Middlesbrough 0 – Liverpool 3: Match Review

We’ve been in a bit of a slump lately, have’t we? No one’s really wanted to put a label on it as we’ve all been convinced that the Reds would bounce back, but that’s what’s been going on. We’ve looked far from convincing since we returned from the international break and different levels of opposition have posed questions that we barely had the answers to. Even our win over Sunderland wasn’t exactly a whitewash.

So which way would this one go? Would we continue along the same lines of having difficulty getting back to our best? Or could we respond to our recent adversity with a performance that was worthy of our moniker of ‘title challengers’? I said when we lost to Bournemouth that how we coped with our first loss in all competitions since we played Burnley would be the making of us. Was our draw with West Ham a further blip or a sign of us returning to our mean?

This Was A Tough Game To Have

Let’s not mess around here, this was a tough match. It’s all very well and good looking back with hindsight at the Reds’ performance and feeling that it was a done deal before a ball was even kicked, but it very much wasn’t. I’ll come back to the state of our squad in a moment, for now I’m purely talking about how much of a tricky side to face Middlesbrough actually are.

The stats suggest that Boro are a tricky team to break down. They might not be all that exciting going forward but their points have been built on the back of a stingy defence. They’d conceded just seven goals in their previous nine games before we arrived at The Riverside. That included matches against Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. Antonio Conte’s all-conquering side might have emerged with the points but they found it hard going and only won 1-0.

When you only talk about their home games then they look even more like the defensive Scrooges of the Premier League. In their last four at The Riverside they’d conceded a mere two goals. Their strengths very much played into Liverpool’s weaknesses; or at least the weaknesses we feel have been exposed recently. They’re a strong team with pace in places and if you say you weren’t worried about how they’d do from set-pieces then I’d say you’re a liar.

Added to the perceived ability of Middlesbrough to shut teams out was the fact that our squad is looking severely depleted right now. The biggest problem concerning the debate over the goalkeeper isn’t that Karius isn’t good enough but that neither of them are. The fact that he was dropped will have pleased some Liverpool fans but a fair share of others, myself included, won’t have been delighted by the presence of the man who replaced him.

Add in the fact that Matip was also missing and you’ve got a back five that featured two players who haven’t been playing in it recently. The managers decision to take Joe Gomez along for the ride perhaps expressed his concern at how light we are at the back. He wasn’t needed, but we could easily have been in a situation where our defence saw Klavan and Gomez as our centre-halves.

The situation further up the pitch wasn’t all that much better. You can’t argue with five goals in five games from Divock Origi, but the Belgian is probably our third-choice centre forward behind Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge. If Danny Ings was fit you might even have seen him come into the side ahead of him in recent games. The absence of Coutinho continues to limit our options up front and Firmino’s form has dropped off rather sharply over the last few weeks.

In spit of all of that, however, we looked back to our free-flowing attacking best. The second-half performance will rightly get all the plaudits but it’s important to remember that we easily could have gone in two or three to the good at half-time, too. If Jürgen Klopp was hoping for a response after two underwhelming games then I’d suggest that he very much got one. 3-0 might suggest an easy ride, but this was a top-class performance.

Adam Lallana Is The Best Of British

What a turnaround to his Liverpool career Adam Lallana has enjoyed. The signing of the England midfielder from Southampton was supposed to give us a touch more leadership in the middle of the park. It was supposed to bring goals and creativity. Yet he struggled to settle initially, finding his time on Merseyside blighted by niggling injuries and perhaps becoming victim of the famed ‘weight of the shirt’.

For some Liverpool fans he was too lightweight, too easy to knock off the ball. He didn’t bring the goals we thought he would and even his famed creativity was lacking. It was easy to lump him in with the likes of Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert as part of the failed experiment of the Reds buying players from Southampton. That was a narrative that supporters and the press alike bought into, but time has shown that it isn’t a fair one.

The arrival of Jürgen Klopp as manager has completely changed the direction of Lallana’s Liverpool career. Before that he was a decent enough squad player but hardly a remarkable addition to the side. We all remember the iconic image of him collapsing into the German’s arms at the end of his first match in charge against Spurs last year. It was indicative of the way the former Dortmund boss was going to want his side to play.

We didn’t realise then just how important to that style of football Lallana would become, of course. The decision from Klopp to drop him deeper and take him out of the front three has been an inspired one, demonstrated most clearly by his first goal last night. He can now arrive late to the action, using his intelligence to know when to make the runs and when to hold back. He can also see the action going on ahead of him and find ways to involve other players. In all the talk of Coutinho being absent recently I think we’ve perhaps understated how crucial to our style of play Adam Lallana actually is.

Aside from adding goals and assists to his game, Lallana is also the instigator of the press. He knows when to go and when to hold and other players follow his example. The goals will rightly take the headlines but it was his all round play I was most impressed with yesterday. Boro couldn’t live with him and his name on the scoresheet was little more than just deserts. Keeping him fit and fighting could be a crucial part of our burgeoning title challenge.

More Goalkeeping Questions

Just when you think you’ve written your last piece on the goalkeeper situation, Jürgen Klopp goes and throws you a curveball. I was thoroughly expecting to see Loris Karius between the sticks last night and thought it was an interesting decision from the German to drop his countryman. It feels like the former Mainz shot-stopper is now in a situation he will struggle to recover from.

Firstly, credit where credit’s due. Simon Mignolet looked assured and solid enough at the back last night. We played with a much higher line than I’ve seen from the defence when the Belgian has been in goal in the past and we weren’t afraid to turn to him as an option for passes. He still spanked one clearance straight up into the air at one point during the first-half but it wasn’t the disaster most people envisioned.

The problem with Mignolet, of course, is that he isn’t a terrible goalkeeper. He’s just not a very good one. He can go five or six games without messing up but you know that a mistake is increasingly likely in the seventh one. Against Middlesbrough he achieved his 50th clean sheet, which seems like a decent enough return. Until you realise that he’s played 158 games for us and that means that he’s only managing top stop the ball going into the back of the net once in every three games.

Simon Mignolet’s performance last night is proof that Klopp made the right call, for the immediate at least. How Karius responds to it is an entirely different matter and it will be interesting to see whether he sinks or swims. Hopefully he can now take time to settle to life in England and come out the other side as the goalkeeper we all thought we’d be signing. It’s clear that Mignolet isn’t the long-term solution to our woes in that position but if he can continue delivering performances like last night then we’ll be all the better for it.

mooinblack / shutterstock.com

mooinblack / shutterstock.com

The final thing I’ll say on this matter is that it’s remarkable how much better any goalkeeper looks when he gets decent protection from his defence. We could have had a cabbage on a stick in goal for large portions of that game and it wouldn’t have been unduly bothered. That takes nothing away from Mignolet’s performance as I genuinely think he did well with the little he was confronted with, but if we can be that solid at the back moving forward, limiting the opposition to just a few shots on target, then whoever is in goal will benefit enormously.

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