After what has been a truly bizarre week at the top of the Premier League, I thought I’d let the dust settle and compose myself before penning my thoughts on the Leicester game.
I’m not going to lie, I’m gutted. Perhaps more gutted now that I was in the immediate aftermath, probably still drunk on the emotion of Newcastle’s unpredictable victory against City. 5 points clear. Yes, unexpected ahead of this round of games, but gutting given the manner in which it played out.
The Leicester game was a strange one. I don’t think we were particularly poor; on another day we win that game by a landslide (and it certainly felt that was going to be on the cards when Mane puts us 1-0 up & then we go on a bit of an onslaught for 5 minutes, Firmino going close). Football’s fine margins – some have gone our way, some haven’t. A second goal in that early exchange again Leicester and it would have been a different story. Sadly though, it becomes a stalemate fixture we’ve seen fairly often as Liverpool fans, but the positives to take are that we’ve lost games like that too many times in recent years. What was frustrating was that we went more than 90 minutes there without scoring a goal, something we’ve not really done this season other than at The Etihad.
I’ll start by saying that Puel seems to be Klopp’s kryptonite – we’ve historically struggled against his teams . We drew 0-0 twice with Southampton in 16/17 in the league when he was their manager , losing 1-0 to them in both the home and away leg of the League Cup semi-final that season. We snuck past his Leicester at Anfield in December 17 (when Salah got the better of Maguire & brought us back from 0-1 down with a lovely brace) & then also spent large parts of the game at their place at the start of this season clinging on & creating very little in what was a really tight fixture.
Puel’s the gentleman’s Mourinho. His sides are compact & don’t really have an identifiable style beyond containing opponents & having a tight structure, with nippy forwards. He seems to be discredited a bit by the English media; possibly because of his quiet and perhaps uninspiring demeanour. One of my best mates lives in a flat in Southampton marina. Puel lived in the penthouse opposite & we once saw him through his window, pacing around in his Y-fronts. He was probably dreaming up his masterplan to thwart footy teams better than his. He’s done it this season against us there & already beaten Chelsea and City. Impressive really.
Puel largely left his wingers to look after Robertson and Henderson. Albrighton’s been decent at that over the years, but I wasn’t so much expecting Gray to look after his fullback. That said, Chilwell not only played well, but also didn’t have his man trying to go past him all too often. It’s probably the first time this season Robbo hasn’t been the best fullback on the pitch.
Shaqiri seemed to be all over the place & I struggled to make any sense of what the instruction was. On watching back, it seems like his role was perhaps to pre-occupy Gray or pull Chillwell out from Puel’s rigid & narrow back 4 when defending but he didn’t really achieve much of either; he certainly didn’t give Chilwell anything to think about on his outside. Shaqiri was coming deep & in field a lot, but largely into congested areas. Not his best display at all & for me it reiterates my belief that he’s far better suited to being an option off the bench.
There was lots of defending our front 3 as a narrow, compacted back 4 and not much engaging of our strikers from Maguire & Evans. They tended to hold their spaces rather than follow their man; a deadly sin when trying to track Firmino’s movement & arguably one of the reason we’ve stopped deploying him as the focal point of the attack as teams seemed to amend the way they defended Firmino’s movement. Maguire played well & this approach seems to suit him. It’s no wonder Puel bloody loved Van Dijk at Southampton; Van Dijk’s phenomenal at defending spaces (albeit still seemingly drowsy from his cold & flu remedy on Wednesday night). Salah didn’t really know what to do with himself. He seems to have greatly improved his ability to play as a contact striker, rolling tight central defenders with upper body strength and a turn of pace – the tighter they get, the more vulnerable they seem at times. Maguire learned this the hard way last season in fact.
I wasn’t so surprised to see Keita start in midfield against Leicester. We bought him for games like these, carrying the ball from deep against mid to low block midfields. Carrying the ball towards defensive lines always asks a question – are the centrebacks going to engage you? Are they going to hold their position? What was surprising was how little we saw him actually try to advance with the ball. The penalty shout was a great move & so close to what could have been a huge moment for both Naby and for all of us really. Keita struggled with the athleticism and physicality of Ndidi and Mendy in there & seemed cramped for space.
Their goal, incidentally, comes from a training ground approach we’ve been so good at all season. The trouble with rushing defensive lines from set pieces is that if you fuck it up, the cost is high. There was a beautiful example of it being marshaled by Van Dijk on 63mins, as we’ve seen a lot this season; most notably against Fulham when Mitrovic scores from an offside position and then we spring them quickly and score.
It didn’t really work for their goal though. Our defensive line is OK on the turnover but Gini is deepest & rushes as Van Dijk and Matip realise they need to drop. It ends up looking like it’s Matip’s fault but it’s just a mix up really.
I go back to my opening gambit about the unpredictability of Newcastle’s win against City & wonder whether there are blueprints to be followed from Rafa’s Newcastle and Puel’s Leicester here. We found it hard to make chances against Leicester’s compact & deep defensive banks and City similarly at Newcastle.
Klopp has talked about sides just retreating & showing Guardiola’s City too much respect, focusing on keeping the door shut rather than coming at them and trying to hurt them. Well Leicester have given the rest of the league some of this bait. If they take it, get ready for Klopp’s rock & roll.
It’s often said that you learn as much from failure as from success. It’s time for Klopp and his boys to get ruthless.