“For 76 minutes it was a really bad performance. We did have rhythm changes; we didn’t have any kind of acceleration. We had no timing. I don’t know how often we were offside, it was horrendous, so that’s always a bit of a sign that we are a bit too passive.”
Amen to that, boss. The above is part of Jürgen Klopp’s assessment of Liverpool’s performance in their 2-1 win at Crystal Palace last weekend and it’s impossible to argue with any of it. I could tell the Reds’ manager that his side were offside six times in the match, their joint-most in a league game since a debacle of a 3-0 loss at Watford (not that one) in his first part-season in charge, but he probably knows that by now anyway.
Far too much was made of Andre Ayew’s red card. Stop a free-kick from being taken? That’s a booking. Halt a counter attack in its tracks? That’s a booking. It is interesting to wonder if Liverpool would’ve taken anything from the game without the Palace forward’s dismissal though. Prior to the sending off, they hadn’t had a shot on target and even when they did (scoring twice from only two attempts on target for the first time since 2010), the goals were deflected and from outside the box respectively.
For many Liverpool fans the low standard of their team’s performance was inevitable for one simple reason: the match kicked off in the wholly unwelcome 12:30 slot. The Reds relationship with Saturday lunch time kick-offs has become a vicious yet tedious circle; it gets announced that Liverpool are playing at that time, Klopp gets annoyed and bites off the head of some luckless interviewer, his side then play poorly in the game, and round we go once again, the pressure ever intensifying. It’s like the cycles of the moon, except using international breaks most of the time instead.
A look at the breakdown of which teams have played games at 12:30 makes the broadcaster’s thinking abundantly clear. BT Sport/TNT want at least one of the Premier League’s established big six involved, with them ideally traveling to face a challenging underdog.
Look at Leicester, who played nine out of their last 10 Saturday lunchtime matches at the King Power prior to relegation last summer. Seven of those games were against big six sides, with Liverpool’s visit ending in a 3-1 defeat in 2021.
That was exactly the kind of match which helped shape perception of the Reds’ dreadful record in that fixture slot. Liverpool have only lost 10 league matches by a margin of at least two goals since the summer of 2019, so they tend to stick in the mind. The 4-1 defeat at Manchester City last season, while more to be expected than a loss at Leicester, was another which began at 12:30 on a Saturday.
But when picking holes in the Reds’ record on the road in early games, people just think of the results and to some extent the performances. The circumstances surrounding the matches rarely get a second thought. For starters, as the table above will attest, a lot of them have occurred immediately following international fortnights, limiting Klopp’s preparation time and placing extreme strain (and likely jet lag) on the players.
Even more relevant is the injury situation at the club at the time, and the aforementioned Leicester match provides a text book example. Liverpool started the match with a central defensive partnership of Jordan Henderson and Ozan Kabak; it’s hard to believe they conceded three goals, isn’t it?
You may recall that the latter was making his first appearance for the club and that he collided with Alisson Becker for the decisive second goal for the Foxes. A team devoid of senior centre-backs and it’s primary defensive midfielder inevitably gets into a mess from time to time.
Liverpool were without nine first team players that day, a total it has only topped twice in its 404 matches since the beginning of the 2016/17 campaign. An extreme example that might have been but the trend is both clear and unsurprising; the more players out, the more the Reds struggle.
With this in mind, let’s review some of Liverpool’s 12:30 games from recent times. Last season saw Liverpool draw at Fulham and Everton while also losing at Nottingham Forest at that kick off time, with Klopp’s squad eight-men light on each occasion. In 2020/21, the Reds had seven players out injured when drawing 1-1 at Brighton and with Newcastle at Anfield.
If we look at the five 12:30 matches in the last five seasons which they failed to win and had no more than five men out, we find the group includes draws with Everton and Chelsea as well as two matches at the Etihad. In that context, only the loss at Bournemouth last season appears truly disastrous, and in that game Mohamed Salah missed a penalty and three other Opta-defined big chances went begging.
Liverpool have won 19 league games which started at 12:30 since October 2016, and they only had more than three players injured for five of them. The recent victory at Crystal Palace, with six men absent, was one of them, so go easy on their performance. As Klopp said, “if you only win your really good games you have no chance to be really successful, that’s how it is.”