It’s been a long time since any team in the world outplayed Liverpool the way Brighton and Hove Albion did at the Amex on Saturday afternoon. It was an extremely satisfying watch for the home crowd and an extremely painful one for the traveling Reds supporters, as Solly March struck twice in quick succession (47′, 53′) and Danny Welbeck (81′) put the final touch to settle the contest beyond doubt.
Indeed, it’s questionable if this match could even be called a contest, and that says a lot about the balance of power on the pitch. It’s been a very long time since any team beat Liverpool into submission in such dominant fashion – it should not be forgotten that the Merseysiders not only won both English cups and finished a point behind Premier League champions Manchester City last season, but they also reached the final of the Champions League just over six months ago.
The Seagulls showed they’re up for playing Liverpool clearly when they held them to a 3-3 draw at Anfield back in October, in the first match with Roberto De Zerbi in charge after Graham Potter left for Chelsea. It seemed they would be able to repeat such a feat without Leandro Trossard, who scored all three goals in that match and was left out of the squad completely for this one after falling out with the manager. But De Zerbi has obviously continued the excellent work Potter had done before him, and his team was simply impeccable against the six-time European champions.
Liverpool have been known to lose to so-called ‘lesser sides’ before, especially this season, but it’s usually down to not creating enough with the ball mostly under their control and an occasional defensive error. This time, there were defensive errors all right, but Brighton achieved a very comprehensive victory with 61% possession, and 16 shots in total of which nine hit the target, compared to Liverpool’s total of six which forced Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez into action just twice.
One might say, Brighton destroyed Liverpool completely.
Exploiting the flanks
Liverpool’s usual setup, in which the fullbacks go far up the pitch and act as the main creative outlets, has been exposed plenty of times before. Manager Jurgen Klopp used to say that Trent Alexander-Arnold, as well as Andy Robertson, getting caught out of position was a risk they were aware of and it increased as the midfield frequently failed to win challenges in the middle of the park.
Klopp’s words do make sense, but the fact that his midfield simply isn’t improving in that aspect as the season progresses (it’s actually getting worse) poses an important question – why doesn’t the system change? It clearly isn’t working nearly as well as before, and being stubborn has cost them an arm and a leg in the Premier League standings.
Therefore, the way Brighton tactically approached this game was simple and obvious. They simply won those challenges in the middle of the park with sheer determination and much higher levels of energy than the visitors showed, and quickly passed out wide where either Kaoru Mitoma or March tormented the Liverpool fullbacks. This has very little to do with Alexander-Arnold or Robertson individually – they were simply confused by the frequent loss of possession in the middle of the park.
The Liverpool midfield problems
Klopp can hardly continue to turn a blind eye to the situation in the middle of the park. It’s not that he doesn’t have sufficient numbers in that department – Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcantara, Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Stefan Bajcetic – that’s nine players, nine very good players, and all of them were available for this match.
And yet, the trio of Fabinho, Thiago and Henderson which started didn’t do its job properly, and the changes which saw Keita and Elliott come on, along with 17-year-old winger Ben Doak, came too late. Brighton were flying high by that moment, and the game looked already lost for Liverpool. The term “fresh legs” is spoken almost always when people talk about football, and that’s exactly what Liverpool have been severely lacking for a while now.
Another thing Klopp has been saying is that such problems shouldn’t be solved by dipping into the transfer market, and that it was his job to make to with the players at his disposal to achieve desired results. This match was obviously (another) cold shower in that aspect – it’s quite clear that Liverpool need new midfielders as soon as possible. At least two new midfielders, hungry to prove themselves, hungry to win those loose balls in the middle of the park, eager to help in closing down those flanks when needed, and to whip a defence-splitting pass for the forwards to chase.
Can they be solved?
Brighton’s Moises Caicedo is one of the names listed frequently among Liverpool’s objects of interest in the market, as are Enzo Fernandez of Benfica and Borussia Dortmund star Jude Bellingham. Bellingham obviously won’t leave the Bundesliga side this month, and Fernandez is also likely to stay in Lisbon. Caicedo could perhaps be obtainable, but for that to happen, the club will have to loosen the purse and fork out a large amount of money.
Liverpool have never been one of those clubs who spend hundreds of millions of pounds on new players every year, but in the past, they have been known to complete expensive transfer when they feel a particular need. The signings of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker, and more recently Darwin Nunez, are good examples of that. They must do that again now, and strengthen the midfield.
It remains, however, to be seen whether they make a move this month and try to save what can be saved of the season, or they leave it be and launch a large-scale rebuild in the summer. If neither of these things happen, Liverpool could find themselves back on the slide down to mediocrity, which is where they were when Klopp arrived in October, 2015.
Table rankings and season goals
As pessimistic as it may sound from a Liverpool point of view, there’s something to be said for leaving things be at the moment and acting in the summer. Even if they turn their performances around 100% and start winning match after match, it feels it’s too late for top-four placement and Champions League qualification for next season. That in turn poses the question of whether they want to be playing in either of the remaining two UEFA competitions, 18 months after playing in the Champions League final. Perhaps it would be better to just avoid Europe altogether and go with a refreshed, strengthened squad at everything else on offer in 2023/24.
That, however, isn’t how professional players and coaches think. Their competitiveness won’t allow them to, and it’s surely to be expected that Liverpool will try to finish as high as possible this season. Whether that effort includes further winter transfers after the acquisition of forward Cody Gakpo, remains to be seen.
Be that as it may, Liverpool are currently in ninth place. Not nearly where they ever wanted to be.
But for Brighton, everything seems possible right now. Champions League? Yes, even that. Sitting eight points behind Manchester United in fourth place and boosted by the ongoing positive feeling around their team, they will dare to dream, and those who love stories about underdogs reaching unexpected heights will be hoping the Seagulls keep hold of their key players for as long as possible in the face of the evidently growing interest in their services from top clubs across Europe.
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