Teams often struggle to play at the same level after international breaks. It’s a sad but true fact of football. As well as jetting across the world and landing back in Blighty sometimes only a day or two before the Premier League gets back underway, players also have to adjust their playing style when working with a different manager. As I mentioned in my Bet On The Reds piece on Friday, Liverpool have experienced a mixed bag of performances under Jürgen Klopp after internationals so far.
#LFC scored 30 goals in their opening 11 league games.
Whenever they’ve got that many in the past, they’ve always gone on to win the title.
— Conor McNamara (@ConorMcNamaraIE) November 19, 2016
Back in November of 2015, just a few weeks after the manager arrived, the Reds went to The Etihad Stadium and put four past Manchester City. In March of this year we drew 1-1 with Spurs. Then earlier in the season the post-international break was followed up by that 0-0 bore draw with Manchester United at home. So what sort of performance could we expect from Liverpool against Saints? The all-action side that took City apart, or the team that couldn’t quite click against our biggest rivals?
Asking Questions And Getting Answers
One of the biggest clichés in football is that a title winning side wins even when it doesn’t play well. There’s an argument that the Reds have done that already this season, most notably against Swansea at The Liberty Stadium. Leaving St. Mary’s with just a point was frustrating, but it was most definitely not one of the occasions when Liverpool played poorly and deserved to drop points.
The extent to which we played better than Southampton cannot be underplayed. You might look at a 0-0 scoreline and think that it was a poor game that saw both sides cancel each other out, but that’s simply not the case. The Saints defence had to work overtime to keep our attack at bay and I’d be very surprised to see them produce such a good display at home for the rest of the season. If not for an excellent save from Fraser Forster Sadio Mané would have scored a superb goal against his former club, for example.
If Jose Mourinho wants a new centre-back, and I suspect he does, a move for Virgil van Dijk wouldn’t go amiss. The man is a colossus.
— Iain Macintosh (@iainmacintosh) November 19, 2016
That’s not to say that we played the same sort of sensational football that saw us hit Watford for six before the international break. We were still a little rusty at times and I very much doubt that Roberto Firmino would have missed the absolute sitter he was presented with in the second-half if the game had come next week rather than this. Yet we still created a whole host of opportunities and we limited a very good Southampton side to just three shots all game, none of which were on target.
How valuable a point that proves to be at the end of the season will depend on numerous factors, not least of which is how other teams get on when they head to the South coast. Saints have been playing some good football this season and stats guys will tell you that their position in the table gives a false impression compared to their underlying numbers. Not many teams at the top will leave St. Mary’s with a single point, let alone all three.
LFC 60% possession and 60% territory but Saints working like demons so far. Need to keep going but ensure no self-inflicted fuck ups at back
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) November 19, 2016
Another thing that will tell us how important the point was and how good the performance was will be what comes next. Sunderland might have got a win over the weekend but they’re still a terrible team under David Moyes and are absolutely there for the taking. If Liverpool respond to this slight setback of a point dropped by taking Sunderland out to the woodshed and giving them an almighty hiding then we’ll know about the mental resilience of Jürgen Klopp’s team.
Before the match people were talking about it as a tough game, one that might see us suffer our first defeat since Burnley. We didn’t endure that and I can see no reason why we can’t now win every game in between now and the arrival of Manchester City on Merseyside on New Year’s Eve, If you’re not going to win a game then you want to see the sort of performance Liverpool put in against Southampton.
Here’s a touch map of the final third for each team.#LFC‘s map is a sea of yellow.
— BBC 5 live Sport (@5liveSport) November 19, 2016
The Wrong Starting XI?
There’s an extent to which I genuinely don’t believe that Jürgen Klopp can do much wrong at the moment. I’m more than aware that Liverpool fans tend to want to deify their managers before they’ve even done anything and the German won’t deserve to have his name mentioned alongside the club greats until he’s won the league for us, yet he’s very much the ideal person to be in charge at Anfield right now.
Whether it be the decision he’s made to encourage a merging of the Academy and Melwood, the way in which he’s simply nullified any criticism of the ‘transfer committee’, or the way he responds to ridiculous stories such as the criticism of Wayne Rooney for going for a quick drink when on an international break, the manager makes me feel at ease. He is probably the best manager to watch and hear from in the Premier League right now, especially as José Mourinho has completely lost the plot, Pep Guardiola seems to be being dragged down with expectation at Manchester City and Ronald Koeman is trying to commit hari-kari at Goodison Park.
However that doesn’t mean that Klopp is immune from criticism. In my Bet On The Reds piece that I mentioned earlier I suggested that Daniel Sturridge as anytime goalscorer would be a good wager. That was based on information that Philippe Coutinho had been seen in a hospital on Friday and might not start the game. Whether the photo that did the rounds on Twitter was genuine or otherwise, there’s a question to be asked about whether the Brazilian should have been anywhere near the first-team at St. Mary’s.
Such a predictably low-key first-half at St Mary’s, after international break. Not sure playing Coutinho has paid off. Looks off the pace.
— Henry Jackson (@HenryJackson87) November 19, 2016
The little magician had flown halfway around the world to play some World Cup qualifying games for Brazil, playing more than 80 minutes in both matches. The two Brazilian players were the last to report back to training and the reports that Coutinho also had a slightly tight hamstring meant that I thought Sturridge would have been a better choice up top. I’m not a world-class manager, of course, and we easily could have beaten Southampton 3-0 and this conversation would never have taken place.
There is a precedent, though. Coutinho was on the bench when Leicester City came to Anfield after an international break earlier in the season. Daniel Sturridge started ahead of him, Liverpool’s attack looked just as convincing as always and we scored four against the Foxes. Klopp is known to take no chances over his players, having given numerous examples of his refusal to take risks in the past. Why didn’t he follow his own rules this time?
Jürgen Klopp: “Not a bad first half – much better second half. We had enough chances to win the game, but that’s football.” pic.twitter.com/ogfuaV8was
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) November 19, 2016
You also have to feel a little bit for Sturridge. The striker has been professional, patient and calm this season. He knows that this team is playing too well together for him to force his way in just at the moment but that his time will come. He could be forgiven for believing that this was his time. Coutinho must have been tired from his international break exertions and the striker scored when away on England duty. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for him to feel that he should have been in the starting line-up for this game.
Would we definitely have won if Sturridge had started? There’s no way to know, obviously. But I do think the decision to start Coutinho was the wrong one. Maybe Klopp felt that making too many changes to his starting line-up wouldn’t have been helpful and that the fact that Adam Lallana was out and had to be replaced by Gini Wijnaldum meant that getting Coutinho into the side was important for consistency. Whatever the reasoning, we weren’t quite firing on all cylinders and the manager could have, at the very least, introduced Sturridge earlier to see if he could make a difference.
Klopp: “The result is not perfect but the performance was much better than we could have expected when we think about our preparation”
— Melissa Reddy (@MelissaReddy_) November 19, 2016
The manager said afterwards that he’s been in charge of sides that have gone on to lose games like that. As a Liverpool fan I can tell him that I’ve seen the team I support go on to lose plenty of matches like that. Not only did we not lose this time but we are also leaving one of the hardest grounds in the country at the moment feeling disappointed that we didn’t take all three points. José Fonte, the Southampton defender, perhaps summed it up best when he said his side were ‘lucky’ to get the clean sheet. The Reds, on the other hand, were very unlucky indeed.