Liverpool flaws mean this title race is likely to go down to the wire
Klopp may decide he has to strengthen midfield to maintain advantage over champions City
The first potentially significant wobble has been corrected, and the season has already reached a point at which results take a very clear precedence over performances, but there was still plenty here to encourage Manchester City.
Yes, the champions are again staring up at an seven-point deficit to Liverpool ahead of their match tomorrow night against Wolverhampton Wanderers and, yes, it can be convincingly argued that this was just the sort of forgettable but very timely 1-0 win on which league championships are historically won. But the jarring impact of City’s 2-1 win 10 days ago was still very evident and the swagger that Liverpool displayed in scoring 14 goals in four December matches against Manchester United, Arsenal, Wolves and Newcastle has been checked.
So flamboyant and so confident in winning eight straight games before their defeat at the Etihad Stadium, this was Liverpool back to their earlyseason form. Solid. Efficient. Job done. Ultimately they were good where it most mattered, at either end of the pitch, but lacking the authority and rhythm you might reasonably expect of future champions.
Virgil van Dijk was a typically towering defensive presence, and in both winning the penalty and so emphatically converting the chance, Mohamed Salah continued his outstanding form. He made the difference in what Brighton manager Chris Hughton rightly analysed as a 90-minute match that hinged on a few moments.
Elsewhere, and even allowing for some tension after also losing against Wolves in the FA Cup on Monday, this was a workmanlike Liverpool.
Possession was dominated but clear chances were rare and a nagging question persists even about this hugely impressive title challenge.
It is whether Liverpool have sufficient midfield presence and fluency to maintain their advantage over City. They were well beaten in that area of the pitch by Pep Guardiola’s side this month and, while Xherdan Shaqiri, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson are very good Premier League players, would they get in any
City midfield containing Fernandinho, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne or Bernardo Silva? It is a depth in quality which allows City to effortlessly dominate matches even while well below their best. Liverpool do not have that same luxury and there was an argument here that they were fortunate that Brighton did so prioritise their own defensive structure. Liverpool were hesitant early in the game and, while they certainly did begin the second half with more urgency, Brighton might just have been rewarded for taking greater risks. That they ended the match without so much as a shot on goal was a consequence of their caution as much as Liverpool’s ongoing defensive excellence.
The wider question with the transfer window open is whether Liverpool might seek to improve their midfield. It appears unlikely, even if their meticulously executed transfer planning over recent years has still contained the occasional surprise. An added recent factor has been the need to start Fabinho in defence even if the biggest weakness was not so much the midfield shield offered by Henderson and Wijnaldum but the absence of any consistently coherent link to their attack.
Shaqiri was disappointingly quiet, and came off after Salah’s goal in preference for James Milner, while Naby Keita was brought on after 90 minutes when the sole priority was to see the game out. It was entirely sensible in the specific circumstances – and forthcoming fixtures against Crystal Palace, Leicester City, West Ham United and Bournemouth represent a better opportunity to restore attacking confidence – but how Klopp would surely love the option of a fully fit Alex OxladeChamberlain.
Klopp appeared mildly affronted earlier this season when he was asked about the quality of his midfield and predicted that both Fabinho and Keita could emerge as a major influence in the second half of the campaign.
Liverpool’s great strength in recent years has been the way they have patiently and strategically targeted particular areas of the team with specific players. That planning paid off spectacularly in respect of Van Dijk. Alisson was the significant new piece last summer and together they have fundamentally changed the character of the team. This was the sort of match that Liverpool would have stumbled over before their arrivals and a fifth 1-0 win of the season is in itself a statement about their improvement. There is a solidity and streetwise quality hitherto lacking. Add in two of the best players on the planet at either end of the pitch in Salah and Van Dijk, and you have a team who can win. It has put Liverpool in a wonderful position but they are not without weakness, and while that makes them vulnerable to City in a title race that still looks likely to go down to the wire, the scope for further improvement next season is clear.
Stuck in the middle: Georginio Wijnaldum is part of a Liverpool midfield struggling to supply their forwards adequately