Liverpool’s draw with Southampton shows that they need a Plan B if they want to win the title this season.
By the rules of Auric Goldfinger we’re still only at the stage of coincidence, but Saturday’s goalless draw at Southampton was still the second such result in a month for Liverpool, and it may prove to reflect a problem Jurgen Klopp’s side are confronted with more frequently as this season unfolds. If Liverpool fans have any cause for concern whatsoever regarding the first third of the campaign, it’s that the two opponents who actively sought a nil-nil draw have got exactly what they wanted.
Manchester United’s point at Anfield was hardly anything to panic about: the profile and animosity involved in the fixture, as well as the virtuoso bus-parking ability of the visiting manager, meant that for Liverpool, the game’s outcome was nowhere near as dire as its spectacle. But the stalemate at Southampton – by no means a travesty – turns an isolated event into the merest hint of a pattern, and suggests that the question of whether Liverpool can break down massed ranks of defenders will need to be answered in the affirmative if the T-word is still circulating around Merseyside in May.
Of course, with some less wayward finishing – most notably from Roberto Firmino – Liverpool would have come away from the south coast with a win. But things could equally have gone the other way had Charlie Austin proved competent when it counted and the point is that Southampton were able to limit Liverpool’s chances in a way that only Jose Mourinho had managed in the months since the Merseysiders hit their free-scoring stride.
In both instances, the blueprint was much the same – the ‘low block’ defensive line, centre-backs with Olympian athleticism and a cabal of hard-running midfielders sweeping up any detritus – and perhaps the worry for Klopp is that the stronger his side continue to look, the more they’ll be faced with the model of opposition that they seem to struggle with the most.
But any title challenge is validated by the ability to beat different teams through different means. As Klopp said on Saturday: “There is nothing to moan about, you can’t ask them: ‘Come on, give us a little more space or something?’ It is never easy, you cannot only play counterattack, you cannot only play high-press, you have to prepare for everything.”
And a title charge founded on Klopp’s brand of front-foot, goalscoring football is always likely, as it takes shape, to be faced with an increasing number of opponents who set out to stifle.
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle discovered as much two decades ago, and despite their reputation as defensive incompetents, they actually managed to grind out a surprising number of 1-0 wins, their MO often being to nab an early goal and quickly prioritise a clean sheet. It seems odd given the image we’ve concocted of that side, but one-nil to Newcastle was in fact the Tynesiders’ most common scoreline that year: it happened seven times, with five of those winners scored in the first half.
Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United learned to deal with suffocating opponents another way entirely: by letting half-time come and go before pinning them back and steadily cranking up the pressure. This was generally enacted by the wingers demanding as much of the ball as possible, both full-backs repurposing themselves as auxiliary wide-men, and a central midfield whose mastery of a game’s tempo (Roy Keane being the exemplar) meant there was never a second’s let-up.
The final ingredient in United’s cocktail was substitutes, which often just meant throwing on every striker available. Fergie was no tactical mastermind, but he knew how to harness a game’s momentum, and how to imbue the crowd with belief. As United’s reputation for getting late winners grew, their capacity to do so became something of a self-fulfilling prophesy: United expected it, their opponents expected it, it happened.
And the similarly buccaneering Liverpool side of three years ago devised yet another means of overcoming cautious opposition: go at them hammer-and-tongs from kick-off and blitz them in the opening stages. Their 11-game winning streak between February and April included no fewer than 20 first-half goals, which in turn cleared the path for even more by creating an opposition whose plan was redundant and who had to play more expansively to salvage anything from the game.
So there we have it: different solutions to the same problem. Hearteningly for Klopp, it could be argued that his side are capable of each of the above methods, albeit without being specialists in any. An underrated – and fast-improving – defence means a stodgy 1-0 is never entirely out of the question; the side’s fitness, patience and depth of attacking options all bode well if a second-half rally is needed (as demonstrated by last month’s win at Swansea); and the fact that 17 of this season’s 30 goals have come before half-time shows they’re not shy of an early barrage either.
Leicester’s title charge last season – with wins achieved first through rapid counter-attacking, then via patiently wearing down opponents, and finally with a series of dour one-nils – was a masterclass in finding different ways to take three points, of staying one step ahead of a league that thought it had them sussed. Liverpool may not need to vary their blueprint to the same extent, but whether they remain in contention come the spring may depend on a similar capacity to reach into their box of tricks and ensure that any competitors playing for a draw are dealt with accordingly.