Before Manchester City demolished Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the Reds’ clash with Spanish giants Sevilla looked like a test of the progress Jurgen Klopp’s side had made since their defeat in the 2016 Europa League final. Now the tie looks to have taken on a different dynamic altogether.
In the moments prior to Sadio Mane’s red card just before half-time at the weekend, the prevailing view was that Liverpool were at least holding their own, if they weren’t even the better team outright. The scoreline already read 1-0 by the time the Senegalese international’s boot connected with Ederson’s cheek and jaw, but Mohamed Salah – withdrawn strangely by Klopp at the break – had Nicolas Otamendi on a booking and City’s defence didn’t look like it was capable of holding out for 90 minutes against the Reds at their full complement. No-one knows how the game would have ended if the sending-off hadn’t happened, of course, but 5-0 to the hosts seems like a stretch of the imagination.
And yet, coming on the back of such a heavy defeat, no matter the circumstances, you always wonder how the team will pick itself up. Notwithstanding the fact that most onlookers aren’t treating Liverpool as they treated Arsenal after the Gunners’ thumping at Anfield just before the international break, the professional pride of Klopp’s players must have taken something of a battering at the weekend.
The problem is you can’t mitigate such a defeat by simply pointing to the fact that the entire Liverpool squad – from management down – waved a bloodied white flag in the face of the frighteningly pointless exercise that was a second half against Manchester City away with only ten men. Even with the score already at 2-0. You can’t mitigate such a defeat in that way because when you think about it, that’s actually worse.
In the short term, Liverpool aren’t as bad as 5-0 suggests, and that knowledge should mean another collapse of similar proportions is unlikely against Sevilla. But in the long term, just how can a group of professional footballers justify their day’s work if that’s the conclusion they draw?
There’s no accusation that they did ‘give up’. Not anything other than what was visible from the second half performance, at least. But if it is tempting to use that as an explanation of why the scoreline was so high, it should also come with an explanation as to why a group of players with that mentality shouldn’t be slated for a heavy defeat away to a top six rival.
The first half against City showed us nothing new. Liverpool are a side who, last season, proved they have the setup to beat any other top six side. They are frightening in attack, but also suspect at the back, too.
And yet, the second half raised questions which should be extended beyond the caveat of a red card which undoubtedly changed the game. Liverpool’s character should be called into question, even if they aren’t actually as bad as the scoreline made them out to be.
But one other question was raised on Saturday, and we didn’t see an answer to it. We won’t see it answered on Wednesday night at Anfield either, because Sadio Mane’s suspension won’t take effect until the next Premier League game, but it will be intriguing to see just how Liverpool will cope with the absence of a player they couldn’t live without last season.
That’s why the substitution of Mohamed Salah against City was so strange – though mitigated by the fact that Liverpool may well have sensed the situation was unrecoverable. The Egyptian was bought seemingly with the intention of providing the same impact as the Senegalese attacker, but just on the other side. The implication being that Salah would provide the Mane threat in the absence of the man himself -something that was sorely missing last year.
So in the end, Liverpool’s defeat at the weekend both taught us nothing new, and yet raised so many big questions which will need to be answered very soon. Over the last few months, progress at Anfield has been called into question. After 72 games in charge, the German has won fewer games and fewer points than his predecessor Brendan Rodgers, despite bringing the side to a Europa League final and qualifying for the Champions League in his two-or-so years at the club.
Comparison of Jurgen Klopp and Brendan Rodgers after 72 PL games.
— Soccerlens (@soccerlens) September 9, 2017
But if the idea of meagre progress wasn’t enough of a metaphor for the entire Jurgen Klopp era, the arrival of Sevilla at Anfield means Liverpool once again pit themselves against the Spanish side who beat them to the Europa League crown in 2016 and also effectively knocked them out of last season’s edition Champions League.
It is, by anyone’s standard, a game to be seen as mark of progress. But on the back of two mixed results – a heavy victory and a heavy defeat – there are legitimate issues to be raised concerning Liverpool’s progress. Are they better at the back than they were before? Are they genuinely better-off under Klopp? And, to a lesser extent for now, has this season’s summer business done enough to prepare the club for a Champions League campaign and an assault on a first trophy since 2012?
This game is still a test of progress, but instead of feeling good before the measure up, Liverpool should be worried about finding out they’ve stood still.