There was plenty of doubt about the last year’s champions qualifying for the Champions League next season throughout the spring part of the campaign, and rightly so, given their extremely poor form which started at the turn of the year. Having beaten Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield by 2-1 in mid-December, Liverpool failed to win eight home matches in a row and went tumbling down the Premier League table.
However, with the very end of the season coming this week, Jurgen Klopp’s team are on a run of four consecutive victories, which, combined with some unexpectedly poor results from direct competitors, has put them back in fourth place.
But to get there, it was absolutely imperative that they beat Burnley at Turf Moor on Wednesday, and they did so convincingly, even though they looked far from comfortable for much of the contest.
Burnley under Sean Dyche are known for their strong, defensive style and rather physical approach. They usually play in a 4-4-2 system, stay deep and keep the two banks of four close together, ceding possession gladly and hitting back through long balls, set-pieces and counterattacks.
This time, however, it seems Dyche took the opportunity their table position (survival secured) provided to experiment a little. The shape of his team was still 4-4-2, but they played rather offensively, pressing surprisingly high and even managing spells of several minutes deep in the opposition half.
It could be that their plan was to score early if they can and then drop back to their usual approach, but it wasn’t to be. They wasted several promising situations and after Roberto Firmino struck first for the visitors two minutes before the break, they had no choice but to go on as they started and charge forward in search of an equalizer. Naturally, it made things a bit easier for Liverpool who managed to break through the Clarets’ back line with more frequency than when they usually play Burnley, but it provided the spectators with an exciting show.
The points on offer meant nothing to them, so it was the perfect opportunity to test themselves in a new way, emboldened perhaps by the fact that the Merseysiders still had no alternative to playing the inexperienced duo of Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams in the heart of defence.
Phillips shines again
It should, however, be said straight away that playing against Nathaniel Phillips doesn’t look an inviting prospect anymore. The 24-year-old centre-back has been placed in a delicate situation this season, finding himself required to fill the boots of Virgil van Dijk as the commander of defence. And he has risen to the occasion quite respectably, providing an assist for Diogo Jota last week against Manchester United and getting his first Liverpool goal in this match.
Burnley may boast players formidable in the air, but Phillips was more than a match for any of them, winning nine aerial duels, five more than James Tarkowski who was the best in a Burnley shirt in that aspect. Apart from scoring Liverpool’s second on the night, he also made a goal-line clearance as Ben Mee’s header looped over Alisson Becker and followed it up with another vital defensive header in less than a second.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for Phillips. He’s certainly given a good account of himself at the highest level so far, but with Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip set to return over the summer, and the club reportedly close to completing a deal for RB Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate, he might decide it would be better for him to move on than to sign a new contract with the current one expiring next year. Liverpool could also turn the loan of Ozan Kabak from Schalke into a permanent deal for as little as €20 million.
Thiago impact grows
When 29-year-old Thiago Alcantara joined Liverpool on the back of winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich last summer, many rightly believed that the Merseysiders were getting a world-class player, but many also (not so rightly) expected the Spain international to make impact straight away, especially after his superb 45-minute display in the second round away to Chelsea.
It almost always takes time for new players to adapt to the demands of the Premier League, and even though experience, something Thiago certainly has, should help, players generally become slower to accept change with age. The deep-lying playmaker was also hindered by Covid-19 early into his Enland spell, and worst of all, a three-month lay-off due to a knee injury suffered in the Merseyside Derby in mid-October.
Once back, Thiago found a team in disarray, seriously off form, and it was very difficult for him to try and pick up where he had left off.
Now, however, things look rather different. Liverpool are on a good roll, and Thiago is blending in nicely. Now his ability to dictate play from the middle of the park is really starting to show, and it helps the rest of the team keep possession, as well as move forward quickly.
It’s been a difficult season for Liverpool, and some among their critics believe this team has run its race. They believe (or rather pretend to believe) that Klopp would leave the club after a season this challenging, as he left Dortmund, they say.
However, Klopp himself has made it perfectly clear that he has no intention of leaving before his contract runs out, and that won’t happen before 2024. His team may still be lacking depth in certain areas, but the transfer window is about to open and there will be opportunities through the summer to address the issue.
But right now, as Burnley prepare to see off Sheffield United to the Championship on Sunday, for Liverpool, it’s all about beating Crystal Palace in front of their fans at Anfield and securing a place in the Champions League.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!