With 18 minutes remaining, Liverpool enjoyed a comfortable 2-0 lead against bottom club West Brom and the points were all but in the bag. The travelling supporters were in fine voice in the Midlands sunshine, revelling in Mohamed Salah’s latest strike.
By full time, West Brom had somehow hauled it back to 2-2 and the Reds were forced to settle for a solitary point when three would virtually have sealed the top-four spot they had been chasing all season.
Promptly, the social media inquest began. Jurgen Klopp had reshuffled the defence ahead of Tuesday night’s blockbuster Champions League semi-final against Roma, and the physicality of the West Brom attack, spearheaded by Salomon Rondon, would prove a problem throughout.
Virgil van Dijk was, for the most part, composed as ever at the heart of the defence, but the usual deputies Ragnar Klavan, Joe Gomez and Alberto Moreno looked off the pace, and thus bore the brunt of the post-match criticism.
In fact, the most costly individual error was made by the goalkeeper Loris Karius. It is important to stress in the wake of this slip-up that the German has made significant progress since Klopp handed him the number one spot on a permanent basis, earning valuable points for his side with a number of magnificent saves.
His shot-stopping abilities have been virtually faultless of late, but the anxiety which he exuded amidst his initial struggles lingers, most notably during set-pieces, when he is often rash or hesitant.
This time, his ill-judgement was costly. Karius wandered his off his line and found himself in no man’s land for West Brom’s all-important second. Had he stayed put, he likely would have kept out Rondon’s header, which crashed into the centre of the net.
Much of the censure is not an attempt to reignite the former vendetta against Karius; instead, it is an acknowledgement that there is still considerable work to do for the 24-year-old as he looks to dispel his many doubters.
Indeed, his response to this setback might tell us just how far he’s come.
The Right Attitude?
A low-stakes clash with the Premier League basement boys ahead of the semi-final of the world’s premier club competition – it was inevitable which game would take precedence.
It was clear that Liverpool, understandably, had one eye on their midweek Champions League clash but if they’re not careful, the psychological prioritisation of their European exploits could be mistaken for complacency.
When Danny Ings fired the Reds in front, they seemed to decide that 1-0 would do just fine. There was minimal urgency, and too often the midfielders and full-backs chose to knock the ball backwards instead of instigating an attack.
Supporters on social media expressed relief at hearing the half-time whistle after a drab opening 45, and it was more of the same after the break. Only on the introduction of the vivacious Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did Liverpool truly threaten, with the indomitable Salah delightfully adding a second from the Englishman’s through ball.
The team then took their foot off the pedal and entered cruise control. The job, it seemed, was done. But West Brom have absolutely nothing to lose and, strangely, they were invigorated, which seemed to catch their opponents by surprise.
Livermore’s goal appeared to nothing more than a consolation but the hosts had grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and snatched a point, leaving us all rather stunned.
Admittedly, this game will be forgotten if the Reds can write another memorable chapter in Anfield’s European history book on Tuesday, but Liverpool must remember that their domestic job is not yet done and approach the league with the appropriate aggression and focus. More dropped points against Stoke next weekend would very much revive the top-four scrap.
Did Klopp Make The Right Change?
Fans probably didn’t think much of Klopp withdrawing Mohamed Salah for Dejan Lovren late in the contest. The Egyptian had got his customary goal and needed to be protected ahead of the visit of his former club, with the manager looking to shore up his back line in the process.
But as one supporter pointed out on Twitter after the game, introducing another centre-half only invited West Brom pressure.
So often going 3 at the back late on in games seems to make the defence less secure. Invites pressure on to them and sacrifices control further up the pitch.
— Joel Rabinowitz (@joel_archie) April 21, 2018
At 2-0 up, a top side like Liverpool ought to have killed the game by knocking it round in the midfield and frustrating the Baggies, but introducing Lovren made it seem as if they intended only to hang on and expected to be firmly under the cosh.
There’s something troubling about dictating tactics from behind a TV screen, but had Klopp instead handed Dominic Solanke an outing rather than totally switching emphasis, perhaps it would not have been a case of backs to the wall.
Simply put, Liverpool allowed themselves to lose control against a poor side, and that was disappointing.
Whilst there is cause for introspection, a horror-show performance from referee Stuart Atwell undoubtedly played a part in the result.
Blaming the official always seems to be the equivalent of a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but fans had a right to complain about one of the poorest refereeing displays they would have witnessed all season.
Ahmed Hegazi’s reckless challenges (verging on beatings) warranted a dismissal which would have dramatically exacerbated the gulf in class, while replays showed that Danny Ings was somehow denied a laughably blatant spot-kick after being wiped out by Craig Dawson.
There were also legitimate protests surrounding the first goal, before which Karius was impeded, and the soft free-kick which led to the second.
The Reds have fallen victim to poor standards of officiating on numerous occasions this season, and are rightfully demanding that standards be improved.
Klopp will hope to transform that frustration into an enthralling ecstasy of fury as he prepares for what is undoubtedly the biggest game of his tenure in three days’ time.