Liverpool's celebrated forward line looked blunt in their goalless draw at home to Manchester United on Sunday. Could it cost them their Premier League crown?
Monday 18 January 2021 13:50, UK
Liverpool dominated possession and had more shots than Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday but there will still be an element of relief that they escaped this match against their great rivals with that now 68-game unbeaten home record intact.
It is not just that Alisson had to come up with two excellent saves or the fact that Fabinho had to defend expertly to deny Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford in the closing stages.
This goalless draw does not knock United off top but it does keep the gap between the teams down to just three points with 20 games remaining. It kicks the question down the line. Liverpool might reasonably expect United to fade. They can hope Manchester City will not take advantage. The title defence is just about on course.
Maybe that is enough given the circumstances. Two midfielders at centre-back. Xherdan Shaqiri making his first Premier League start for over a year. "It is a team that is settled against a team that is shuffling things around and that is not what you want for a game like this," Graeme Souness told Sky Sports beforehand.
All of which would make some sense if it had been Liverpool's defence that had creaked under the pressure of facing perhaps the best counter-attacking team in the league.
Instead, it was the forwards who failed to deliver. That is a worry.
This was the first time in over two years that Liverpool have failed to score in a Premier League game at Anfield. This was the first time that Liverpool have failed to score in three consecutive Premier League games since March 2005, almost 16 years ago.
Only the defending salvaged their unbeaten record.
Jurgen Klopp could not be accused of being overly cautious. The full-backs still attacked, even though their delivery was not always on point. The inclusion of Shaqiri should have brought creativity to the midfield. The passing range of Thiago certainly did.
Making his first appearance as a Liverpool player at Anfield, the summer signing from Bayern Munich showcased his passing range, firing balls forward at clever angles. He did all he could to manoeuvre the ball around but Liverpool still could not take advantage.
That was on the front three. Roberto Firmino wasted a number of half-chances in the first half. Sadio Mane, after a promising start, could find no way past Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Mohamed Salah looked a little subdued throughout and never seemed to find the space.
Liverpool supporters will be left wondering whether Diogo Jota might have made a difference given his strong start to the season before succumbing to injury. The Portuguese will certainly be needed during the second half of the campaign to keep everyone fresh, but that should not have been an issue here.
The fixture list had been kind in giving Liverpool nine days to prepare - with even the preceding game being a confidence-boosting run out against Aston Villa's youngsters in which Mane and Salah both scored. It was United who had to go to Burnley in midweek. Everything was set up for them to really attack.
And they had the chances. Not lots, admittedly. But enough.
The statistics suggest that Liverpool's opportunities against United would - on average - have been enough to yield 1.2 goals. When they blanked away to Southampton, the stats indicated that 1.5 goals would have been the average number of goals expected from those chances. In the goalless draw at Newcastle prior to that, those chances amounted to 1.4 goals.
Remarkably, these three matches - back to back - each saw Liverpool underperform their expected goals by more than any previous Premier League game throughout 2020.
It represents a miserable run of finishing in three consecutive games. Had Liverpool finished merely averagely in these matches they would have seven points from them instead of two.
It probably does not help that the better chances fell to Firmino, rarely the cleanest of finishers. But there should have been more openings too. There was the time when Mane unexpectedly delayed his through-ball. There were the moments of uncharacteristic selfishness from Firmino as he looked to shoot instead of pass.
Salah, meanwhile, lacked his usual decisiveness in the final third, even eschewing the opportunity to run at Luke Shaw when one on one with the full-back inside the penalty box late on. Too often he was content to lay the ball off rather than drive at the defence.
"You have to be brave," Klopp told Sky Sports before kick-off.
"You have to play really brave football. You have to be cheeky in moments. You have to be well organised but not hide behind organisation so you have to be brave in defence as well. Play good football. Play between the lines. Play behind the lines. Be calm on the ball but be lively on the ball."
Is there enough of that in Liverpool's game right now?
Not on this evidence and the fact that the dip in form has coincided with a winnable run of fixtures - remember that the last Premier League goal that they did score was in a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom - puts the champions under pressure as trickier games loom.
Next month brings Manchester City and Everton to Anfield with a trip to Leicester in between. Before all that there is an away game against Tottenham to negotiate.
Something approaching Liverpool's best will be needed if they are to win consistently throughout that period, particularly with the complication of the Champions League to come. It leaves little room for error at home to Burnley on Thursday evening.
There will be no Jota for that one and though Klopp's inclusion of Shaqiri here and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Southampton recently suggests it might be the plan, there can be no great expectation that goals from midfield are suddenly going to start flowing.
If Liverpool are to retain this Premier League title, they will need their front three to start scoring again. Without that, no amount of impressive defending is going to be enough.