The solidity of Jürgen Klopp’s team in defence has come at a cost in attack and against Everton they passed up five decent chances in a draw that kept them off the top
Another Sunday away against a local rival, another goalless draw, and another point that will either be what ended up winning Liverpool the league or that ended up costing them the title. That’s the problem with games like these: it can never be said an away point in such an environment is a bad result, but equally too many of such outcomes could be costly. And again there is the underlying thought that something has gone wrong with the forward line, that just when Liverpool could have done with a spark of magic to snatch a win from a hard-fought game, the fire has dimmed.
The positive way to look at it is that, although Manchester City are now top of the table, they have the harder fixtures to come, most notably the away game at Manchester United. In that sense, the point gained here is significant in that, had Liverpool lost, City could have drawn that game and still won the league even if Liverpool win every remaining game (barring a remarkable swing of goal-difference). No game is necessarily straightforward, of course, and as the finish line draws closer, the slightest molehill can loom as a great mountain, but this was probably the hardest away game Liverpool had remaining.
But on the other side of the equation is the fact that Liverpool have now drawn five of their last seven games in all competitions, and failed to score in three of their last four. Jürgen Klopp was dismissive after Wednesday’s 5-0 win over Watford of talk of anxiety but the fluency of that game was out of keeping with Liverpool’s general form since the turn of the year. The forward line is not flowing as it did at this stage last season.
The foot injury that caused Roberto Firmino to start on the bench did not help, of course, but there are issues here that go beyond one switch of personnel. Most obviously, there is the form of Mohamed Salah. It was generally accepted that he could not do again what he did last season, that that was a zenith that was never likely to be hit again, but after a few weeks when he did touch those heights again, he has scored just once in his last seven games and looked distinctly tentative here. There were occasional flashes of the old brilliance, but for much of the game Salah played the way Jordan Henderson’s critics believe he plays. So too, unfortunately for Liverpool, did Jordan Henderson.
There were heavy touches and oddly misplaced passes but, most critically, there were three missed chances. Conventional wisdom has it that the time to worry is if a forward stops getting chances and perhaps that is true, but there must equally be concern not just that Salah missed, but the way in which he missed.
The first opportunity had the makings of a classic Salah goal as he shuffled in from the right and worked the ball on to his left foot. But rather than opening his body and arcing the ball into the top corner as he has done so often, he scooped ended up scooping it tamely at Jordan Pickford.
Then there were the two occasions when space opened in front of him and he had a run into the box. But both times there was a momentary hesitation, none of the smoothness of a confident player. In the first instance his effort was well-saved by Pickford; in the second Michael Keane made was able to get across and make a vital block.
It is not just Salah, of course. Sadio Mané, who has carried the forward line recently with six goals in his previous six Premier League games, never seems quite as comfortable in the middle as he does on the flank. Divock Origi struggled to impose himself. And then there is that midfield and the lack of creativity that has been exposed repeatedly this season – away against Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Manchester United.
Could Klopp have pushed his full-backs on further, could he have tried to utilise the crossing ability of Trent Alexander-Arnold in the way he did against Watford? Perhaps but, especially away from home, Klopp has been conservative in how he has used the full-backs. That lies behind the improved defensive record – only just over half a goal conceded per game this season – but there is a cost to that solidity.
And the fact is Liverpool did have the better of the game. Salah had his three chances. It took a lunging challenge from Lucas Digne to deny Fabinho late on. Joël Matip put a great headed chance wide. Five decent chances should be enough to win a game, and that suggests the issue was not a tactical one. The problem, rather, is that the forward line has lost its edge just at the wrong time – and that makes Klopp’s balancing act significantly harder.