Sunday 20 October 2019

Henderson howler keeps Pool's perfect start intact

Sheffield United 0 Liverpool 1

Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates his match-winning goal with Roberto Firmino at Bramall Lane yesterday. Photo: Richard Sellers/PA
Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates his match-winning goal with Roberto Firmino at Bramall Lane yesterday. Photo: Richard Sellers/PA

Liverpool have begun their latest title challenge in formidable and, often near flawless, fashion but Premier League win number seven came riddled with imperfections, reminding everyone that Jürgen Klopp's side are mortal after all.

A week after winning at Everton, Chris Wilder's Sheffield United more than matched their gilded visitors and seemed set to take at least one point before a ghastly, freakish, goalkeeping error on the part of the previously under-employed Dean Henderson handed Georginio Wijnaldum the winning goal.

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It was Liverpool's first victory at Bramall Lane since 1990 and they are unlikely to forget it in a hurry.

Klopp may have won last season's Champions League but Wilder's managerial record is hardly shabby. After lifting Sheffield United from League One to the Premier League in three seasons he is now suggesting that, tactically at least, he can more than hold his own and the first half seemed a case in point.

After Chris Basham had welcomed Sadio Mané to South Yorkshire with a fair but very firm ball-winning tackle, it swiftly became apparent that Wilder had identified Trent Alexander-Arnold's penchant for overlapping from right-back as an opportunity to be exploited.

If Liverpool had expected their hosts to sit back with their overlapping centre-halves retreating into their shells, they were swiftly disabused as Jack O'Connell, the left-sided element of United's defensive trinity, pressed forward and Enda Stevens, the left wing-back, repeatedly accelerated into the space left behind Alexander-Arnold.

All this early pressure created openings for Oli McBurnie and Callum Robinson - where other coaches might have deployed just the one striker against Liverpool, Wilder stuck with two - and it was not long before Adrian's gloves were singed by a McBurnie shot.

McBurnie - whose bristling ginger beard seems somehow emblematic of his invariably feisty interpretation of the centre-forward role - seemed to enjoy his no-quarter-given duel with Virgil van Dijk. If it was only to be expected that Klopp's much lauded centre-half would hold his own, the Dutchman will certainly have had more comfortable afternoons.

Liverpool left-back Andy Roberstonproved powerless to prevent Robinson drifting in from the right and directing a 20-yard shot narrowly wide as every home tackle was cheered to the rafters and the Merseyside's 100 per cent Premier League record looked far from secure.

A brave headed Joel Matip interception kept McBurnie at bay and Robinson could not quite make the most of a headed opening following his faulty connection with a Stevens cross. At that stage Liverpool were struggling for fluency.

So assiduous was United's pressing and closing down that, at times, it looked as if Wilder has fielded two or three more players than Klopp.

With almost their every manoeuvre second guessed, Liverpool seemed in peril of suffocation and when Mané did finally break free, he was halted by the most courageous of challenges from Ireland defender John Egan.

Admittedly Mané's shot did rebound off a post as the ball bagatelled around the home area but before Roberto Firmino could re-direct the fallout beyond Henderson. Wilder's goalkeeper was probably as surprised as anyone at having so little to do.

True, it might have been different if Mané again and Salah had not missed a couple of reasonably inviting openings but, generally, the Liverpool pair found themselves repeatedly, and unceremoniously, shunted down attacking cul-de-sacs by the home defence.

Deprived of time and space, Liverpool began snatching at the ball. Shots were sliced and passes over-hit as they struggled to cope with United's success in subduing their full-backs.

Klopp started pressing a few tactical buttons. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson swapped flanks, Henderson was replaced by Divock Origi and the tempo raised a notch.

If United sensed danger they also saw opportunity and McBurnie drew a good save from Adrian while Van Dijk was once again called to arms, this time to come between John Lundstram and a goal. Fortunately for Klopp, calamity of the cruellest order was beckoning for United's Henderson.

For much of the afternoon Wijnaldum had been worryingly anonymous for the Merseysiders, his performance reminiscent of his once routinely ineffective away displays during his Newcastle days but the Dutchman was destined to change the game's complexion.

Meeting Origi's cross, Wijnaldum volleyed straight at Henderson and the keeper looked to have gathered routinely before inexplicably permitting the ball to slip from his fingers and through his legs before slowly, agonisingly trickling over the line.

As the Liverpool fans behind him celebrated, poor Henderson covered his face with his hands and, as if in sympathy, the sunshine which had briefly illuminated Bramall Lane was replaced by more of the rain which had earlier soaked the city.

Henderson would soon save superbly from Salah, but it did not feel like redemption.

Observer

 

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