The Gamer: Southampton 0-2 Liverpool

Southampton v Liverpool - Premier League

Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have had a tendency to start games slowly at times. Unlike his predecessor’s sides—which at their very best would attack the opposition from the opening kick with a furious, face-melting tenacity—Klopp’s teams have often lacked such intensity, instead needing to settle into games before eventually bringing the noise. Usually, the noise arrives; other times, especially against inferior opposition, Liverpool will find themselves struggling against a deep-lying, tight-packed defense for their opening breakthrough. While that breakthrough does indeed arise more often than not, one doesn’t have to look back far to see instances in which it doesn’t, with the Reds forced to make do with a shared point—or worse.

Against Southampton at the St. Mary’s Stadium on Saturday, Liverpool began with an intensity that rendered moot any concerns about a slow start. The movement was impetuous, the passing concise and measured, and they were rewarded with an opening salvo that put them ahead within six minutes. Loris Karius rolled it out to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who found Mo Salah with a searching, 40-yard ball that Wesley Hoedt made an absolute mess of in trying to intercept. Salah centered it to a streaking Roberto Firmino and the Reds were up 0-1 with a brilliant piece of direct, transitional attacking football that set the template for the rest of the day.

Well, almost. Saints grew into it after the 10th minute, and for much of the first half were able to cause Liverpool problems—problems that Liverpool were able to solve, but problems nonetheless. They found space out wide and were able to exploit it, creating half-chances—and even a few chances—that they usually lacked the attacking edge to do much with. Karius had another solid game in goal for the Reds; for a guy who some observers have (justifiably) claimed doesn’t stop much, he had four saves before halftime whistle (in an indictment of Southampton’s second-half performance, he ended the contest with the same number).

But it wasn’t enough. While the halftime stats told the story of a rather even contest—Southampton had more of the ball, were tied with Liverpool with five shots apiece and had four shots on target to Liverpool’s three—the Reds were up 0-2 in the most important statistic of all. On 42 minutes, the oft-derided Joel Matip strolled with the ball into Saints’ half and pinged it, on the carpet, into the feet of Salah near the edge of the penalty arc. The rest was pure quality; Salah, having found just enough space between Southampton’s lines, turned and laid it off left to Firmino, who with a swing of his right leg back-heeled it into the path of a Salah run to the penalty spot. To call it a mere “one-two” or “give-n-go,” whatever your preferred vernacular, would do it an injustice. It was sublime, an exemplar of the quality Southampton so lacked in the final third, and for all intents and purposes it ended the game before the game was half over.

The second half felt mere formality, which has to be an indictment of this Saints team and their manager. Given all the transfer-related acrimony between these two football clubs—and, for anyone who spends time on the internet, certainly between their fan bases—one may have expected a contest with a great deal more needle and antipathy in it. But there really was none,  and Southampton didn’t seem to have much fight in them at all. It’s particularly damning considering that their opposition, for all their quality, have repeatedly proven themselves vulnerable to surrendering even the most significant of leads at the hands of a dogged fightback. But Southampton were either unwilling or unable to give them one, even on their own pitch, and it cannot bode well for Mauricio Pellegrino, who is now managing a team in the relegation zone after 27 games played.

It also doesn’t bode well for Southampton that Liverpool, but for their own profligacy, could have at least doubled the scoreline, with the likes of Salah and Sadio Mane, in particular, squandering good chances (Liverpool managed to get only four of their 16 shots in the game on target). Firmino’s opener set the tone; time and again, the Reds looked for each other in the channels with long, direct, often devastating balls from the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson in the fullback positions. These weren’t percentage balls being pumped in on a hope or a prayer—far from it, in fact. They were 30-yard though-balls directed at the Reds’ formidable attacking trident, often in transition after Liverpool’s midfield press had snuffed out yet another limp Saints endeavor.

It was a practical and devastatingly effective approach, part and parcel of the penetrating attacking football Klopp has now embedded in the side’s very fabric. As Southampton find themselves on a desperate search for answers—one that may end with a change in the dugout—Liverpool could very well deploy similar tactics at their next hurdle on Wednesday, when they take on Porto at the Estadio do Dragao in the European Cup.

Other thoughts from the weekend’s action

Newcastle delivered a balls-to-the-wall performance on Sunday against Manchester United at St. James’ Park. Jonjo Shelvey is a crazy, streaky bastard of a footballer, but he was nothing short of brilliant, as was his midfield companion Mo Diame and, indeed, the rest of the Newcastle side that earned a hard-fought, well-deserved 1-0 win—the Toon’s first home league win since October. It was a critical three points in Newcastle’s bid to stay in the Premier League, a fight was looking more and more ill-fated by the week to this point. At the start of the season, one could have forecasted Rafa Benitez masterminding a result like this, with the backing of a raucous St. James’ crowd, against one of the top six; it just so happened that it was his old adversary Jose Mourinho who was the one to fall victim.

****

Arsenal yet again looked directionless against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday, a side with no real pattern of play beyond pinging it around in central midfield in spurts and hoping that would be suffice to conjure something good enough to get one past their opponents. It wasn’t; Spurs were of course too disciplined, stifling the Gunners time and time again, and in fact should’ve been up at least 3-0 by the time Arsenal put together a late push that threatened to tie it up near the final whistle. 

Once upon a time, not too long ago, this sort of result against their biggest rivals would’ve been untenable for Arsenal; now, it’s the new normal. The Gunners have plenty of quality in their ranks, though it’s undoubtedly going to take time for new boys Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to settle into the groove of things (a resurgent Jack Wilshere is another bright spot). At this point, though, it’s getting extremely hard to look past the man at the helm and wonder in what universe, exactly, this team wouldn’t be better off with someone other than Arsene Wenger calling the shots.

****

In Italy, second-place Napoli approached halftime at the Stadio San Paolo on Saturday down 0-1 to third-place Lazio. But Jose Callejon tied things up just before the break, and it was all Napoli in the second-half—they took the game away from Lazio in enviable fashion to return to the Serie A summit, one point ahead of Juventus in their two-way title race (Lazio, meanwhile, slipped to fifth and out of the Champions League places after wins for Inter and Roma on Sunday). 

As a friend mentioned to me, it is ridiculous that a second-versus-third matchup in any top European football league is played before what appeared to be a half-empty stadium, but that’s just the nature of the game in Italy—and one I’m sure not helped by what look to be terrible sight lines at the San Paolo, particularly in the lower bowl (which was mostly vacant even for the Champions League group stage match against Manchester City in the fall, which was held in the midst of an altogether electric, tempestuous atmosphere). My solution: UEFA needs to award Italy the next Euros as soon as possible, so that they have an excuse to rehab, rebuild or build new stadia worthy of one of the best leagues and finest footballing nations in the world.

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