Liverpool’s first result of the season, a 3-3 draw with Watford at Vicarage Road, gave as much cause for optimism as concern; the hard work of a rampant and fluid attack eventually undone by some typically shambolic defending.
So was it a case of the same-old, same-old for a club that struggled against the Premier League’s lesser sides last season and scored the most goals outside the top three but conceded the second-most within the top six, or did the six-goal thriller provide reasons to be positive?
Let’s start with the same-old, same-old. Liverpool let themselves down at two Watford set pieces that book-ended the match. Eight minutes in, Stefano Okaka rose the highest at the near post, knocking Roberto Firmino out of the way, to head home from point-blank range. Four minutes into stoppage time, meanwhile, a mishit corner somehow ricocheted its way to Simon Mignolet, whose fumbled save bounced off the crossbar and into the path of Miguel Britos to force the ball over the line.
When even a scuffed corner ends up in the back of the net, you know it’s not been a good afternoon for defending set pieces. Watford’s other goal didn’t put Liverpool in a particularly flattering light either; Alberto Moreno was drawn into a challenge, allowing Nordin Amrabat to square the ball freely from the right wing to Abdoulaye Doucoure for a simple finish.
But we do know that this won’t be Liverpool’s regular back four for the rest of the season. Youngster Trent Alexander-Arnold filled in for the injured Nathaniel Clyne at right-back and if a surprise outing was Moreno’s chance to redeem himself at left-back, the Spaniard undoubtedly failed. It wouldn’t be surprising to see James Milner or Andy Robertson come in at No.3 for Crystal Palace’s trip to Anfield this weekend, both of whom appear more trustworthy defensively.
Yet, the real concern is the lack of leadership coming from the central area. Aside from height, defending set pieces is all about organisation and proactively attacking the ball; on those fronts, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip repeatedly failed. While Virgil van Dijk remains the popular choice to come into the heart of defence, suiting Liverpool’s possession-building style in open play, whether he actually resolves those problems is a separate debate.
Going forward, however, Liverpool looked nothing short of potent. Mohamed Salah came into the side and gelled well, winning the penalty to draw level before putting Liverpool 3-2 ahead by finishing off a superb attacking move that hinged on his ability to make runs in conjunction with Roberto Firmino – the Brazilian flicking the ball into his path as the pair momentarily lined up almost as a traditional front two.
An unorthodox winger who takes up inside positions that instantly make him a more consistent goal threat, he already looks like the perfect signing for Liverpool’s fluid, roaming and nomadic front three, making darting runs to change its structure and constantly challenging the space behind opposition defences. With a few more weeks of familiarity, expect to see long, diagonal balls played over the top straight into Salah’s path.
Perhaps the biggest compliment to Salah’s debut and Liverpool’s overall performance in attack is how little Philippe Coutinho was missed, despite apparently being a £90million player and despite the Reds facing the kind of side that repeatedly left them red-faced last season, losing to four of the teams that finished in last season’s bottom seven and drawing to 20th-placed Sunderland.
But if there’s one long-term concern, its that Liverpool will face far more organised defences than Watford this season and although Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mane showed some excellent combination work in the final third, the supply line to them could become a much bigger problem in the coming weeks should Coutinho leave, especially with Adam Lallana ruled out for the next few months.
In fact, an overtly industrious midfield of Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson created just three scoring opportunities in total, albeit one resulting in an assist from the German international, and produced just two efforts at goal, neither of which were on target.
Perhaps the defensive sturdiness of those three players was exactly what Liverpool needed to try and out-muscle a team of Watford’s calibre and style away from home, addressing the aforementioned Achilles heel that cost them so dearly last season, but it’s now a question of who Klopp can bring into the engine room to increase the creativity.
When the likes of Burnley, Huddersfield and Southampton travel to Anfield in the coming weeks, that problem could become a lot more evident. We already know of Liverpool’s interest in Naby Keita but with a deal yet to materialise, Jurgen Klopp will have to act quickly to sign a likeminded alternative who can give the Reds a more creative presence in midfield.
With a centre-back and another central midfielder crucial to Liverpool building on last season, there Reds still have some work to do in the transfer market.