Liverpool 0 – Southampton 1: Match Review

At what point does a slump become a crisis? Liverpool went into this game having scored in at least one leg of every semi-final they’ve played since facing Leeds in the 1970-71 Fairs Cup. Jürgen Klopp had never lost a semi-final battle in his career before last night, progressing in the previous six ties he’d been a manager for. Record are there to be broken, of course, but history was on Liverpool’s side last night.

January hasn’t been a favourable month for Klopp or his charges. Heading into the Wolves game this weekend we have won just one game, which came against a League Two side and Lucas Leiva scored the winning goal. That doesn’t feel like a particularly sustainable method of picking up victories. Any potential title charge is hanging by a thread and an unrealistic one at that. Now we’re out of the League Cup, but where did it all go wrong?

If Sturridge Starts It Should Be On The Right

I’ve said this before and I imagine I’ll say it a few more times until he retires, but Daniel Sturridge is not lazy. Last night he popped up all over the place, from out wide to deep in our own half. Unless people think he manages to apparate there then they have to acknowledge that he runs around a lot more than a ‘lazy’ player ever would. It fits into the media narrative of the player but, like a Donald Trump press conference, there’s no truth in it.

Despite his insistence that he wants to play through the middle the nature of his play means that he rarely stays in one place for very long and the notion that he ‘hangs on the shoulder of the last defender’ is nonsense, especially when teams sit so deep that the last defender is basically on the goal line. He is not in a good vein of form at the moment, as evidenced by his two misses from good positions last night. With that being the case the manager has a responsibility to put our best forward player the position that gets the most out of him and that entails making sure that Roberto Firmino is central.

AGIF / shutterstock.com

By putting Firmino out on the right we are losing everything that he offers in the middle in order to accommodate a player who isn’t playing well. That just doesn’t make any sense. Much like playing Adam Lallana in the front three to make up for the absence of Sadio Mané means having to use Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum in games when we don’t need both of them, so this solution gets the best out of nobody. Daniel Sturridge may believe he’s at his best when through the middle but that doesn’t work well for the team and when all is said and done the team is more important than one particular player.

Jürgen Klopp may well feel that he has to get Sturridge on the pitch because he’s arguably the Premier League’s second-best finisher behind Sergio Aguero. Daniel Sturridge may feel that he deserves to be on the pitch because he’s the best natural goalscorer at the club. Both of those things are fine, but we’ve learnt time and time again that he doesn’t work well with Firmino as his strike partner and Firmino doesn’t do enough out wide. That’s why if Sturridge is going to play he needs to be on the righthand side of the front three. If he doesn’t like it then he can’t start football matches for Liverpool, it’s that simple.

Southampton Deserved It – But The Ref Helped

There’s an entirely fair conversation to be had about the referee in last night’s match. Martin Atkinson once again demonstrated a lack of willingness to give us any decisions, denying a blatant penalty for handball and even giving a goal kick when it couldn’t have been clearer that the Southampton defender blasted it over the bar. He’s a terrible referee and this is yet another match where officials have cost us dear. It’s fine to say ‘we weren’t good enough’, but how many times have we watched the likes of Manchester United play poorly but win because of refereeing decisions going there way?

I am a firm believer in a referee doing their job and Martin Atkinson failed in that respect last night. A typical response to that is ‘we didn’t deserve to win anyway’ and I’ll come on to that, but a team not playing well doesn’t mean that a referee just gets to make up his own version of events. The fact that Liverpool weren’t good enough over the two legs doesn’t excuse a referee failing to give obvious decisions. It would have got us out of jail, but at the same time a team’s lack of good performance can look worse if the opposition gets to play outside the laws of the game.

It’s also entirely fair to point out that the referee didn’t do his job and that Southampton deserved to win. Had we got the penalty it would have masked the fact that we weren’t good enough over the course of the tie. It also wouldn’t have guaranteed a victory, with Saints just as likely to put us under the cosh in extra-time as they had in the previous 180 minutes. They were set-up to exploit our weaknesses and it’s important to say ‘well done’ and hope that they batter United in the final. Fraser Forster isn’t a great ‘keeper, Southampton were without Virgil van Dijk and had a kid at centre-back yet we didn’t test them enough.

We weren’t great over the two legs but Saints deserve a lot of credit for being the cause of that. They had an organised defence, allowed us to control the ball in the first two-thirds but shunted us out-wide when we entered their danger zone, limiting us to pointless crosses slung in from out wide. They have seen us in recent games and learnt that James Milner throwing a pointless ball into the middle of the box is our fallback position, which is entirely pointless considering we don’t have a target man. Claude Puel knows how to get the better of Jürgen Klopp and loves stopping Liverpool from winning. Sometimes you’ve just got to admit that the opposition played better than you and shrug your shoulders.

We’re Actually Ahead Of Schedule

I’m going to say something now that Liverpool fans won’t want to hear. It will seem like a dismissal of the season before it’s even over, or an attempt to ‘look on the bright side’. In reality it is neither of those things. Rather it is just a case of being realistic about where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. Here’s the thing:

We’re ahead of schedule for our return to the top.

I hate talk of ‘five year plans’ or of looking to the future. I believe that leagues and cups are there to be won each and every year and doing anything other than trying to win them is just a waste of everyone’s time. The truth is, however, that the likes of Leicester City’s incredible title win last season might have tricked people into believing that it’s easy to win the Premier League. I include myself in that, too. I believed that the Foxes victory would be like Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile and that the status quo of the top-flight would be shattered forever.

Yet the richest team in the country wins the Premier League virtually every year for a reason. From squad sizes to the ability of the players in those squads, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City are too good to all be poor at the same time. If Liverpool want to get above them and claim the ultimate prize then it’s going to take consistent development, not a quick fix. We were absolutely sensational for the first few months of this league campaign, playing the best football in the league by some distance. Sadly we don’t have a squad good enough to cope with long-term absences of important players such as Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mané.

Photo-Works / Bigstock.com

Jürgen Klopp may not believe that recruitment is the key and that’s an admirable stance. If he can develop our younger players in the way that he did at Borussia Dortmund then it will also be one of the only ways that we can win, given that we can’t compete with the big boys in an arms race. He will still buy players, though, and admitted that they’ve been looking this January but couldn’t get teams to sell their best assets. Supporters may well feel that we need to buy players to solve our problems but the reality is that we aren’t going to ship seven or eight players out and bring the same number in. Even if we did they’d take time to settle.

Our start to the season gave a lot of us belief. Even now we have enough points on the board to mean that we’d have been top this time last year. Chelsea’s insane form – that is putting them on course for a 90+ points season – means that it feels as though we’ve failed. In truth we’re actually ahead of schedule and are disappointed because of a top drawer initial few months of the campaign. Losing two home games on the bounce will always leave you feeling disappointed, especially when one results in being knocked out of a cup. But this is the time to remember that we’re building for a long-term, sustainable tilt at the top, not just a one season flash that dies away.

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