Napoli 1 – Liverpool 0: Match Review & Analysis

Regardless of the result tonight, the win over Paris Saint-Germain gave us the flexibility to truly go for the win here without being overly concerned about the points. Yes, everyone always wants to win every match in every competition, but that’s not always a realistic outlook and sometimes you need to be a little bit more down-to-earth about the best way to progress out of your group. We made it to the knockout stage with twelve points last season, though Sevilla only needed nine to join us there. Consequently, the reality is that we went into tonight knowing that we were one-third of the way towards a likely progression to the last sixteen of a competition that we reached the final of during our last campaign and would like to go one step further in this time around. One of the questions Liverpool supporters have been asking is whether or not we’ve got the ability to fire on at least two fronts, given how well we performed in Europe during our last time in club football’s top competition.

That PSG were 4-0 up over Red Star Belgrade by the hour mark and won the match 6-1 is suggestive of the fact that we might well be expected to win both games against them. The fact that they come back-to-back is also a big help, meaning that we’ll know what we need to do in the away fixture in terms of points and the sort of thing that we can expect to face. There was, for me, a question about how much we should have been focussing on tonight’s match given the importance of Sunday’s game in the race for the Premier League title. I absolutely understand the argument that we could have rested people and lost tonight before losing to City at the weekend anyway, but even so, I thought that we could have rested a few people after a tough game against Chelsea on Saturday evening. The front three haven’t been clicking and maybe it might have been a chance to mix them up a touch, whilst I would’ve preferred to see Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez rested pre-Manchester City. So what actually happened?

Henderson With A Point To Prove Is The Best Henderson

I’ve written on here before about the fact that it’s almost impossible to talk sensibly about Jordan Henderson. Such is the opinion-splitting nature of the Liverpool captain that any complimentary comment about him is met by a barrage of abuse, whilst negative wording is greeted by those that rate him feeling as though they have to go too far the other way in his defence. Whether your opinion is that he’s the worst player ever to wear Red or that he’s a top-class midfielder, you’re exaggerating your take too much to mean that any kind of realistic conversation can be had about him. The reality is that he probably finds himself somewhere in the middle of the two opinions; he’s a very good player who has his limitations.

I can well understand the manager’s thinking behind resting him for tonight’s match, putting him on the bench in order to give Naby Keita a run out. It wouldn’t have been an easy decision for Jürgen Klopp, but he rates the former Sunderland man more than most supporters and knows how important he’ll be versus Manchester City. He therefore came on to the pitch with a point to prove and a Jordan Henderson with a point to prove is a sight to be seen. The midfielder was immediately in the heart of the action, getting tackles in, spraying raking passes around the pitch and generally being involved in everything good we were doing. His critics won’t like reading it, but he’s one of the few players who understands what the manager wants from him and does his job to a tee. The problem that those same critics would point to, however, is that he doesn’t do much more than that job.

Is The Midfield Working?

Having written about Jordan Henderson, it’s only fair that I talk about the midfield in general. Everyone is focussing on the attack this season and with good reason; whatever the manager may say publicly, he must be slightly worried about how poorly they’re playing privately. Yet the service they’ve been receiving from the midfielder has been lacking all season long. It’s weird one, given that all of the individual parts of the midfield have been performing, yet as a unit it seems to be lacking something that helped the forward look so strong in our last campaign. The reason for that really is hard to identify, however. I’ve been more critical of some than James Milner at times this year, but there’s no question that he’s been our most important player overall since the season started so we can’t really point the finger at him.

Gini Wijnaldum is often accused of going missing, especially away from home. Though he wasn’t great tonight, he’s been equal to Milner in terms of reliability the rest of the time, impressing as a number six in a manner that virtually nobody expected. The aforementioned Henderson hasn’t been playing for the whole season so it’s unfair to blame him, whilst Naby Keita is still learning how to play for a Klopp team. He was poor during his fifteen minutes on the pitch tonight, giving the ball away a number of times and putting his teammates under pressure. That he dropped to the floor without being challenged suggests that an injury might be the reason for that. I’m sure I’ll get some people telling me that writing about the midfielder in such a way is a bit of an over-reaction after only one match, but the reality is that we’ve now lost two of our last three and haven’t started playing well at all yet. Something’s not right.

Were We Thinking About City?

Let’s be right, Liverpool absolutely stunk the place out tonight. The passing was sloppy from the get-go, giving a poor Napoli side plenty of heart and reasons to feel confident about getting something our of the game. Jürgen Klopp said afterwards, “Tonight we just weren’t good enough” and that about sums it up. Whilst both the manager and the players talk about taking everything one match at a time, I’m not sure that they really can. There’s no question that they know how big the game at the weekend is, with the winners of the mini-league between the top clubs almost certainly likely to be the winners of the Premier League overall. It can’t be easy to ignore a match like that, especially considering the fact that we beat them three times last season and the defending champions will be out for some sort of revenge.

I’m surprised that Klopp played such a strong team tonight with the weekend in mind, not just in terms of wanting to keep his best players fit but also because of that sense of distraction. In the past he’s spoken about the need for rhythm and perhaps it was with that in mind that he selected pretty much the side most people would have been expecting to see against Pep Guardiola’s side. They played a tough match last night that they had to fight hard in and there it was only really Bernardo Silva who I would imagine will play at Anfield that found himself on the bench. Maybe the manager was thinking about that when he went so strong, but whatever the reason it didn’t work. He might have been hoping to get ahead quickly and then be able to make changes, but instead we toiled all night long and are heading into the weekend lacking both confidence and form.

Or Were We Just Tired?

When the draw for the Champions League was made, pundits and supporters alike pointed to this run of fixtures as a period when our season could be made or broken. Facing Chelsea twice in a week before an away game against Napoli and a top of the table clash against Manchester City looked like a daunting task, to say nothing of the fact that we had Paris Saint-Germain at the start of it all. When he took the three points from the PSG game, however, it looked like it might not be such a tough run after all and would, instead, give the team a chance to prove its mettle. Losing to Chelsea in the League Cup wasn’t overly worrying, considering we played a weakened team and had more than enough chances to win the game. We also deserved to take all three points from Stamford Bridge, meaning that our confidence wasn’t rocked too much by the draw.

Whilst we might have emerged from the first few games with credit, then, tonight it looked as though the effort needed to do just that left us short of legs all over the park. The poor play seemed to be tired legs and minds rather than anything more worrying, with the manager having essentially run the players into the ground over the past couple of weeks. The decision to go so strong tonight means that our options for Sunday are limited if the manager wants to stick with what is traditionally thought of as our ‘best’ eleven, perhaps forcing his hand in terms of mixing things up a little bit. As unthinkable as it would have been last season, dropping one of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino or Mo Salah might not be the worst idea in the world. Daniel Sturridge has proven that he’s up to the task of scoring goals, especially against a former team. If Klopp feels his charges are tired, might it be time for the former City man to step up to the plate?

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