With Philippe Coutinho perhaps watching on from his cozy new digs in Barcelona, his former team was unable to break down spirited Swansea on Monday night. But with its defense reinforced by Virgil van Dijk for the first time in the Premier League, Liverpool succumbed to a familiar failure: set piece defending.
It lost its first game in exactly three months, to Swansea, 1-0, because it didn’t emphatically clear either of two successive 40th-minute corners. The second defensive header skipped right into the stomach of a Swans player, and fell to the feet of Alfie Mawson, who swept it past Loris Karius.
It also lost, though, because for 50 minutes thereafter, Liverpool couldn’t cut through a compact Swansea defense. It appeared to have finally done so with seconds remaining, only for Roberto Firmino’s doorstep header to carom back off the post.
Liverpool wasn’t particularly slow or disjointed. More than anything, it lacked a magician stationed in between the lines. It lacked the creativity required to create clear-cut chances. It lacked precisely what Coutinho brought to Anfield for the better part of five years.
The 90 minutes were emblematic of the primary concern linked to Coutinho’s departure. He was, in the minds of some, as much a liability as an asset in the big games, against the big teams, when his presence in midfield came with defensive deficiencies.
But his value in the tricky games, against the small teams, was undisputed. He could pick the confounding locks. He could weave his way through mazes, or help others do so. Without him, every route was impeded.
The idea of selling Coutinho, but buying Van Dijk and eventually Naby Keita, was that attacking prolificacy would be sacrificed for defensive solidity. That issues at the back would be, if not solved, at least addressed.
But the issue that has plagued Liverpool more than any other, its shoddy record on set pieces, was as present as ever. And the very early returns on Liverpool’s January business, therefore, are negative.
An emphasis on the “very early,” though. There is still plenty of time to sort things out at both ends of the pitch. There is also the possibility – perhaps the strong probability – that Monday was an outlier. It was, after all, Liverpool’s first loss in exactly three months. And the Reds have beaten inferior teams without Coutinho earlier this season. His departure won’t somehow ruin their record.
Monday also wasn’t so much a hangover as it was a regression to the mean. Those 90 minutes against Man City were a 95th-percentile performance. Any thought that they were the new norm was illusory.
This, in the end, is the Liverpool experience – the highs and the lows, the nonsensical fluctuations in performance from one week to the next. The past two games, admittedly, might have taken it to a new extreme.
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