Friday, 23 December 2016

Everton 0-1 Liverpool: Mane Happy Returns

Liverpool recovered from a poor start to snatch a late derby win at Goodison Park. A horror challenge from Ross Barkley looked set to be the main talking point until Sadio Mane pounced, beating the defenders to the rebound after substitute Daniel Sturridge’s shot came back off the post. On balance Liverpool probably deserved the win after a strong second half showing – there could be no better Christmas present than a late victory over Everton.

There were very worrying signs in the first thirty minutes. Everton seemed eager to press, and Liverpool were regularly forced into playing long, hopeful balls just to escape the pressure. Romelu Lukaku looked dangerous, and it was only some stellar defending from stand-in centre-back Ragnar Klavan that prevented him from firing the home side in front. Lukaku’s compatriot counterpart, Divock Origi, struggled to get involved; the ball rarely found him, and when it did he struggled to do anything telling with it. Firmino was even more ineffectual in the opening minutes – playing out on the left he looked completely off the pace, and was only really noticeable by his poor touches and misplaced passes. However, Klopp reacted to this – the last third of the opening forty-five minutes saw Firmino move central with Origi out wide, and Liverpool looked much better for the change. They slowly started to take control of the match, and by the end of the half Everton had just begun to be forced on to the back foot.

This dynamic continued into the second period. Perhaps Everton’s high-intensity start had taken too much out of them, or perhaps Liverpool had simply woken up a bit; either way, the home side struggled to get close to the performance levels that they started the match with. Neither team threatened hugely, but when there was a threat it came from Liverpool: Firmino in particular had chances. He had a one-on-one saved by Stekelenburg, and then an inventive volley was kept out very well by substitute keeper Robles. In addition to these chances, the second half brought more of a derby feel – a couple of nasty challenges flew in, none worse than that of Ross Barkley on Jordan Henderson. The playmaker came in on Henderson’s ankle, with his studs showing: had the referee properly seen the incident it would surely have been a red card. In the long run, however, the awful challenge actually worked in Liverpool’s favour – Henderson was ultimately fine to carry on, and the time which it took for him to receive treatment was part of what allowed the away side a lot of added time to snatch their late winner. This they did: Sadio Mane, who in truth had failed to have a huge influence for most of the game, was quickest to react after Daniel Sturridge struck the post in the 94th minute. It is a testament to his pace and reactions that he was able to beat two defenders to the ball, despite starting significantly behind them. Sturridge, too, deserves praise; his tenacity and willingness to shoot led directly to the goal, and he is sure to have been pleased with his impact off the bench following a recent injury layoff.

That Sturridge played such a big part shows the importance of options. Origi is a very good player, and prior to the derby had five goals in his last five appearances, but sometimes games simply need a change in personnel up front in order to make something happen. It is no coincidence that the loss of two strong attacking options in Sturridge and Coutinho has led to a dip in results: whilst those who have filled in are extremely talented in their own right, it is hard to consistently pick up results when there are no experienced alternatives to call upon from the bench. It should be said that Klopp used substitutes sparingly even when he had a full squad available to him, but the Everton game highlighted that he is not averse to making changes when he feels they would be beneficial. Sadly, one attacking option will be lost in early January – Sadio Mane is heading off to the African Cup of Nations. At least Sturridge has returned; his impact in the derby has given some hope that Liverpool will get by in the absence of the Senegal international, but the directness and pace of the winger will undoubtedly be missed.

In the meantime, Liverpool fans can carry into Christmas that glowing feeling that only a derby win can bring. Festive cheer will also be derived from the fact that Klopp’s men sit second in the league – a top four finish looks very much on the cards, and a six point gap to Chelsea is hardly unassailable. Hopefully the reds can show some resolution in the new year and mount a serious title challenge.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Liverpool 2-2 West Ham: One of Those Days

Liverpool compounded their recent dip in results with a frustrating draw at home to relegation-threatened West Ham United. Klopp’s team played some nice football and were much the better side, but were unable to create enough clear-cut chances. Coutinho’s creativity and Sturridge’s lethal touch were sorely missed – with either of them fit it seems likely that Liverpool would have won this game. However, the biggest issue was at the other end of the pitch: Karius put in another wholly unconvincing performance, and was at fault to some level for both goals.

Things got off to a very good start. Mane made the most of some hesitant defending to drive Liverpool forward; he reached the byline and put in a dangerous ball. Lallana controlled, turned, and fired the ball past Randolph. At this point it looked as though it would be a comfortable victory to get us back on track after the disaster at Bournemouth. Liverpool being Liverpool, however, this was not the case: there was a sense of inevitability as Payet’s free-kick flew in twenty minutes later. In actual fact, it was not inevitable at all – it was entirely preventable, and was allowed to happen through a combination of a poor defensive wall and awful positioning from Karius. Most of the wall jumped but Lallana stayed grounded: the ball went sailing over his head and in, past the outstretched hand of Karius. This hand would surely have been able to palm the ball away had the German not stood so far over to the right of the goal (Karius’s left): Payet hit it well but it was fairly central, and it should certainly have been kept out. This is the latest in a string of unconvincing moments for Karius, who has not really shown any shot-stopping prowess at all since arriving at Liverpool. He is supposedly a sweeper, who brings attributes to a team other than shot-stopping – maybe this is true, but again he hasn’t showed it much since joining the club. This is exemplified by West Ham’s second goal: the ball hit Henderson and bounced over Matip to Antonio in a very unfortunate fashion, but Karius was very slow off his line. The angle was not closed quickly enough, and Antonio just had the space to roll the ball over the line. At the moment, it is very hard to see what he brings to the team that Mignolet does not; for all his faults the Belgian is a truly world-class shot-stopper, and that’s an improvement on where Karius is right now. He may well develop, but if the club want to compete in the here and now then it cannot wait for Karius to catch up.

Things were only marginally better going forward. Multiple players went close, with Wijnaldum firing narrowly wide and Clyne skying a shot at the end of a lovely team move, but the equaliser proved elusive until the start of the second half. Another Mane cross was flapped at by Randolph, and Origi was on hand to capitalise. It looked as though it would only be a matter of time before Liverpool pulled themselves back in front, but it was not to be. Randolph atoned for his mistake with a spectacular save to deny Henderson a beautiful goal, and although the hosts constantly threatened they could not find a winner. In truth, it was not a bad performance – there is no real crisis, and the result feels much worse than it actually is due to the fact that it comes straight after the Bournemouth loss. However, another failure to win in the next game really will mean trouble: we are already six points adrift of the league leaders, and no wins in three would essentially strip us of any title credentials we may possess.

The next match is against Middlesbrough, and is surely winnable even without Coutinho and Sturridge. Klopp has unsurprisingly come out in support of Karius, and will almost certainly not drop him – if this is the case, it Is time for the young keeper to step up and prove himself. He cannot complain about critics when his performances have warranted such criticism; hopefully, for the good of the team, he silences the doubters by showing exactly what Klopp has seen in him. The forwards, too, have a point to prove: although the goals have continued in Coutinho’s absence the results have not, and if this squad have any ambitions of winning the title then they need to show that they can cope when key men are out. In other words, this result has taken the team to a point of make or break: the players must stand up and be counted now, or else resign themselves to falling short yet again.
-James Martin
Follow me on Twitter @JamesMartin013