Watford 3 – Liverpool 3: Match Review & Analysis

All summer long Jürgen Klopp has been banging the drum about how happy things are at Liverpool Football Club at the moment. There’s been a feeling of positivity and contentment, with the manager talking about the strengths of the players and people involved in the background genuinely convinced that there are good vibes at Anfield heading into the new season. It’s part of the ‘sell’ of the club to potential new signings, so the last thing we needed was something to disrupt the harmony on the eve of the new Premier League season. Step forward Philippe Coutinho.

The Brazilian’s decision to hand in a transfer request the day before we were due to play Watford was poorly timed at best, malevolent in intention at worst. Perhaps designed to drive a wedge between the player and supporters so we’ll be happy to let him go, there’s no question that the situation regarding the midfielder will have had an effect on the rest of the team today. Still, you can’t blame a player not on the pitch for mistakes made by those who did make the starting XI, so what were the main talking points from today’s game?

Brand New Season, Same Old Problems

Did anyone really think Liverpool’s defensive issues would have magically disappeared heading into this season? Talk of having ‘worked on set-pieces’ in pre-season might have lulled some people into a false sense of security, especially as we didn’t actually concede from a corner in any of the final eight games of last season. Yet it was always obvious that we’d merely brushed over the problems we have at the back, with the summer-long pursuit of Virgil van Dijk proof positive that the manager is acutely aware of our weaknesses. The Dutchman will certainly improve our defensively frailties but he’s got no hope at all of fixing them altogether on his own.

If you weren’t sure about it before today, our trip to Vicarage Road should make it abundantly clear that the problems we’ve got are simultaneously systemic and about the personnel. There are major, major issues that Jürgen Klopp has yet to make any real effort to deal with despite being at the club for nearly two years. I know I’m a bit of a broken record on this, but the goalkeeper remains a massive concern. He wasn’t directly responsible for any of the goals today, but you don’t have to be directly responsible for the mistakes to be a part of the problem. His communication is that poor that he may as well be a mime. On more than one occasion today he failed to tell the defence what he was going to do and it caused mayhem.

mooinblack / shutterstock.com

The goalkeeper isn’t responsible for the system, of course, and the manager really has to find one that suits his players. The problem with defending zonally is that it only works if the players marking each zone are switched on and know how to defend. Roberto Firmino is an excellent player in so many ways, but his refusal to jump for Watford’s first goal was criminal. I’m more than willing to listen people say he shouldn’t have been in the middle of the box, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that he made no attempt whatsoever to defend the incoming cross. Joel Matip wasn’t exactly blameless, also making no real effort to jump and clear the ball as it came in. That no one seemed to be watching the movement of the biggest player on the pitch is a real concern.

Time and time again the Hornets managed to get at us courtesy of players switching off. Their equaliser at the death came about because Gini Wijnaldum, frankly, bottled his header. Their second was down to Alberto Moreno failing to make his tackle. The Spaniard would have been pilloried if he hadn’t even gone in for the tackle, but once he committed he really needed to make sure that he won the ball. Instead Watford were allowed to get in on goal and score, just two minutes after we’d taken the lead. Are every single one of our problems down to the system? Probably not, but it’s certainly true that the manager needs to get it sorted if we’re to have any hope of challenging for anything other than a top four finish.

The Attack Remains Scintillating

As much as the defence will give the manager headaches and cause supporters to cry silently at night, the attack looks like it will be an absolute joy to watch this season. Mohamed Salah spent the first-half looking as though he was destined to spend the match trying to hard to score, but once he’d done exactly that he seemed to settle into his role and could have bagged a couple. One of the reasons that I feel that the Coutinho situation is overshadowing things right now is that the Brazilian will have an absolute field day playing behind Sadio Mané and Mo Salah, should the club be able to resist the overtures from Barcelona and ignore the player’s desire to leave.

Salah was rusty for large parts of the match but he took up good positions and definitely looked as though he will cause all sorts of trouble when he’s up to full-speed and fitness. Mané, meanwhile, means business. The man is absolutely class and his goal was stunningly well taken. We struggled without him last season and whilst I hope that the arrival of the Egyptian will limit how dependent we are on him that doesn’t change the fact that he is a real match winner. His finishing is at elite level and I honestly think he’s only going to get better and better the more that he plays and the more that the players around him learn what he’s going to do.

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One of those players is Roberto Firmino, who wasn’t at his best today and yet still managed to score a penalty and get an assist. He feels like the sort of player who needs to get an understanding with those around him and I can imagine him notching up more than twenty goals this campaign if he stays on penalties. He definitely missed his countryman, with the two seemingly passing to each other all the time last season like kids at school who know they’re the best, but he’ll get a decent relationship going with Mané and Salah as the year progresses and then the rest of the league may well be forced to sit up and take notice.

What’s even more remarkable about the exciting performance of the attack is the fact that they were actually given very little support. None of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum or Emre Can offered the sort of help to the attacking unit that Coutinho or Adam Lallana would have had they been playing. Instead the front three essentially had to fend for themselves as the midfield three ‘protected’ the defence. When Klopp can find the balance in the middle of the park that offers help to the backline whilst simultaneously helping the attack we could be genuinely devastating. That might well be important, with results so far this season suggesting that the team which scores the most goals could well win the league…

van Dijk Won’t Fix Everything

League winners cannot afford to concede more than around thirty goals a season. That means that they need to go at a rate of conceding less than a goal a game. Today we conceded a tenth of all of the goals we should be looking to allow in throughout the campaign. Whether, as I mentioned before, that’s down to the personnel alone or is also to do with the system the manager’s playing is up for debate. What can’t be argued with, however, is that Virgil van Dijk, should we sign him, will not be solving those problems on his own. If you think we bring him in and barely concede again then I’m afraid that you’re destined to be disappointed.

Even if you’re willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that we’ve conceded seven more set-piece goals than the next top four contender in Manchester City, the fact that we’ve let in nine more goals than Arsenal since Klopp arrived at Anfield should be a real concern. The Gunners aren’t exactly known to be defensively solid, so the reality that they’re better than us should give you a real sense of how much work there is to do. We have a goalkeeper who lacks the ability to communicate with the rest of his defence, a midfielder playing at left-back unless a Spaniard without a brain is chosen ahead of him and two central defenders who simply aren’t good enough starting every week.

Moreno. Dimwit.

All of that is to say nothing of the fact that our best performer against Watford from a defensive point of view was an eighteen-year-old who wouldn’t even have started the game if Nathaniel Clyne was fit. Virgil van Dijk doesn’t change the system that the manager elects to use, nor does he get players to be braver when the ball is played into the box. None of that is to suggest that he won’t make a difference, simply that he’s not the saviour that he’s being touted as. It’s worth bearing in mind that plenty of Liverpool supporters believe that Mamadou Sakho should be brought back in from the cold to ‘solve’ our defensive issues, in spite of the fact that the Reds conceded 83 goals in 56 matches with him in the team and kept just twelve clean sheets.

Does the manager have a blind-spot about the defence? He’s seemingly decided that Alberto Moreno shouldn’t be sold after all, despite the fact that Watford consistently targeted our lefthand side because they know he’s a liability. Klopp seems happy to put his faith in James Milner for that position for big matches and apparently trusts the Spaniard more than his own new signing in Andrew Robertson. There are so many odd decisions made by the German when you consider that he used to be a defender himself, so perhaps even he believes that van Dijk will be a catch all for our problems. If the purchase of the Dutchman is the only bit of defensive transfer business that we’re going to conduct before the window closes then out-scoring the opposition might be our only chance of winning.

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