Closing in on a top-four finish at the tail end of 2016/17, Liverpool produced a stubborn 1-0 win away to Watford. Three months on, it had all changed.
Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds made the trip down the M6 and the M1 ahead of Saturday’s clash under a cloud of negativity.
With Philippe Coutinho formally requesting a transfer in an email to sporting director Michael Edwards on Friday afternoon, Klopp’s plans for the season were dealt a heavy blow.
To make matters worse, Coutinho was sidelined with a back injury, along with Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge, two of which played over 60 percent of games last season.
But heading into 2017/18, Liverpool required a positive approach, as they embark on a campaign that will see them compete on four fronts, including a return to European football.
After sealing their top-four finish in gritty fashion in May, however, the Reds returned to type at Vicarage Road in August.
May: Watford 0-1 Liverpool
Liverpool kicked off the final month of 2016/17 with a trip down to Hertfordshire, where Walter Mazzarri’s relegation-threatened Hornets awaited.
After a demoralising 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace at Anfield eight days before, the Reds needed a victory to ensure they remained on course in the Premier League.
With both Man City and Man United bearing down on them, the onus was on Liverpool to produce, and speaking before the game Klopp urged his side to “fight for what we can fight for.”
The objective, after January’s fallout from a plethora of injuries, Joel Matip‘s eligibility farce and Sadio Mane‘s spell at the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, was a top-four finish.
And after spending much of the season preparing his charges to overwhelm the opposition with scintillating attacking play, Klopp opted for a change of tack.
Coming up against a Watford side built on power, strength and determination, Liverpool dug deep and mounted a resolute defensive approach.
At Vicarage Road that Monday night, the Reds were ruthless in their own half and dominant in Watford‘s, with Emre Can‘s stunning overhead kick enough to secure the three points.
But aside from the German’s Goal of the Season winner, it was Liverpool’s battling defensive showing that stood out, with the likes of Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Georginio Wijnaldum throwing themselves at the ball to thwart danger.
There was certainly a measure of fortune about the result, particularly as Sebastian Prodl’s effort hammered against the bar late on, but Simon Mignolet and his defence deserved credit.
And when the ball broke, the Reds surged out in numbers, playing out Klopp’s game plan to a tee.
Buoyed by favourable results from both City and United, Liverpool were fighting for their place in the top four, and this victory proved pivotal.
August: Watford 3-3 Liverpool
In their last four games of 2016/17, Liverpool kept four clean sheets, scoring eight goals as they finished fourth, setting up Tuesday night’s Champions League play-off at Hoffenheim.
Throughout pre-season, the Reds conceded just four times in eight games, scoring 19 times.
And while results over the summer should largely be disregarded, they kept clean sheets against Tranmere Rovers, Hertha Berlin, Crystal Palace and Bayern Munich.
Their display against Bayern in particular suggested that, after gruelling double and even triple sessions at Melwood, in Hong Kong and in Germany, they had retained that steel.
But eight minutes into Saturday’s clash with Watford, it was clear that this as not the case, as Stefano Okaka burst through to head home Jose Holebas’ whipped corner to put Marco Silva’s side 1-0 up.
Liverpool were redeemed by a moment of magic from Mane, sweeping from right to left, interchanging with Can and Alberto Moreno, before curling a shot into the far corner.
However, this was undone minutes later as Adboulaye Doucoure fired past Mignolet to ensure Watford went into half-time in front, and eventually, Miguel Britos deflated an impressive second-half rally led by Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
It was a performance reminiscent of much of Klopp’s tenure as Liverpool manager: mesmeric going forward, but unremittingly brittle at the back.
After the game, Sky Sports pundits Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp engaged in a fierce discussion over the flaws in their former club’s defensive approach, both raising salient points.
Carragher took charge, insisting that, regardless of the personnel, it was Klopp’s ambitious defensive setup—and before him, Brendan Rodgers’—that was undermining the Reds’ efforts in attack.
And Redknapp, calling for the signing of Virgil van Dijk, stressed that Liverpool were lacking leadership in defence, saying “who wanted to attack that ball?”
On a basic level, it is this lack of fight that separates the Reds’ stoic front against Watford three months ago with that presented on the opening day of the new campaign.
Liverpool’s Hard Work Undone
During the Reds’ pre-season tour of Hong Kong, Klopp’s squad were seen taking a heavy focus on set-pieces during an open session at the Mong Kong Stadium.
For Klopp, pre-season is arguably the most important period of the campaign, as while travel does hinder their progress to an extent, it is a spell of pure training.
But while the German clearly looked to address his side’s frailties at the back over the summer, this hard work was undone over 90 minutes at Vicarage Road.
There are, naturally, factors that separate the 1-0 victory in May and the 3-3 draw in August: chiefly, Liverpool had momentum as they pushed for the top four, while Saturday saw them kick off a new season.
However, it remains that six of the same players started in both games, including Mignolet and the centre-back pairing of Matip and Lovren, and the difference in their output was stark.
The absence of Coutinho should not absolve their poor performance, as the Brazilian was withdrawn 13 minutes into the win three months ago, too.
And beyond that, Mane and Salah are clearly a more accomplished supporting duo for Firmino than Lallana and Divock Origi.
Fundamentally, Liverpool were undone by a lack of concentration, aggression and leadership, and this cannot spill into Tuesday’s clash with Hoffenheim.
Otherwise, their hard work at the end of 2016/17 will ultimately count for nothing.