A frustrating goalless draw at Anfield on Sunday against a decaying Man United, this was a case of two points very much dropped in a Premier League campaign that is Liverpool’s to dictate, just as long as they work for it.
With Man City tripping over their own feet, Arsenal prospectively hamstringing themselves for the long haul due to goalkeeping indecision, Newcastle struggling with the reality of having a target painted on their backs, and the general lack of ability/consistency of Tottenham, Chelsea, and Erik Ten Hag’s side, Jurgen Klopp and his players have a golden opportunity of reaching out for league title number 20.
While no team can be completely faultless, for Liverpool, the task will be keeping their own house in order across the next five months, and not spurning open invitations for maximum points, as was the case on Sunday afternoon.
An opening 10-minute blizzard of pressure having been repelled by the visitors, from there we allowed the visitors to reduce the game down to a tempo that suited them more than it did us, even lowering it to a walking pace that permitted them to have outlandish notions of catching us on the break as the second half plodded on.
In this respect, Ten Hag’s bunch of misfits successfully played us, in a similar way to how any flavour of Sam Allardyce embossed team had the capability to occasionally nullify the Liverpools of Christmas past, to pick off a valuable point from a game common-sense would suggest they should be swept aside in.
A red rag to a blind bull!
Embarrassed at home by Bournemouth eight days earlier, tipped out of Europe in midweek, and still suffering sleepless nights from the seven goals they conceded at Anfield last season, all indicators pointed toward a comfortable victory for a Liverpool that was yet to drop a single point on home soil this season; the Liverpool shirt can be a red rag even to a blind bull sometimes, however.
Score within those opening 10 minutes and yes, Liverpool quite possibly go on to steamroller their opponents, but once the first goal fails to materialise within that high introductory tempo it emboldens the visitors to be stubborn.
For United, it was all about weathering the initial storm, then picking off as many small gains as possible. Reach half time intact. Check. Negate the atmosphere. Check. Navigate the first 15 minutes of the second half without imploding. Check. Introduce the element of doubt in their hosts. Check. Launch occasional forays forward. Check. See out the late flurry of desperation from the home side. Check. Survive the effects of a late and entirely self-inflicted red card. Check.
It was an approach from the visitors that was effective in its pragmatism, yet it also illuminated how far the once mighty have fallen. Liverpool simply didn’t do enough to win the game however, despite owning possession of the ball for over a third of proceedings, and making 34 efforts at goal, eight of which were on target.
Liverpool seemed toothless, as if they were largely lacking a grown up in the final-third, and somebody to dominate in midfield. Arguably, Alisson was Liverpool’s best midfielder, so often was he occupying parts of the pitch that used to be the roaming area of Fabinho.
Neither Dominik Szoboszlai nor Ryan Gravenberch imposed themselves enough, while Mohamed Salah and Luis Diaz too often ended up down blind alleyways, yet it was Darwin Nunez that again needed his shoulders shaking the most, even if it was only for failing the basics of not playing to the whistle.
The Uruguayan continues to be an intermittent force of nature, but while he can be unplayable at times, his downtime sessions are utterly haphazard. Somewhere on the internet there is a photo of a cow in a field, with its head stuck in a child’s sit-in plastic car. I regularly think about that photo when Nunez is set to bemusement mode.
On Sunday we threw plan A at United, and when that ran out of steam, plan B didn’t kick in the way we hoped either, as Ten Hag opted for a Hodgson-esque deep block.
In this respect, we miss Diogo Jota, both in terms of the contribution he makes and the way a viable threat on the bench works as means of motivation to those on the pitch, no matter which front three is selected.
Within this, Salah and Diaz are drifting in and out of games, rather than grasping them, while Nunez is still suffering obvious growing pains. Maybe it’s time that Cody Gakpo was trusted to be the grown up in the room for a handful of games.
Yet here we are, one point behind the team we go up against on Saturday. Well-positioned, ready to strike for the summit again.
We walk a fine line though. Robertson is still midway through his elongated absence, the services of Joel Matip are lost perhaps permanently, Alexis Mac Allister is unavailable for an undetermined number of games, Thiago is still nowhere near threatening a comeback, Stefan Bajcetic will be out even longer, Gravenberch tweaked his hamstring on Sunday, Jota remains on the injury list.
By Boxing Day we will reach the halfway point of the Premier League season, and our path moving into the back 19 fixtures is very much ours to dictate, but whatever the ultimate target, we’re going to have to work for it.