On Sunday, Liverpool visited Bournemouth looking to extend on an eleven match unbeaten record in the Premiership (fifteen in all competitions). They started well and were 2-0 up within 22 minutes. In one of the most one-sided halves you will see all season, Liverpool stifled the life out of Bournemouth to the extent that the hosts were placed under a relentless barrage and unable to clear their own lines.
But, the introduction of Ryan Fraser for the injured Stanislas in the 55th minute with the instructions to ‘liven things up’ was the catalyst to changing the course of the match in a way few could have predicted, and it tilted, quite possibly, the dynamics of the title race.
Liverpool had been sitting pretty at the top of the table for a few weeks earning plaudits for playing a wonderful brand of instinctive and attacking football. Although no-one at the club would admit to it, they are on course to making a challenge for the title and the perceived wisdom was that after Arsenal’s traditional November collapse, their main opponents would be Manchester City.
Few could have seen Chelsea’s emergence from the ashes of those back-to-back defeats in September against Liverpool and Arsenal, nevertheless, the Blues re-grouped and re-organised to stealthily climb the table and mount a challenge of their own. Their 5-0 demolition of Everton placed them firmly on the radar and their 3-1 win at Manchester City on Saturday made them title favourites. Liverpool were playing catch up at Bournemouth in a game they had to win.
It was all going reasonably well until Fraser injected some much needed pace and aggression into the Bournemouth ranks. His first action was to attack a loose ball in Liverpool’s penalty area and in the process, get fouled by James Milner. Bournemouth were awarded a penalty from which they scored—2-1. From that moment on, Fraser played like a man possessed; attacking with intent every ball he could and placing Liverpool’s backpedaling defenders on the back-foot.
Fear coursed through the Liverpool defence. The familiar anxieties from the past three seasons, including the collapses at Southampton last season and memorably Crystal Palace in 2013/14, memories that they appeared to banish under Klopp’s guidance in his first full season, had resurfaced to haunt them. They looked vulnerable and Bournemouth with a raucous crowd behind them smelled blood. Despite retrieving their two goal advantage through Emre Can a few minutes later, Liverpool contrived, with no small effort on Bournemouth’s part, to concede three goals in the last fifteen minutes and lose the game 4-3.
The question of why Liverpool collapsed so spectacularly, at such a critical juncture in the season, must be addressed. The dynamism that Ryan Fraser brought to Bournemouth will be the first answer, but that does not sufficiently explain how a 22-year-old Premiership novice managed to tear Liverpool apart. Nor does the General Anxiety Disorder that exists in Liverpool’s current DNA quite do it either. Only Chelsea, Spurs, and Arsenal had better defensive records than Liverpool prior to the game and they had not displayed any symptoms this season. For me, the answer lies in the absence of Matip and the inclusion of Lucas as his replacement.
Joel Matip has arguably been one of the best pieces of transfer business by any Premiership club this season. David Luiz at Chelsea has had a similar effect to Matip but he arrived for a fee of £34m, Matip arrived on a free. His strength, height, defensive quality and comfort on the ball have solidified the Liverpool defence. He has formed an understanding with Dejan Lovren that has so far fared well, and exudes an air of calm and authority to the defence that is comparable to that of Sami Hyypia or Alan Hansen.
An injury to his ankle meant that he missed the game at Bournemouth, and Lucas came in for him. I spelt out in an earlier article that this was not a happy state of affairs. Lucas is a midfielder by trade and watching him trying to intercept the cut-back for Bournemouth’s third goal made me wince. In fact, all three of Bournemouth’s goals in open play came from the right side of central defence, an area Lucas was nominally responsible for. He does not have the height, strength or presence to compensate for his lack of defensive quality.
Lucas should only be played in the heart of Liverpool’s defence as a last resort. The problem is that Klopp’s other centre-back buy of the summer, Ragnar Klavan, looks just as inept, if not worse, as he appears to lack concentration and skill on the ball. Klopp’s preference of Lucas is testament to just how poor Klavan has been.
The solution to this obvious defensive conundrum lies in the shape of Mamadou Sakho, currently plying his trade in the wilderness of the Liverpool U-23s side. Sakho may not have the greatest ball skills, and may, whilst moving, be resembling of a baby giraffe taking his first steps, but he is a world class defender. Since being banned in April following a positive test for banned substances (and later cleared) he has not featured for Liverpool’s first team.
This is a problem largely of Sakho’s own making. Taking substances, whether banned or not, without notifying Liverpool’s medical staff is inadvisable. He then proceeded to miss a flight, a team dinner, and a team meeting during Liverpool’s summer tour of the U.S. The last straw for Klopp came when Sakho rudely interrupted him during a televised interview at a visit to Alcatraz. A restrained Klopp suggested that Liverpool were only visiting Alcatraz to deposit and leave Sakho at the prison(!). Underneath the humour it was clear that Klopp was at breaking point with his player and Sakho was soon banished to the reserves.
That Sakho acted unprofessionally in all this is without question. He is an employee, a very well paid employee of a global name—Liverpool. But ever since, his contrition has been plain to see. Klopp must recognise that Sakho is still a young man with a big character who can act like a big kid at times, hence his cult following at Liverpool for outlandish acts, although not as outlandish as that other big kid Mario Balotelli. Unlike Mario, Mamadou’s performances on the field, especially towards the back end of last season, were excellent and there were high hopes for a great partnership with Lovren.
It seems to me that if Klopp could somehow draw a line under things and give Sakho another chance, Mamadou would grasp it with both hands and Liverpool would benefit with the addition of a world class defender in their ranks. One who won’t need a period of time to bed-in. Top class defenders don’t grow on trees, both Manchester clubs are in need of at least one, as does Chelsea, and Klopp’s ruthlessness with regards to Sakho is counter-productive, especially with a hectic Christmas schedule ahead for the club. The cost of continuing with Lucas in defence was plain for all to see on Saturday.
Liverpool are now four points off Chelsea in third; Matip is scheduled to return against West Ham next week, however, the presence of only two quality central defenders must be a concern. Losing one can negate all the good work they do further up the pitch and going forwards Klopp will have to decide how to resolve this. Joe Gomez will be available soon but he is young and has not played first team football in over a year. Perhaps Klopp could try and buy his way out of trouble in the January window as he has hinted, but he will not have things all his own way. Van Dijk has been mentioned but there are a host of clubs monitoring him, not least Chelsea. Or Klopp could try and rehabilitate Sakho, as things stand—he could do worse.
If Klopp does not resolve this dilemma soon, Liverpool will almost certainly find their chance of a title challenge slipping away—they can cope, as they demonstrated at Bournemouth, without Coutinho for a while, but they cannot do so with Lucas in defence.