Clearly, this is not the same squad that walked the Premier League last season and came within a point of it the season before. That’s obvious on the face of it if you look at our current injury list, which added Fabinho, Divock Origi (whatever), and new signing Ben Davies before the match and James Milner, Robot Warrior during it. On top of that, numbered among that injury list for a long stretch were all three of the players we signed over the summer to reinforce that squad. We’re still missing the best performer of that trio in Diogo Jota for perhaps another couple weeks, based on the latest reports. But, speaking of threes, a lack of offensive spark is only one of the problems facing this team and really wasn’t the issue today. Instead, we ran into the other two, which is coordination between the keeper and the back line, as well as simple confidence that everyone is on the same page,
The genuinely aggravating thing about this, as it has been for much of this streak of futility, is that we completely dominated most of this game. In the first half, we could’ve been a couple goals up and we had Leicester simply holding on for almost all of it. But the ball didn’t bounce in. That’s football. It happens. The Foxes were on much more even terms in the second, but we still carved out a goal through some beautiful play between Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah. The match was in our hands. And then, in seven minutes, it all fell apart. The first was gifted from another poor tackle by Thiago Alcântara (not his usual WTF? display, but still not ideal on the edge of the box) and VAR apparently not noticing how far offside Wilfred Ndidi was when the ball was actually kicked. Once past that debacle, we somehow failed to account for the fact that Leicester was even more encouraged to play their long ball approach and a miscommunication between first-time starter Ozan Kabak and Alisson led to a colossal error. The third was just a matter of surging too far forward with offensive subs Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Xherdan Shaqiri, in our desperation to secure at least a point from the match. Instead, we got nothing and get nothing.
It’s difficult to think of what else can be done at this point, because the games are not slowing down (we’re in Hungary on Tuesday) and, with 10 players injured, our options are limited. Furthermore, this is not the “mentality monsters” squad of the previous two seasons, where going behind was only an excuse to work harder and pull out yet another 2-1 win. You can see some of the cracks beginning to appear as a shouting match took place between Thiago and Jordan Henderson in the lead-up to Leicester’s equalizer. The pressure is starting to tell and it’s not the pressure of a title race, which is long gone, but actually staying in the top 4 so that the Champions League and the money and glory that it creates won’t completely scuttle the summer plans that the club has been building towards for the past 18 months. Is it fair to say we had some injury luck last season? Yes. Is it fair to say that the pandemic has negatively impacted a lot of what we’d like to have been doing? Of course. I don’t think any Liverpool fan feels like the title from last season was even properly celebrated because of what’s been happening around the world.
But if there were any time for the squad- and the fans -to circle the proverbial wagons, this is it. Yes, it’s a massive disappointment. Yes, there have been many mistakes. Yes, there will be recriminations aplenty about this or that player who could’ve been bought and this or that change that could’ve been made. But hanging over everything has been the ridiculous injury list that had us playing midfielders at centerback for a majority of the season, instead of, y’know… in the midfield, where they (Fabinho and Hendo) are sorely missed and our entire style of play is disrupted. That, in itself, doesn’t explain why a 0-1 match that we dominated turned into a 3-1 defeat, but it’s certainly the trendsetter for the way our season has gone.
Leicester City 3 – 1 Liverpool
There was nothing particularly extraordinary, tactically, about the match. Leicester came out in their usual 4-2-3-1 with Jamie Vardy running the point and Ndidi slowing basically everything coming through the middle. What’s concerning is the continued failure for Liverpool to generate much of anything from the wings. Leicester’s attack was focused on our right side, so their defense ended up slanted in that direction, as well. That meant that Andy Robertson had room to maneuver, but with Ndidi on his side, nothing much came of some rather good looks. Similarly, Leicester packing the right meant that they were initially vulnerable to the long ball, a couple of which from Hendo landed in Mo’s environs but which, again, he was unable to do anything with.
A minor part of the downside of this loss is the amazing assist from Bob that led to Mo’s goal that now won’t receive as much notice as it should have. It was reminiscent of his similar effort against Newcastle last season and demonstrates just what both of them can do when given the opportunity. It’s mildly ridiculous to say “It’s too bad it hasn’t happened more!” when Mo is still leading the league in goals (17) but Opta also pointed out during the match that we had more first half goals than any other side in the PL throughout 2020. Since the new year, we’re now dead last with 1. This is where we are.
On the miscues. Right up front, I think the problem with the second goal is just an example of miscommunication. Ozan isn’t going to be able to play that ball effectively with Harvey Barnes closing him down. He’s already off balance and will be bracketed by Barnes and Vardy to probably a similar result. But if Alisson is going to come out, you’re assuming that he’ll shout for it. Of course, since this is the first time they’re playing a game together, that shout may have come or Alisson may have just assumed in the heat of the moment that his CB would understand how this situation is normally handled.
But the equalizer is something else. I lobbed some criticism at Thiago last week that was purely speculative. I was wondering if his passes, brilliant as they are, were an actual measure of what he’s contributing to the side. It’s certainly possible to place balls that are simply “too good” for your teammates. We see it happen with Bob all the time. You want that style of play, mostly because it creates chances more often than problems. But the reason it works for Bob is because he’s normally dropping to retrieve the ball and not placing it into ridiculously good areas until we get forward. Thiago, as a midfielder, doesn’t have that luxury as often; especially given the number of sides we’ve faced who are attempting to outnumber us in the middle third. But that’s still speculation. I have nothing to back that up and, all things considered, would rather have Thiago than not. What worked for Bayern for years should be able to work for us if we have our usual midfield. Imagine Thiago with the security of Fabinho behind him and with Hendo to feed it to? Yeah.
What isn’t speculative is that, no matter how good he’s been on the ball, he’s been a mild nightmare off of it. He already has a collection of cards for his confounding slide tackles and the one he delivered on the edge of the box today was another to add to that list. There can be any number of arguments about how much more difficult the Premier League might be than the other majors, given the overall talent disparity between them. It’s definitely hard to imagine that the Bundesliga, fiefdom of Bayern Munich, is as difficult on a weekly basis as the English league is. Thiago said, earlier in the season, that he found the pace of the PL something of a challenge to adapt to. That challenge is still in the offing, because he’s still usually behind the opposition when it comes to defending or regaining possession. Maybe he still has some lingering effect from both the injury and the long layoff. That might explain why he was benched today for Millie. But we certainly seem to be seeing a lesser version of Thiago than we expected. Again, this can’t be dumped entirely on him. He’s not a weakness or anything absurd like that. But in the situation we’re in now, I don’t think anyone can be faulted for hoping that he would be one of the major stopgaps in our swiftly sinking boat.
First time we’ve lost three league games in a row since November 2014, when Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers was in charge. That, of course, means that it’s the first time this has happened under current manager Jürgen Klopp. Does that mean there’s nowhere to go from here but up? Like the zen master said: We’ll see. Leipzig on Tuesday along the Danube.