Spot the difference
Salah penalty calms the nerves to put Klopp’s men back on track after successive defeats
From their great triumphs of December to the cold realities of January, so the road to May opens up in front of Liverpool with their first win of the new year on an afternoon when it was so much closer than it should have been for Jurgen Klopp’s title-chasing players.
The home team failed to manage an attempt on target all game – be it shot, header, scuff or miscue – although when the ball went into the Liverpool area three minutes into injury-time, you could tell Klopp was envisaging disaster for his team. There was a half-clearance from Trent Alexander-Arnold and eventually the ball was hacked away as the game crawled towards its conclusion one way or another.
They will say these are the kind of non-events that every putative champion must raise themselves to win – and perhaps that is all that matters when Liverpool’s manager looks at the table this morning. It felt a far cry in the first half from the defeats dished out to Manchester United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Newcastle and Arsenal last month before the unbeaten run was finally ended by Manchester City on Jan 3.
They got there in the end by virtue of Mohamed Salah’s penalty after the Egyptian had first been dragged back by Pascal Gross and then had his legs kicked from underneath him. Amid a rigorous Brighton display this was their chief error and they paid dearly for it, trying in the second half to shift from containment to attack without much luck. It was not just that they had only 29 per cent possession, it was that they scarcely laid a glove on Liverpool.
Afterwards Klopp talked enthusiastically about the maturity of his players to see the game out following Salah’s penalty, ensuring there were no mis- takes. “Not making mistakes is impossible in football,” Klopp said, “but you can do it without making decisive mistakes, and that’s what we did. We won, and I am absolutely happy about that.”
Those defeats to City and then, with a much-changed team, against Wolves in the FA Cup are behind this Liverpool team with their lead back up to seven points at the top of the table.
The visit of Wolves to City comes tomorrow, when the expectation is that Pep Guardiola’s team will once more close the gap before Crystal Palace visit Anfield next weekend. There is no room for error, and on days such as these against a solid, well-organised Brighton team, it is concentration that Klopp looks for in his players.
“We are not the Harlem Globetrotters,” he said later. “We have to deliver results, and it is difficult enough for that. We have to perform, and the performance was good. It was not the best performance of the season, but from a maturity point of view it was excellent. On a good day anyone can win games; on an average day some can win games; and on a bad day only a few can win.”
He played Fabinho at centre-back ahead of Joel Matip, reasoning that if his team were to have so much of the ball he would be better off with an adapted midfielder who would be able to pass fluently. There was an injury scare for Alexander-Arnold in the warm-up when he appeared to roll his ankle. The 20-year-old had it strapped up and carried on.
For the home crowd there was general dismay at what they felt was a series of close decisions going against them from referee Kevin Friend, and that perspective was reflected in Chris Hughton’s touchline irritation. The Brighton manager politely confirmed later that he felt the borderline calls had all gone the way of the away team.
It felt a reckless challenge from Gross for the penalty just four minutes after half-time when he grabbed at Salah and then kicked out too. “I feel for Pascal, because Salah is probably the most dangerous player in this position,” Hughton said, but it turned out this was the moment that decided the match. After four games undefeated, Brighton never found a way back, and while Klopp admired their five-man midfield, it was a different story as they chased the game.
“It’s always a disappointment [not to have an attempt on goal], but I was conscious of the type of team we were up against,” Hughton said. “The most important thing is to stay in the game. If you play open and expansive and you find yourself two or three goals down, there is generally no way back from that. I thought it was the right tactics against the best team in the country. I am delighted we ran them as close as we did.”
Even so, it did not feel like the most entertaining side in the country as Liverpool struggled to get the ball moving quickly in the first half. It felt like they were waiting for a mistake from Brighton – which eventually came. By the same token, Liverpool were guarding against giving away attacking free kicks that would allow the home team to unleash Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk on the opposition area. Even when Liverpool scored it took a while for Brighton to try to force the issue in this very slow-burner of a match.
By the end, Hughton had sent on Anthony Knockaert and Florin Andone to try to force the matter, but it was too late. As one would expect of the great Dutchman, Virgil van Dijk took care of the more direct approaches that Brighton attempted. On days like these, when the defence cannot afford to put a foot wrong, he is invaluable.
Sixteen games stand between Liverpool and the club’s first league title in 29 years. Klopp said it was never a concern for him that his team would return to winning ways and there is no doubt he believes in these players. As the finale looms into view he is focusing on maturity and avoiding the kind of mistakes that have undermined previous title bids. That mantra is likely to be the reality from now on.
Relief for the Reds: Mohamed Salah puts Liverpool seven points ahead in the Premier League. Manchester City play tomorrow
Salah slots home: Liverpool’s top scorer (right) converts from the penalty spot