Liverpool fought back from an early setback to seal a crucial 2-1 win over Burnley at Anfield, further cementing their place in top-four.
Liverpool 2-1 Burnley
Premier League, Anfield
March 12, 2017
Goals : Wijnaldum 45+1′, Can 61′; Barnes 7′
An ugly but welcome win
A criticism often levelled at Liverpool is their inability to win ugly, with Klopp’s men needing to be at their best to secure three points.
But there was finally a welcome change at Anfield, where the below-par Reds battled through on a physically and mentally draining contest to drag themselves over the line despite turning in an extremely underwhelming performance.
It was arguably the worst display of the season in a winning game from Klopp’s side, but no Kopite will complain about securing three points of paramount importance as the top-four battles hots up.
Such performance can’t become the norm, but being able to win in such fashion is crucial, and that the Reds finally backed up big-game brilliance with a ground out win while being nowhere near our best was particularly pleasing.
Influential Wijnaldum steps up again
There were very few positives with individual performances in a sloppy contest at Anfield, but one came with the continued strong form of Gini Wijnaldum.
The Dutchman has grown into an increasingly influential figure as the season has progressed, most notably for his impact on the big stage, but he has drawn criticism for failing to produce in more routine fixtures – mirroring Liverpool’s collective fortunes.
Wijnaldum said pre-match that bringing the mentality produced in big games would be crucial to overcoming Burnley, and while the Reds didn’t as a collective, the midfielder did on a personal level to step up at a vital moment.
Wijnaldum’s goal on the stroke of half-time couldn’t have been better timed, but the quality of his fourth goal in six Anfield games shouldn’t be underestimated – with the midfielder keeping an impressively cool head in a chaotic penalty area to pick his spot and stroke home.
With Wijnaldum having found comfort against both big and small sides at Anfield – where all his goals for the Reds have been scored – it’s now time he replicates it on the road.
Coutinho woeful as struggles continue
Philippe Coutinho was a key component behind Liverpool’s stunning first-half of the season, but since returning from injury at the turn of the year he has failed to recapture that same form.
The Reds’ No.10 hasn’t produced the spark that so often inspired before damaging his foot against Sunderland in November, and he endured another ineffective afternoon at Anfield.
In a game in which key players were needed to step up and deliver, Coutinho, viewed as the ‘main man’, went missing as he failed to impose himself – surrendering possession too easily and, most worryingly, lacking any productivity or goal threat in his attacking play.
Burnley full-back Matt Lowton enjoyed the upper hand in the one-against-one battle with Coutinho, using a physical approach to bully the Brazilian and keep him on the periphery of the game.
Klopp’s decision to withdraw Coutinho on the hour-mark was the right call, despite having only the inexperienced Ben Woodburn to turn to, and that it was viewed as the correct move sums up the Brazilian’s struggles currently.
Left side of defence brutally exposed
It was widely expected that Burnley’s game-plan would be to surrender control, sit back and frustrate the Reds in two banks of four, but Sean Dyche’s side sprung a tactical surprise of sorts at Anfield.
Instead, the surprisingly ambitious visitors came with the intention to target the unstable left-side of Liverpool’s defence, getting Ragnar Klavan and James Milner turning and running back towards the Kop goal.
Instantly the visitors hit direct balls in between Klavan and Milner for livewire striker Andre Gray to latch onto, and the Clarets front man used his pace and physicality to wreak havoc with his runs in the left channel.
The Reds’ high-line was exposed by the lack of pace Klavan and Milner had to match Gray in the numerous foot races in the first-half, and it provided a successful route to unsettling Liverpool.
Though Klavan and Milner tightened up in the second-half, such moments, against a team set up to counter with a pacey, direct striker, would perhaps be a good time to introduce Alberto Moreno who would at least offer speed on the recovery.
It’s certainly something to consider, as with Burnley having found another of Liverpool’s shortcomings, other sides could follow suit going forward.
Vital win puts pressure on top-four rivals
There was extra pressure on Liverpool to secure victory at Anfield for more than one reason, but most importantly as the chance was presented to make vital headway on top-four rivals.
With the Reds the only Champions League chasers in league action, it was crucial all three points were won by hook or by crook as they moved a game ahead of those above them and two matches clear of Arsenal and Man United.
Klopp’s men did exactly what was required to cement their place in the top-four, moving five points clear of Arsenal and six of United courtesy of back-to-back wins for the first time in 2017.
The extra pressure that was on Liverpool on Sunday now directly passes to the Gunners and United, who now have to respond with absolutely no margin for error.
The task now is to maintain it.