throwing away three-goal leads, in my opinion the advantage we had after half an hour wasn’t reflective of the performance or the game anyway, but more of our recent ability to score goals from nothing which is a welcome addition to our armoury regardless of anything else.
Obviously, the same issues persist with regards to defensive frailties, and my concern is that it’s difficult to see whether we have fundamental problems that will only be rectified with a change of system, or whether better players will be the cure that most supporters think they will.
I’ve been saying for a while now and will continue to say it until I’m proved wrong, but I think that the position Jordan Henderson plays for a Jürgen Klopp team is arguably the most difficult in world football, edging ahead only of playing centre back in a Klopp team.
We can buy whoever we want, but their performances elsewhere and in other systems are unlikely to give us much of a clue as to how well they’ll perform for us, which we won’t know for sure until they’re exposed as much as the heart of our team can be from the system we play.
Our entire team tends to play on the front foot in the expectation and anticipation that we will win the ball in tight situations. While that looks amazing when it comes off and leads to many dazzling goals, it also means that the slightest mistake leads to our deepest-lying midfielder and centre backs often being made to look like fools with little protection around them.
The first one on one which Karius saved last night was a case in point, with Gomez having crept forward thinking that Gini Wijnaldum would win the ball, only for the Sevilla midfield to nick it and expose the gap to the right of Dejan Lovren which had been left by our young full back. I don’t think for a second that any of the players involved were doing anything other than what they had been instructed, they simply didn’t pull it off.
Maybe Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk will solve the conundrum but, even if they do, there are question marks about what happens when they’re not available, given that one has a proclivity to pick up red cards and the other having missed half of last season through injury.
The boss has already said that there aren’t any other centre halves he thinks would improve us, clearly on the basis that to play in this way and not look like an absolute novice is not something most defenders could pull off.
Maybe, then, it’s time to start thinking about converting some pacey midfielders to play in the heart of our defence or to follow the rumours of a couple of weeks ago and bring Javier Mascherano back to the club. At least then we could stop the persistent conversation about there not being any leaders in the side.
Until then, it’s a case of hoping that Jürgen can solve the mystery of a team that is capable of setting records for preventing shots on target one week and equally capable of conceding three horror goals the next.
Ultimately, we drew away at Sevilla which is no bad result, and another mini run like the one we’ve just been on will see us through to the Champions League knockout stages for the first time in almost a decade and in the mix for a top-four place heading into Christmas.
It’s important to keep things in perspective, and it’s far from the time for anyone to lose their heads. Instead, let’s get ready to give our old foes from Stamford Bridge a Saturday night, pissed-up Anfield welcome.
I’m looking forward to it already.