20 December 2015

Liverpool 0-3 Watford

Ake 3'
Ighalo 15' 85'

Having good strikers and a well-organized defense makes all the difference. Watford have both. Liverpool currently have neither.

That was a comprehensive failure. And that's without a midweek game, with a full week of training for this match. A match that Liverpool very much needed to win. I do not want to underplay how well Watford played, how well Watford's plan worked, how clearly Watford deserved the emphatic win, but Liverpool were dire in every phase of play. It started badly, it ended badly, and in-between was bad too.

Aside from an unexpected injury for Mignolet – which, whatever, it's not as if he's torn down trees lately – this was the XI we wanted to see. Firmino up front, Coutinho back, Sakho back, Henderson and Can in midfield ahead of Lucas. And nothing worked, nothing went right, and no one played well (except maybe Henderson).

Sadly, it was the one unexpected change which led to Watford's opener. A routine corner, Bogdan dropping his attempted catch, Ake on hand to prod in. Sure, Clattenburg could have done Liverpool a favor by ruling that Ake kicked the ball out of Bogdan's hands, but it was a split-second decision. If you don't want that to happen, don't give the referee a decision to make. Don't drop an easy catch to began with. Watford's subsequent two goals and thorough victory made it a moot point anyway. You get what you deserve.

Liverpool had conceded within five minutes in three matches this season: they lost, pathetically, against West Ham under Rodgers but stormed back at both Chelsea and Southampton (in the League Cup) under Klopp.

Today, Liverpool never responded. It was when Liverpool conceded early under Rodgers rather than when Liverpool conceded early under Klopp, as bad as the worst performances of the last 18 months. And, as I suspect you're aware, there have been some bad ones.

Before Liverpool could even respond in anger, Watford were two up. And, again, well done by Watford, but it came through Liverpool's own making. Lucas had a clear opportunity to win possession and get rid, but was beaten all ends up by Troy Deeney. Skrtel was closely marking an isolated Ighalo, but was beaten all ends up, making the penultimate touch before Ighalo placed his shot beyond an out-of-position Bogdan. Two goals down, two touches-before-the-goal by Liverpool players. You get what you deserve.

2-0, game over, after just 15 minutes. There's little point going through the subsequent 75 minutes. You've seen it before: Liverpool had all the possession, Liverpool struggled to create chances, Liverpool never looked like scoring. Liverpool "went for it" when Skrtel pulled up with an injury just before halftime, sending on Origi with Lucas dropping into defense, and Liverpool were marginally better, but "marginally better" was nowhere near good enough and "went for it" is very much relative. Yet again, Liverpool simply aren't capable of "went for it" against a resolute opposition. Liverpool carved out few opportunities, none especially impressive, and then Benteke and Ibe came on with 15 minutes to play and did nothing. The game ended not with Liverpool pressure but another Watford goal on the counter, tearing through Liverpool's midfield, Behrami free to cross from the right, Ighalo wide open between Lucas and Sakho to head in.

Watford's unheralded defense – featuring four defenders you probably hadn't heard of until this season and usually-laugh-a-minute Heurelho Gomes – kept its sixth clean sheet in nine home matches. Etienne Capoue – last seen against Liverpool getting hilariously romped (and sent off once) in a 5-0 and 3-0 losses for Tottenham – dominated midfield. Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo – a combined transfer fee of, at most, £3m (Ighalo's deal was undisclosed, Deeney's was £500k in 2010) – showed Liverpool exactly what strikers are supposed to do: the former in work-rate, hold-up play, and set-up play; the latter in tormenting both center-backs with pace and dribbling, and in actually finishing his chances.

That's what a "team" can do. Liverpool aren't a team at the moment. They're a collection of well-known and high-paid players who might possibly come good, but certainly don't look like doing so at the moment.

Blame will mainly lie with Liverpool's defense, and it's a fair scapegoat. Liverpool have conceded seven goals in the last three league matches: two at Newcastle (currently 17th), two against West Brom (13th), and three at Watford (7th). At least the defense has excuses. Constant changes at center-back through injury, a goalkeeper making his league debut, Sakho clearly rushed back too soon, full-backs forced to play every match because Liverpool don't have alternatives.

Liverpool's again-insipid attack doesn't have those excuses. Unless Sturridge plays (and we know how rare that's been), Liverpool remain bad. Bad bad bad bad bad. For the majority of the match, Liverpool had been flagged for offside more often than they shot at Watford's goal, finishing with 12 shots (just four on-target, just two on-target inside the box) and 10 offsides. Since 2004 – when the statistic was first tracked – Liverpool have never been caught offsides so often in a single match.

Frighteningly, it could get even worse in six days. Everything Watford does well, did well, Leicester – Liverpool's next opponents, the league leaders – do better. The same system, but even more prolific strikers, a similarly well-organized defense and combative, hard-working midfield, and a side in even better form.

After the last three failures, Liverpool now sit 9th, where they'll stand at Christmas, the league campaign almost half over. Liverpool have been either 9th or 10th at Christmas just five times in the previous 23 Premier League campaigns: 1992-93, 1998-99, 2003-04, 2010-11, and 2014-15. Liverpool were better in the second half of the season in each of those campaigns, but only once did Liverpool improve enough to finish amongst the Champions League places, in 2003-04. Houllier still got fired at the end of the season.

Otherwise, Liverpool finished 6th, 7th, 6th, and 6th. Exactly where Liverpool were last season. Exactly where Liverpool don't want to be, exactly where Liverpool simply can't continue to be.

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