Liverpool risking season of anti-climax after month of misery
After 14 months of progress, Liverpool's season is in danger of ending in anti-climax with the League Cup defeat to Southampton a bitter blow, writes Richard Jolly.
Many an Anfield semi-final has a place in Liverpool folklore. The mere mention of the opposition is enough to conjure glorious memories: Borussia Monchengladbach, Barcelona, Chelsea, Chelsea again, Villarreal. Suffice to say Southampton will not be the latest addition to that list. Or not the 21st century Saints anyway: their class of 1987 lost a League Cup semi-final 3-0 on Merseyside. Claude Puel’s group were altogether more resilient. They have faced Liverpool three times this season, kept clean sheets in all three, won two and have reached their first major Cup final for 14 years.
So 2017 could be a landmark year for a club with a solitary significant trophy in its history. It has begun badly for Liverpool. Fourteen months of progress are not destroyed in one month of regression, but this has been a damaging spell for Jurgen Klopp. After going a year unbeaten at home, they have lost twice in five days. A title pursuit may have been ended, a bid for EFL Cup glory has definitely been curtailed and Wolves’ visit in the FA Cup now has the potential to complete an unwanted hat-trick. Klopp has reached two finals and a further semi-final, but the danger is that he starts to be seen as football’s tall, loud, manically gesturing bridesmaid, but never its bride, forever coming close.
Britain Football Soccer - Liverpool v Southampton - EFL Cup Semi Final Second Leg - Anfield - 25/1/17 Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp reactsReuters
As Liverpool have only won one trophy since 2006, a miserable record for a club of their stature, some problems predate his appointment. Others have occurred of late. His side have lost their spark. They were England’s most dynamic, destructive attackers. Yet they were flat at the start against Southampton, just as they were four days earlier against Swansea. Thereafter, they exerted pressure without penetration, showing incessant effort but not incision. Form and fortune have both deserted them.
But it was a situation that suited Southampton. Puel is a defensive strategist. He brings organisation, not inspiration. He was content to see nine outfield players converged behind the ball, but with Nathan Redmond springing effective breaks behind Liverpool’s full-backs. He had a solid base, with Anfield echoing to the name of a defensive midfielder. Oriol Romeu rivalled Redmond for the title of man of the tie.
Saints defended the width of the penalty box, making Liverpool cross, which is not their strongest suit. It was an object lesson in playing against them. As Burnley and Plymouth have shown, ultra-defensive sides can prosper against Klopp's men.
Even the closest they came was due to individual error, not creativity, Fraser Forster desperately clawing the ball off the line after Emre Can’s tame effort slipped through his fingers. But Sadio Mane’s importance grows with every game he misses, Roberto Firmino is energetic everywhere but looks a lesser player when used on the right and Philippe Coutinho has regained fitness but not yet recaptured his brilliance.
Southampton's Fraser Forster saves from Liverpool's Emre Can Reuters / Phil Noble Livepic EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, dataReuters
Goalscorers can camouflage a multitude of other issues but, as in the first leg, Daniel Sturridge failed to seize his opportunity. He can be confined to the cup competitions these days, but whereas he was the catalyst for a 6-1 League Cup thrashing of Southampton, that was last season. He scored twice in four minutes then. Thirteen months later, there could have been a repeat, but he missed the target both times. It felt symbolic. Having lost his place, he has lost his potency.
It meant he lost a duel with a rookie. Jack Stephens was Southampton’s fourth-choice centre-back until Jose Fonte upped sticks and Virgil van Dijk’s angle gave way. In the biggest game of his life, the 22-year-old played the best game of his life. One misplaced back-pass aside, he was composed and calm, showing a reliability that belied a CV which does not feature a single Premier League start.
In injury time, he executed a superb tackle on Divock Origi as Liverpool claimed a penalty. A minute later, Shane Long sprinted away to score the only goal. He is an old scourge of Liverpool, Puel a newer one. He may yet top Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino by bringing a trophy to Hampshire but for Liverpool, a season that showed such promise risks becoming an anti-climax.