Relief for Klopp as Reds get back to winning ways
Sheffield United 0, Liverpool 2
Jurgen Klopp’s crisis is no longer in danger of turning into a drama. A sequence of four Premier League defeats over the past month was ended with a win against Sheffield United. It may have lacked the all-conquering conviction of last season’s many victories, it may have been against a side that has only won once at home all season, but Klopp will not mind. The bark of triumph he emitted as his team scored their second goal made it clear that right now, any win will do. Finally, his nightmare February is over.
It was 20 years to the day since Klopp made his managerial debut with Mainz. In the intervening decades, in which he has won the small matter of a Champions League, Premier League and two Bundesliga titles, rarely can he have been through a sequence as dispiriting as the run his side had recently embarked upon. And before this game his mood cannot have been much raised by the fact his title-winning goalkeeper Alisson was absent on compassionate leave after losing his father (his team-mates were wearing black armbands in solidarity). In his stead came Adrian, a ’keeper who, in an indication of Liverpool’s wavering form, has already this season won and lost 7-2.
And, within minutes, he was required to save from David McGoldrick’s sharp header from Oliver Norwood’s free-kick. Indeed, as Liverpool’s early passing was too long, too slack, too inaccurate, Sheffield United didn’t look remotely intimidated at the prospect of taking on the champions.
Knowing his side are so far adrift at the bottom only a win was good enough, Chris Wilder could not be faulted for his ambition. He named five strikers on the bench. The only problem is, he had rather more forwards than they have scored Premier League goals between them.
He started with Ollie McBurnie and McGoldrick up front. And the tactic was clear. He instructed his defence to pass the ball back to the ’keeper Aaron Ramsdale, who would barrel it forward to the two big lads, whose task was to fight against Liverpool’s latest emergency centre-back pairing, Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips.
And it almost worked, when, under pressure from McBurnie, Kabak prodded the ball past his goalkeeper Adrian. But the striker was offside.
Yet it became clear as the first half progressed that Klopp’s issue is not limited to his defence. It is that the all-conquering front three, the one that dispatched all comers last season, are finding it so much tougher to score this. Sure, it didn’t help that Ramsdale, decided this was the moment to channel his inner Gianluigi Buffon. He made a succession of outstanding saves in the first half, from Roberto Fimino, Curtis Jones and Mohamed Salah.
But there was hint of Liverpool’s attacking decline when Ramsdale saved again from Gini Wijnaldum’s shot. With the goalkeeper still sprawled on the turf, the ball fell to Firmino who, instead of shooting beyond him into an unguarded net, passed inside. It was a poor ball, easily cleared by a Sheffield defender.
But Liverpool’s luck started to turn the moment the second half began. Trent Alexander-Arnold did brilliantly to chase the ball down to the bye-line. The home defence seemed to stop, but Alexander-Arnold crossed to Curtis Jones lurking on the edge of the area. His shot was precise enough to beat even Ramsdale. VAR studied the footage and decided not all of the ball had crossed the line before the cross was made. Wilder may have fumed, but his players shouldn’t have stopped.
The shift in momentum, however, was clear. Moments later, after a glorious flee-flowing move, Sadio Mane put the ball in the net, but he was offside. Liverpool’s passes suddenly became crisper, the movement more decisive, the shots more venomous.
Faced with such resurgence, Wilder needed to act. He sent on Oliver Burke to threaten the Liverpool backline with pace as well as muscle.
For a moment or two it worked, Adrian driven to make a couple of panicked clearances.
But then Firmino went on a delightful, twinkle-toed run, bouncing into the area leaving home defenders in his wash.
His shot took a deflection off Kean Bryan and ended up in the top corner of the net, with Ramsdale beating the turf in frustration. So significant was the deflection, it was reckoned to be an own goal.
Sheffield United kept trying, of course they did. They are managed by Wilder. But their shortcomings this season insist it could not be enough to deliver anything approaching parity, as was clear when Adrian saved from Burke at the death.
But for Klopp, for all Sheffield’s limitations, they had served their purpose; they had allowed Liverpool to remind themselves winning was still possible.
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