It was not a mistake, it transpired, as much as an accurate prediction. When Hee-Chan Hwang scored Salzburg’s first goal, the electronic board at Anfield declared the score was 3-3. It was a mechanical error, but it was not the only system that malfunctioned.
Not on a chastening night for Liverpool’s defence. For the fifth time in Jurgen Klopp’s reign, they won 4-3. For only the second since February 2018, however, they conceded three at Anfield; remarkably, they gave up a 3-0 lead, even if Mohamed Salah salvaged victory. This felt a throwback to the days before Virgil van Dijk joined, to the kind of anarchic entertainment he seemed to have consigned to the past.
Except it was Van Dijk on his backside, sliding in the wrong direction when Hwang Hee-Chan darted away from him to score Salzburg’s first goal, Uefa’s reigning player of the year reduced to the ranks of a mere mortal by the fearless Austrian champions. In 22 minutes, they scored three goals, as many as Liverpool conceded in the final 10 home games of last season.
It was an anomaly that nonetheless conformed to trends. Liverpool rely on their full-backs for attacking width, but the sight of opponents getting in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold is increasingly regular. Salzburg’s second goal, scored by Takumi Minamino, stemmed from the terrific Hwang finding space on Liverpool’s right flank. When Dominik Szoboszlai ought to have equalised, Liverpool’s right-sided combination were in the wrong again.
If reputations are elevated in absentia, then Joel Matip’s went up. Joe Gomez had a difficult evening, losing Erling Haaland for Salzburg’s third goal; arguably, he has had a difficult start to the season since struggling to cope with Teemu Pukki’s movement on the opening night. Van Dijk only came across to try and tackle Hwang because the South Korean had eluded Gomez.
The Englishman has the physical attributes to be a top-class centre-back, but Liverpool missed the calmness of the injured German. It was Matip, as much as anyone, who helped them hold on amid a Chelsea onslaught at Stamford Bridge. An understudy has become an understated talisman.
Klopp felt some problems lay further forward. Liverpool are used to overwhelming opponents. They felt swamped themselves at the start of the second half by like-minded rivals who share their enthusiasm for pace and pressing. Klopp replaced both of his No 8s in a matter of minutes, removing first Jordan Henderson and then Gini Wijnaldum. “We lost control of the game,” Klopp said. James Milner came on, tasked with restoring order. It was a job for a Yorkshireman; to bring common sense to the madness.
Klopp suggested Liverpool were confused after Salzburg’s mid-game switch to adopt a midfield diamond. “We changed for some reason the approach a little bit,” he said. “Some were in a controlling mode, some in an attacking mode and other positions were too hectic. They changed the system and that is allowed. We opened the door and they were running through the door. But all the goals they scored: first goal, we lost the ball easy.”
Normally Liverpool hassle opponents into mistakes. If this was a taste of their own medicine, carelessness was not confined to the outfield players. Adrian almost gave a goal away. He has acquitted himself well while Alisson has been sidelined, with some brilliant saves, but he is fortunate his errors have not been costly.
He probably has one game left of his spell as a first choice. It comes against another side with a capacity for potent counter-attacking. Klopp spotted a spy from the Leicester camp, with Christian Fuchs at Anfield as a pundit for Austrian television, and said Liverpool need to afford Adrian more cover. “I am sure Brendan Rodgers thinks if we protect [defend] like tonight then Jamie Vardy will run five times alone with the goalkeeper,” he stated.
Defending, he argued, “is usually a strength of ours but tonight we did not show that strength.” Perhaps, though, it has not really been a forte this season. Liverpool’s only clean sheets are against Burnley, MK Dons and Sheffield United and the Blades fashioned fine chances.
The focus has been on the flaws in the Manchester City defence, shorn of first-choice centre-backs, but Liverpool’s requires fine-tuning. They are not calibrated as well as last year, lacking the same frugality. The highlight of the defenders’ night came when Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson combined for Liverpool’s second goal. Much of what followed was more problematic.
“I was already shouting in the first half that we have to use our structure again,” Klopp added. “But it is easier said than done.”
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