Liverpool and Brighton and Hove Albion faced each other on Saturday at Anfield in the seventh Premier League game for either side, and both teams played in accordance with much we had already seen from them this term. It was an exciting contest which quite justly ended in a draw, with the ball hitting the back of each net three times.
Leandro Trossard shocked Anfield twice early on, breaking the deadlock after less than four minutes and adding the second in the 17th. It was Roberto Firmino who restored some hope for the hosts in the 33rd and equalized nine minutes into the second half, before a corner clumsily punched by Brighton ‘keeper Robert Sanchez struck defender Adam Webster and bounced into the goal in the 63rd, putting Liverpool ahead. But 20 minutes later, Trossard turned up once more for his team and completed his hattrick by taking advantage of a poor defensive reaction from the hosts to slam home from close range.
The match delivered plenty of topics worth discussing, both positive and negative, and maybe it’s best to get the negative ones out of the way first.
The Liverpool right-back has been a hot topic in English football in the last couple of weeks, culminating in his omission from the England squad that faced Germany early in the week and Gareth Southgate reportedly informing him that his overall game ‘lagged behind’ Newcastle’s Kieran Trippier, as well as Chelsea’s Reece James.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp jumped to his defence in his pre-match press conference, explaining how Alexander-Arnold is told to play and press high up the pitch and when the team loses of fails to win the ball, his flank is understandably exposed. A long pass by the opposition into that area then causes serious problems, but that is not Alexander-Arnold’s fault. It’s the risk Liverpool always take and it’s just that recently it hasn’t been paying off the way it used to in previous seasons.
However, the 23-year-old’s performance against Brighton did nothing to back the manager’s words. He was a culprit (A culprit, not THE culprit) for both the first and the second goal for the visitors, and the pressure he’s been feeling lately, coming mostly unnecessarily from the manager of the national team, has obviously taken a huge toll on his confidence.
Trent was frequently out of position, which, as Klopp explains, isn’t anything strange given what he’d been told to do, but he was also very indecisive and unsure even when in position to defend.
Southgate’s decision to leave him out against Germany and his subsequent words obviously give a strong indication about the feebleness of Alexander-Arnold’s chances of making the World Cup squad, and given the situation, perhaps it’s best for him to remain out of the picture and escape the public eye for a month. Using that time to work on his form and recover mentally would do him a world of good.
Be that as it may, Klopp now faces a difficult decision ahead of each game between now and the tournament in Qatar, with a new test coming practically every three days. Does he put Trent on the bench from time to time to let him cool off a bit and risk his confidence deteriorating further, not to mention putting the inexperienced Calvin Ramsey or centre-back Joe Gomez in his place, or he sticks with the under-fire player to show faith in him when others won’t, and risk his performances making a negative influence on the team’s results further?
It’s a very complex problem, one that’s not to be resolved by a knee-jerk reaction, but rather with patience and plenty of consideration.
What’s wrong with Liverpool?
While some believe that the initial issue that caused the problems with Trent have impacted other players as well and name that issue as the system that doesn’t seem to be working anymore, those who are ready to jump at the right-back’s throat dismiss such opinions, asking how it’s possible for a system that has produced such fantastic results to suddenly not work anymore.
The answer is simple. It’s very possible. The game evolves, teams evolve, managers devise new strategies for their teams to fight opposition that might’ve been impossible to stop before. Brighton is a fine example of that, but we’ll come to that later.
As for Liverpool, it seems obvious that too much space is being left between the midfield and the back line, and that’s something most teams are very quick to pick up on and take advantage of. The high defensive line Klopp expects to see from his men obviously cannot work well without suitable protection in front, and this is where both Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara have to do more than they did on Saturday.
Further more, it was a notably poor individual performance from captain Jordan Henderson. It could, perhaps, be put down to his recent injury absence and his quick return to play for England during the international break, but if so, the question of why he was selected to start in the first place poses itself. Young Harvey Elliott has been playing well for most of the season so far, and perhaps it made more sense to give him a start and introduce Henderson for the last half-hour, and not the other way around. But now we’ve entered the realms of speculation and must allow that Klopp probably had his reasons.
Which way now?
Perhaps it really is time for Klopp to leave his usual 4-3-3 shape behind at this point, and try for a braver approach. A 4-2-3-1 system, with four attackers out there and a double pivot ahead of the back line, might do the trick in the tactical sense, as well as shake things up and make it more interesting for the players who seem too set in their tracks at the moment – too comfortable in their roles, as it were.
Another thing that has to be said is that Liverpool look quite different when they score first. Therefore, with four attackers from the start, maybe it would be possible to storm the opposition goal from the first whistle – much like Brighton did on Saturday – and do whatever it takes to get a goal or two ahead in the first half. Then, perhaps, thought could be given to prudence and another experienced midfielder introduced in the place of one of the attackers to calm things down and control the game.
Control the game – that is something that’s been painfully missing from Liverpool’s game and something that needs to be rediscovered as soon as possible if this drop is to be arrested in time to save the season from disaster.
Whether Liverpool can be counted on as genuine title contenders this term has now become a valid question. Looking at the current situation, it seems they should be glad if they qualify for next season’s Champions League.
If there is a player, one of the ‘old guard’ that’s been doing well under the radar this season, it’s Firmino. The Brazilian scored twice to save some of the dignity of his team against Brighton, but the whole picture becomes clearer when his overall numbers are taken into consideration. The popular ‘Bobby’ has eight goal involvements (five goals and three assists) in six Premier League matches this term.
With Diogo Jota performing very well since his arrival from Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2020 and the acquisition of Darwin Nunez this summer, there have been questions about the need for the experienced Brazilian at Liverpool past the expiration of his contract at the end of the season.
However, Firmino continues to answer that question himself by doing what he does best – delivering for his team when they need him the most. It would therefore be very wise indeed for sporting director Julian Ward to call the 31-year-old into his office to discuss a new deal soon. If not, he certainly won’t be short of options in a couple of months already, as he will be free to talk to clubs outside England from the turn of the year.
Trossard has always looked a player of real potential. Straight after his arrival from KRC Genk in 2019, he oozed skill on the ball and intelligence, always providing an extra creative spark in a team still considered not to be among the best in the league. One of the downsides in his game in previous seasons was an apparent lack of consistency – there were games when he simply couldn’t find it in him to spur the Seagulls on or trouble a well-organized defence.
Now, however, it seems he’s finally taken that step, raised his game to the next level, and with his contract expiring at the end of the season as well, it’s hard to see him staying at the club beyond next summer. There will surely be plenty of interest in his services, and even he himself mentioned a few days ago that it would be hard for him to refuse if former Brighton boss Graham Potter called to tell him he’s wanted at Chelsea. Watch that space.
At the age of 27, it could be argued that Trossard isn’t quite in the bloom of youth for a football player, but remember, Luis Suarez left Liverpool for Barcelona at that age and went on to win everything club football has to offer. The fact that he’s a regular Belgium international speaks volumes of Trossard’s quality, especially with the competition for the attacking midfield/winger places in that team in mind. He played in every match in this edition of the Nations League and is a strong candidate to make the Qatar trip.
The three excellently taken Anfield goals aside, there was always a feeling Brighton would cause Liverpool serious problems when Trossard got on the ball. Being the man closest to striker Danny Welbeck, he was a vital link, that step ahead of the midfield line tasked with creating, and create he did. He continuously found ways to take advantage of every little space he could find in the opposition half, and frankly, it wasn’t that hard to find given Liverpool’s defensive problems. He was excellent throughout the 87 minutes he spent on the pitch, especially in the opening quarter of the match when he and his teammates had the six-time European champions on the ropes in their own yard.
One thing is obvious. Whichever club ends up signing Trossard next summer, they’ll be getting a ready-made top-level player.
Potter, De Zerbi, Brighton
An excellent coach as he is, Roberto De Zerbi, who took over at Brighton following Potter’s recent departure, chose not to tinker too much with a system already working fine and the modesty to do so paid off in a tangible way. Make no mistake – this was Potter’s team, Potter’s tactical ideas, Potter’s players, Potter’s long-term work fully ripe.
De Zerbi himself spoke on the subject upon his arrival at the Amex, saying that coaches usually take over teams in crisis and are expected to turn things around, and pointing out how much easier it would be for him to step at the helm of a team already set up perfectly, delivering unexpectedly good results.
One would almost say it was an easy day at the office for the 43-year-old tactician, despite his first match in charge being played at one of the traditionally toughest grounds in Europe, against a team that has won it all.
A lot of challenges lie ahead, but Brighton, who have started the second successive season as arguably the most pleasant surprise in the Premier League, are rightly sitting in fourth place in the Premier League table at the moment, ahead of three of the so-called ‘big six’. There’s a long way to go and the competition is very fierce in the top half of the English top flight, but playing like they are, the Seagulls seem ready for Europe.
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