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Southampton v Liverpool A Liverpool Perspective
This is a tough one to write, as I was really hoping to be done with talking about referees but Andre Marriner managed to put in the single worst refereeing performance against Liverpool (and I do mean against). I would rather not mention it, because Saints fully deserved their win and this feels like I am detracting from their exceptional performance, but how can it be avoided? I agree with the lack of penalty for the knock on Mane’s leg, even though it was far more of a penalty than one that was given for Pogba just a few days ago but some of the other decisions just beggared belief.
The non-existent foul by Thiago which gave away the free-kick Southampton scored from was just the first of many strange decisions from the officials. There was the blatant bear hug on Salah, as the defender blatantly grappled him to stop him getting on a ball over the top, which was instead given as a Saints’ throw-in. The assistant referee (who no longer seem to actually do any assisting) was right there and could not possibly have missed it. If he did then he should be immediately sacked as he is clearly blind.
In the second half there was Theo Walcott’s lunge on Milner, two-footed, late. It was wild, reckless and endangered the safety of Milner, all the things that qualify for a red card. The referee decided it was not even a free kick and the assistant again missed it, despite being close by. I am not sure how VAR failed to see that it was a clear and obvious error, as it was a red card all day long.
The worst of all though was when Forster jumped on his own player, dropped the ball and was awarded a free kick for something no one else saw. He even injured his teammate by landing on him, and there was no Liverpool player in contact, so why was that given as a free kick? The referee made sure to be quick to blow his whistle before anyone could get near the loose ball in order to ensure VAR could not even look at it. It is difficult enough watching football with the complete lack of atmosphere without refereeing performances this inept.
Now I have got that out of the way, I can actually talk about the game! Firstly I noticed both teams struggled badly with the pitch running slowly, something that I was disappointed Liverpool did not manage to make more use of. It helped on a couple of dribbles, as the ball stayed tight to enable turns defenders could not stop, but it meant that a lot of passes went astray as opponents were able to pick off a ball that ran slower than expected. It could have been used more with balls over the top into the corners, but neither team seemed to spot or adapt to the conditions.
It seems silly that great players struggle so much to adapt, on both sides, but it is probably more difficult to adjust your game when the pitch looks so good. If it is cut up, your mind immediately reacts by telling you, instinctively, the ball will not run properly. When it is smooth as a billiard table with frost on top, your mind is going to be instinctively telling you that it will run well across the top of that. So when it sticks and fails to roll properly, it is a surprise and means you need to fight against your instinct to play a pass.
I did wonder if that was why Alisson was out early at half-time, when usually only subsitutes are out, doing a full kicking routine around the guys trying to fix the pitch. Though it could simply have been to keep warm as he was not overly employed during the first half and Saints were looking at dropping the ball behind the backline, which requires him to rush out and sweep up. Forster could definitely do with a bit more practice on his kicking too, as he always slices kicks into touch, so maybe he should have been out there as well.
It was a very strange game, Liverpool struggled to create clear cut chances, in large part down to Saints’ getting bodies on the end of any quality delivery into the box. The two Liverpool full-backs struggled to get forward as much as normal, though I did wonder if that was deliberate to provide some protection to the makeshift centre-backs. Southampton were very similar, and made very few clear cut chances, though they had the lead so early they could afford to sit back and not take risks.
The Saints played very well and fully deserved the win for their effort alone. The first half they played a high press and ran themselves into the ground, forcing Liverpool to play in front of them and keeping their full-backs deep to make sure there was no space in there for Mane or Salah to use. In the second half they dropped deeper and defended their area more, and defended it incredibly well. They completely denied Liverpool space to work in dangerous areas and the only space was allowed for the full-back on the opposite side.
While Liverpool tried to switch it quickly a few times, any ball put in from that area was so well defended that there were very few opportunities. It was not just their defending that was excellent, Ings’ finish was sublime and it must have felt really good for him after his difficult time as a Liverpool player. He has certainly shown that the only thing that stopped him making it as a Liverpool player were his injury problems.
There are a few issues that the Saints will need to address in the long term, other than just ensuring they hold on to Hasenhuttl, if they are to continue their upward momentum. Goalkeeper is a weak link, none of their keepers are anywhere near top class, most importantly they are not suited to a high press system which could really cost them in the future. If Forster keeps turning the ball straight over to the opposition on a day when they are on their game, it will lead to goals conceded. I know McCarthy is first choice, but he is not much better on the ball.
Walker-Peters is another point opponents could look to attack. He is quick and skilful, but is also weak and went down a couple of times trying to buy free-kicks after simply being outmuscled. He needs some time in the gym to build up some power in his legs and core to stop that happening. They could also do with a bit more quality in the final third, to add to Ings and decrease their reliance on him. That does look to be something that will come from the youth academy, which does bode well for the future, with the intended increase in requirements for home-grown players. In fact they do look in a very good place for the forseeable future, so long as Hasenhuttl stays.
Klopp – this season must have felt a bit reminiscent to him of his time at Borussia Dortmund. Though it was injuries that have snatched some of his best players away, rather than Bayern Munich, this season. It is a similar scenario for him of having to make do and mend until he can find a longer term solution. As such I find it difficult to criticise anything he is doing, as there is so little time to coach a team framework into a makeshift team, it is always going to be messy until a settled side can be utilised.
That is one thing I do hope for though, that he makes his choice and sticks by it, with regards to the centre-backs. Matip clearly cannot be trusted, Phillips and Williams are obviously felt to not be up to the task, so he needs to stick with Henderson and Fabinho and allow them to develop together as much as possible. All the chopping and changing, though it has not really been his fault, is not helping the team to perform at their best.
Alisson – had little to do, which might have led to his moment of rashness in the second half when he raced out of the goal to get onto a ball that he did not need to go for. I think he expected the ball to run normally, whereas the pitch was slow and so the ball got nowhere near as far as it looked like it would. Thankfully for Liverpool, that slow pitch also meant the ball stuck a bit and they were unable to add a second.
Alexander-Arnold – I know exactly what the stats say about him giving away the ball and there were a few attempts to drive the ball across the pitch that went astray due to the slow pitch, but it also must be remembered that it also includes balls delivered into the box which defenders cleared. As he put in a fair few crosses, some of very good quality, which the defence got to first, the stats are not telling even half the story. He was not as bad as they make it appear.
His big error on the free kick, by not getting anything on it all is far more significant. Personally I do not feel it was as bad an error as made out, there was a Southampton player in front of him that looked to be getting to it. When they failed to get anything on the ball, it left him with little time to adjust and Alexander-Arnold clearly panicked about giving away a hand-ball, so ended up missing it. Anywhere else on the pitch and I am sure he would have just got in the way, without worrying about the hand ball, but it was the penalty box and so a different matter.
I was more worried by the lack of real drive from his flank. Alexander-Arnold looked a bit sluggish and not fully fit. There are not many chances for him to build up his stamina now either, as the team is too shorthanded to really give players a significant break to do some fitness training.
Henderson – dropped too deep at the free kick to play everyone on-side, but other than that he did well at centre-back. I would certainly not have any worries about him playing there again for the medium term until a more permanent solution arrives in terms of his ability to defend. The issue is that the team loses so much not having him in midfield, which is a problem, and it showed in this match. Someone needs to step up and take charge of the midfield in his absence.
Fabinho – another accomplished performance, polished even, at centre-back, but again, like Henderson, his presence in midfield has been massively missed. It affects the way the team play massively. Without his protection, everyone has to be a little more conservative about attacking. On the ball his creativity and ability to smash one in the top corner from the edge of the area is also lacking.
Robertson – looked tired and not at the level he had been showing all season long. The lack of any chance to rest him due to Tsimikas getting injured, is catching up with him by the looks of it.
Thiago – spent the entire match moaning at the referee, something that I hate seeing from a player. Added to that he looked a bit rusty for the first time. The stop-start nature of his season finally looked to effect his game and even his passing was loose, though the pitch played a part in that I am sure.
Oxlade-Chamberlain – it is the first game I can remember him playing in midfield for a while, so it is probably not a surprise he struggled to impose himself. Especially when you consider that there were no gaps for him to pick the ball up in and drive forward with it. Southampton were excellent positionally and made sure to leave little in the way of space for anyone to run with the ball.
Wijnaldum – a couple of excellent moments mixed in with another of those anonymous games. Like Oxlade-Chamberlain, he was not given space or time to breathe, so it is little wonder he struggled to impose himself on the game.
Mane – on the few occasions he did manage to isolate Walker-Peters, he was able to brush him off easily. However most of the time he was swarmed and pulled and pushed around, just enough to stop him getting going and breaking clear. It is the same every game, teams kick him around but he never seems to go down when it is genuine fouls. I really do not understand his thinking. By the same token I fail to understand why referees never give him decisions when he does try and stay on his feet. It is no wonder the game is such a mess, unless a player goes to ground the referees fail them.
The big worry is that he just keeps making the wrong decision constantly in the penalty box at the moment. He is taking too long to decide what to do and then usually choosing the wrong option. A shot will be on but he will try and force a pass that is not on. It is just not happening right now for him. When he does a lovely piece of skill to get free of a group of players, it goes to waste due to him picking that wrong option.
Firmino – he was everywhere, chasing back, linking up play, trying the flicks and tricks, but nothing was coming off in forward areas. It was a game crying out for something special, but Southampton cut out almost everything he tried.
Salah – another of those games where he is trying to force things to happen. The whole front three are just not clicking as usual and overdoing it, but it is just more obvious with Salah as it usually comes off for Salah even when he looks to be doing too much.
Shaqiri – replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 57th minute. Never really affected the game, though he always gives it everything he has, Southampton locked him out of it.
Milner – took Alexander-Arnold’s place in the 78th minute. The late walloping by Walcott seemed to take the wind out of his sails as he was not moving freely afterwards. Little wonder to be fair. He did try and provide some attacking thrust though.
Written by Tris Burke January 06 2021 11:28:00