Liverpool 2-1 Bournemouth
Premier League, Anfield
7 March 2020
Goals: Salah 24′, Mane 33′; C. Wilson 9′
Finishing and fouling
There were, inside the first 15 minutes of the game, two points worth talking about – one with admittedly self-deprecating humour.
That one was, pretty simply, an early shot on target for the Reds – which is a real rarity of late.
Roberto Firmino is still without a goal at Anfield, but it was he who fashioned the first chance for the Reds, driving a half-volley on the run straight at the ‘keeper.
But the more outrage-inducing moment came from pathetic indecision and a clear ignorance of actually playing the game from the referee and his variously titled assistants.
Joe Gomez was clearly in control of the ball and the situation before a shove from Callum Wilson took him beyond the reach of both.
The defender was clearly expecting the whistle to be blown – along with his manager, 50,000 people in the crowd and another million or so watching – and an element of questioning has to be levelled at the entire backline for not reacting and reorganising quickly enough, but the decision was abysmal, pure and simple.
That the referee can’t see it’s a foul is bad, that the assistants don’t help out is worse, and that VAR didn’t call it back after a single (or a dozen) replays is worse.
Did the ref leave it, thinking VAR would confirm it if it was foul, but then VAR thought it wasn’t a clear and obvious error? Or are they all just incompetent and genuinely thought it wasn’t an advantage-gaining shove?
It’s almost as though this game were a reset: a match everyone expected Liverpool to win, so it was more about the how and by how many which mattered more than the result.
With games against Atletico, Everton and Man City on the horizon, rebuilding confidence was the important factor, confidence to play quickly, combine well in the final third, create chances and get the fans onside and loud.
That latter point never got close to happening unfortunately, with Anfield rather quiet and sluggish throughout, so it was all about whether the Reds could find their form on the pitch.
Defensively, the recent questions weren’t answered.
So many times, the Reds were easily cut open by one direct pass or a third man runner from midfield, usually down the channels. It was simplistic, but woefully effective.
But for James Milner‘s last-ditch stretch, a second would have been conceded around the hour mark, while the centre-backs had to scrabble about a number of times to make interceptions, clearances and recovery runs – and that’s without the last-minute shambles which almost saw the Cherries equalise.
Better protection from the midfielders is usually on show, and the Reds have to get those blocking roles in the channels near-perfect when Atletico come to town.
Trio turn up…sort of
What about the attack? It was certainly better, but also certainly not as good as it can be.
There were spells when Mo Salah linked well with Bobby Firmino, when Sadio Mane looked his usual dangerous self, when all three could have scored. And when all three showed the recent trend of slowing the game down, not picking the right pass, not being sharp and accurate with their final ball.
Indeed, the Reds’ equaliser even showed as much: Mane’s pass should have been a simple one for Salah, but played it behind his fellow attacker. A great spin and drilled finish from the No. 11 meant it didn’t matter, thankfully.
At times each looked excellent technically. Mane scored and nearly bust the woodwork with another shot; Firmino could have scored or set up a goal or two himself.
But against Bournemouth, even with them defending much better on this occasion, the expectation would be more clear chances and more clinical finishing.
Firmino’s injury-time miss was fairly typical: nice build-up, good movement, terrible finish.
Milner’s determined comeback
Much talk over the past week or two has centred around Jordan Henderson‘s absence, with his industry and leadership being highlighted as reasons for sudden defeats.
It’s partly nonsense – not Henderson, not Steven Gerrard, not any sporting skipper or the greatest military captain in history could have stopped the individual errors leading to goals against Watford.
But here, still without Hendo, James Milner provided a timely reminder that he’s a force in the dressing room, a name to be counted on to produce a standard-setting performance and a never-say-die attitude which cannot be taken for granted.
Milner cleared one off the line after he allowed a runner to escape and, after the game, noted the improvements can still come.
“It was my fault in the first place! I managed to get there in the end and they are chances we don’t want to give up – that’s something we can improve.”
It’s the type of awareness needed to get better, and the type of commitment which will be required in the second leg on Wednesday.
Three to go and onto Atletico
One down, three to go. The Reds got the job done, ultimately: returning to winning ways, keeping the Anfield run going and clocking up three more points en route to the Premier League title.
That’s the big positive, as is ending any potential “title wobble” headlines, but now it’s all about turning attentions to how to beat Atletico.
The Spanish side face a massive game of their own on Saturday, immediately after the Reds, heading out against Sevilla with full-strength side.
Nobody will have a big advantage for physical recovery or preparation time, so it’s all about getting the tactics and team selection right, and coming up with ways to break down the rojiblanco wall.
Three days for Jurgen to come up with a masterplan.