The game against Manchester City on Thursday evening was heralded by many onlookers for its quality and intensity as Liverpool were clawed back in the Premier League title race. Pundits and supporters of both teams recognised that it was decided by fine margins and could easily have been a win for either side or a draw. Sadio Mane hit the post, John Stones just about got away with some poor defending with a last gasp clearance, Leroy Sane hit the post and scored, Vincent Kompany should have been sent off after a nasty foul on Mohamed Salah when the last man, the Egyptian saw a chance well saved by Ederson…so many close moments that helped to decide the outcome.
There isn’t a great deal that can be learnt from those key moments in isolation, but we are past the point where Jurgen Klopp should have realised that selecting Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum together as his midfield three, especially away from home in a big game, isn’t going to work for him. They don’t offer anything like enough quality going forward as a trio and that makes their perceived defensive solidity less valuable. They were outfought and outplayed by City’s midfield. Fernandinho wasn’t troubled by any of them and had to wait for the introduction of compatriot Fabinho until he had a real fight on his hands. The Brazilian made a clear case for why he should have been in the starting eleven when he came on and played his part in the team play that led to Roberto Firmino making it 1-1. For a player considered to be defensive, he makes a lot more forward passes than those who started and was much more positive in trying to drive Liverpool back into the match. Things could have been quite different had Klopp shown more faith in his Summer signing.
The German spent a fair amount of money to add new talent to his midfield in the Summer, but he hasn’t shown the same sort of faith in Fabinho, Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keita when it’s come to the crunch. He clearly identified a need to rejuvenate his options in midfield after seeing Emre Can walk out of Anfield to sign for Juventus on a free transfer and the hopes were high when he brought in the new trio. Most was expected of Keita, who Klopp was prepared to wait for over a year to sign, but he has fared the least well so far of the three. Injuries have played their part in preventing the Guinea international from reaching the kind of form that persuaded Klopp to spend £50m+ to bring him in to the squad. But he just hasn’t got going, despite promising performances against West Ham and Burnley, and his manager will be hoping that he can spark into life in the second half of the campaign. Fabinho was slowly integrated after his arrival from Monaco and has become one of the most consistent midfielders in the squad after adapting to life here. He showed real quality in the 3-1 win over Manchester United, which included a sublime pass for Mane to open the scoring. He also opened his own account with a late goal in the 4-0 win over Newcastle United on Boxing Day. A start against City would have been a fitting reward for his improving form, but a shaky outing against Arsenal at the weekend may well have given Klopp the jitters when it came to moving away from the trio he seems to trust above all others. Shaqiri, meanwhile, has shown desire, urgency, confidence and passion from the first time he kicked a ball in a red shirt. He is obviously more attack minded than most of his midfield colleagues, which is shown with the goals he’s scored, but he proved against Arsenal that he can take responsibility when defending against possession. He too could have been a very useful player to have had in the starting eleven against City. His impact off the bench in the win over United might well have counted against him here, but he couldn’t replicate that against the other club from that city this week.
Klopp needs to start showing more belief in his Summer signings when it comes to the big games, as the trio of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum just don’t have the track record when playing together to justify his faith in them. They started against Napoli and we got the 1-0 win we needed, but it tends to be the away days that expose their lack of variation and attacking prowess. The 2-1 loss against Paris Saint Germain was another game where they failed to justify their selection together. The 1-0 defeat away to Napoli saw them play the last seventy minutes together after Henderson replaced the injured Keita early on. It was another toothless display. They did play the majority of the 5-1 win over Roma together after Oxlade-Chamberlain was forced off last season, but that is a rarity among a row of poor performances and defeats together. The collective groans of many Liverpool fans when their names are seen together on the teamsheet are becoming increasingly justified.
Another player who has struggled to justify the continued faith in his abilities is Dejan Lovren. The much maligned Croatian had a night to forget against City. He got an early booking for an unnecessary foul on Sergio Aguero before the Argentinian turned him with far too much ease to score his customary goal against us at The Etihad. That followed Sane striding past Lovren with equal ease shortly before. He didn’t cover himself in glory for the German’s winner later on in the game either, along with some sloppy passes too. It saw some much deserved criticism go his way along with some disgusting abuse from the moronic portion of fans who take to social media after a defeat. He’s got a growing catalogue of errors in a Liverpool shirt and hasn’t won over many fans despite some improved performances since Virgil Van Dijk arrived a year ago. But there seems little point in having a world class centre-back partnered by a liability at the heart of our defence. Joe Gomez cannot come back to fitness soon enough to reform the superb partnership he was forging with the Dutchman. When the young England international was injured against Burnley, the trip to take on City was the first game I was sad to see him sit out. Had he played I suspect the result would have been somewhat different.
Klopp clearly had no choice but to pick Lovren for the City game and would likely have done so even if Joel Matip were fit and available. The former Schalke man was in fine form before suffering the injury which is currently sidelining him. He had put in some fine performances against Bournemouth and Napoli last month. But he showed that he remains quite brittle at times in the 2-0 loss against Red Star Belgrade earlier on, so having him in the side against City wouldn’t have necessarily changed a great deal. Many fans have been calling for Klopp to bring in another more reliable defender to supplement Van Dijk and Gomez, with the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly and Mathijs De Ligt mentioned. But they would each expect to be first choice alongside Van Dijk, which would cause issues in the development of Gomez. It’s not an area for regular rotation.
We will all be hoping that Liverpool bounce back against Brighton next week to reinforce the grip on top spot, but few will be desperate to see the same midfield selected for the game. It’s time for Klopp to show a bit more faith in his Summer signings.