New season, same old problems for Liverpool. Against Watford they were made to pay the price for an all too familiar defensive horror show, as Miguel Britos headed home a 94th-minute equaliser to deny Jurgen Klopp victory in his 100th competitive game in charge of the club.
If Liverpool really are to challenge for the title this season — as both their fans and their owners demand that they do — then the club have serious work to do both on the training field and in the transfer market. They simply aren’t good enough at the back, and Klopp’s post-match complaints that Watford’s second and third goals were offside does not detract from the fact that their defence remains unacceptably shaky.
Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip’s centre-half partnership looked anything but stable. Alberto Moreno and Trent Alexander-Arnold both had their respective weaknesses exposed by Liverpool’s expansive 4-3-3 formation. And defending from set-pieces remains a significant issue. Klopp conceded during the club’s pre-season that the side’s defence was a work in progress, but all the old issues still remain.
But while Liverpool were left to rue familiar failings, Watford will hope that Marco Silva’s first Premier League match in charge of the club is indicative of what’s to come. Silva’s starting XI contained some surprise inclusions, not least Stefano Okaka ahead of record-signing Andre Gray, but his team selection was validated and Watford fully deserved their point.
Not that Liverpool made it too hard for them. Standing at over 6ft tall and by far the widest player on the pitch, Okaka is a difficult player to miss. But he took advantage of Liverpool’s lax zonal marking to nod in Jose Holebas’ corner under no pressure at all, much to the anger of Klopp on the touchline. Watford started the match brightly, and the goal was no more than they deserved.
The writing was on the wall for Liverpool in these early stages. Alberto Moreno, little more than a bit-part player last season, was especially poor: lightweight against the physical heft of a marauding Amrabat and ponderous in attack. It made Klopp’s decision to exclude a fit Andrew Robertson, signed this summer from Hull for £8m, all the more peculiar.
Watford vs Liverpool player ratings
It took a moment of utter genius from Mane to drag Liverpool back into the game. The forward — who was dropping deeper than usual in an attempt to spark his side into life — skipped into space and exchanged neat passes with Moreno, before running onto Emre Can’s cute flick and curling the ball around Heurelho Gomes.
However, it didn’t take long for Liverpool’s leaky defence to cede this advantage. Less than five minutes later and Watford led again, Abdoulaye Doucoure taking advantage of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s comical fall while attempting to clear a low cross, and slotting the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
“Watford’s first goal was a good cross and a good run. That’s just good. Well done really,” Klopp later admitted through gritted teeth. “But the second was a frustrating goal to concede. The first half I wasn’t too happy with.”
Klopp had his front three to thank for dragging Liverpool back into this match, after they had found themselves trailing 2-1 at the break. Mohamed Salah made his first significant contribution to the match when he nicked the ball ahead of Gomes in the box, before cutely drawing the foul. Firmino converted the spot-kick, and Liverpool were level.
Seconds later and the roles were reversed, as Firmino turned provider. Racing onto a long Lovren punt forward, the Brazilian caught Gomes in no-man’s-land with a deft chip across the face of goal. Gomes was stranded, and Salah smartly ran in behind him to bundle the ball home from all of two yards.
Salah’s two contributions came at a vital time for the £36.9m record signing, after he had struggled to impose himself in a difficult opening half during which his first touch frequently deserted him. But he began to gel with both Firmino and Mane after the break, and Liverpool supporters can derive encouragement from the manner in which he turned his performance around.
Not that Liverpool’s defence was able to achieve a similar feat, and Watford’s last-gasp equalising goal had a sense of crushing inevitability about it. In injury time, Holebas whipped in yet another vicious corner which Liverpool failed to clear. Georginio Wijnaldum inexplicably booted his clearance directly at Amrabat, who squeezed a shot on goal from a tight angle.
The effort beat Mignolet before bouncing back off the crossbar, with centre-back Britos on hand to nod in the rebound.
There was a question of whether the defender was stood in an offside position, with Klopp commenting: ”It’s obvious because the linesman is on the line. He needs to see it.”
“I cannot change it,” he added. “We would have had defensive areas we need to work on if we’d won 3-2. We were the better team, we should have won.”
All in all, it was the fitting end to a depressingly familiar Liverpool performance. And while the club are understandably determined to hang onto Philippe Coutinho before the transfer window swings shut, they must also make every effort to sign some defensive reinforcements. Fail to do so, and it’s difficult to see the club mounting the kind of title challenge that their fan base craves.