Dave Tindall looks at “lucky” Liverpool’s late goals, picks a combined Red, Man City XI and urges Jurgen Klopp to be bold in his team selections in this week’s Red Letter.
Scoring late goals has always been associated with the very best teams. Somehow they ‘find a way’ when all seems lost.
And that’s where Liverpool are right now. I was getting a train home from London last Saturday and boarded at 4.33pm with us losing 1-0 at Aston Villa.
And yet, I had this strange confidence that if I simply refreshed my phone enough times, I’d see a goal pop up. Lo and behold, ‘GOAL! Aston Villa 1-1 Liverpool (Robertson, 87)’ flashed on my screen at 16.47. And then, despite the five added minutes nearly up, another refresh at 16:54 and there it was… ‘GOAL! Aston Villa 1-2 Liverpool (Mane, 90+4)’.
It was a similar story in the crazy 5-5 draw against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup and, of course, James Milner slotted home a 90th-minute penalty to beat Leicester 2-1 while Adam Lallana netted an 85th-minute equaliser at Old Trafford.
On one level it seems obvious why this happens – we believe it will, so does the opposition; it becomes self-fulfilling – but on another it leaves me confused.
Take the last three late goals. It’s not as if Arsenal and Aston Villa’s defenders all just fell over at the same time, allowing us to walk the ball in.
To score those goals, Divock Origi had to time and place his volley, Sadio Mane had to float a wonderful cross to Andy Robertson, who had to get his header right and Mane’s near-post glancing header from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner had to be almost inch perfect to have the direction and pace to find the net.
All those were extremely difficult actions so how come players can perform them in hugely tense situations? Are skill levels somehow heightened in such circumstances? Arguably, it should go the other way and the pressure leads to snatched chances and scuffed shots.
Poorer teams do indeed miss sitters with the game on the line but I still can’t quite work out how we find the required skill and precision at the death when it’s alluded us for the first 85 minutes. Anyway, it’s a phenomenon to be enjoyed rather than analysed so I’ll just relish this huge sense of faith that we’re always going to pull something out of the bag.
Lucky Liverpool yet to find best form
But there’s another aspect of last-gasp goals that has to be considered and that segues me into the crunch clash with Manchester City on Sunday.
Liverpool are indeed winning vital points with all these late shows but why are we putting ourselves in such a position in the first place? We keep digging out results – and that’s great – but, let’s be honest, how well are we actually playing?
I’d argue that for a team with 31 points out of 33, the answer is “not that well”.
We had to hang on to beat Chelsea, got a fluky winner at Sheffield United, almost blew a three-goal lead at home to RB Salzburg, got a slightly dubious penalty to beat Leicester in the dying seconds, looked disjointed in the 1-1 draw at Manchester United before getting out of jail, almost failed to see off a struggling Tottenham, were 5-3 down to Arsenal in the Carabao Cup, produced a Houdini act against Villa and rather limped past Genk 2-1 when expected to thrash them.
We’ve won seven of our last nine matches but six of those were by a single-goal margin. To have 31 points based on the overall performance levels is severe overachieving.
And yet, there are two obvious positive spins that can be put on all this. First, the relentless accumulation of points has been going on for so long – all of last season and this – that it can’t just be brushed off as getting a few breaks, riding our luck and being ‘mentality monsters’.
Secondly, if we’re winning matches whilst in second or third gear, imagine how much fun’s in store when we really hit out the straps. The rest should look out!
But, for now, the assessment has to be that we go into the City match in a brilliant position (six points clear) but not in the form Reds fans would want to see. And that gives rise to the million-dollar question: how does Jurgen Klopp play it tactically? Does he go all out for the win and turn the six-point lead into nine or does he accept that we’re not quite on it and play a safer hand that’s more likely to secure a draw?
To try and answer that, it’s worth breaking down the two sides to highlight strengths and weaknesses.
Combined Liverpool, Man City XI
Goalkeepers: Alisson v Ederson. The two Brazilians are both excellent No. 1s and you could go either way with the ‘who is best?’ debate. Alisson has slotted back in well and, if being picky, Ederson did fluff his lines when handing Southampton the opening goal last weekend. You’d have either though, though if the keeper does miss out through injury, you’d always choose Alisson over Claudio Bravo.
Defence: If doing the composite team thing, which City defender would you put in ahead of ours? Well, neither full-back and Virgil van Dijk is a given. The only contender would be Ayemric Laporte but, of course, he’s out injured. I’d make it a clean sweep of Reds although, on the numbers, we’ve conceded just one goal fewer than City in the Premier League – nine v ten.
Midfield: This is where City fight back. Fabinho gets the nod for us as he’s emerged as the top-flight’s best holding midfielder but, after that, it’s hard not to find room for Kevin De Bruyne and the Silvas.
Attack: Good luck with this! It’s an embarrassment of riches although, on very current form, I’d go Mane, Sterling and Aguero although it seems crazy to leave out Firmino and Salah. The good thing for Liverpool is that the game is at Anfield where, fun fact, Aguero has never managed to score. By contrast, whereas our front three have a terrible record against Manchester United (goal count: Salah 0, Mane 1, Firmino 1), they’ve been excellent against City (goal count: Salah 3, Mane 2, Firmino 5), banging in 10 goals between them.
And yet, despite throwing around all these world-class names, the key to this entire fixture could be a player I’ve yet to mention.
In contrast to the heavy metal, chest-pumping wins of two campaigns ago when we beat City 4-3 in the Premier League and 3-0 in the Champions League, last season’s encounter at Anfield was a rather stale affair.
They were much more cautious, we played our stodgy midfield three of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Milner and the shot count was just 6-5 to us, both sides having only two on target.
If Klopp wants to defend that six-point lead and keep City at arm’s length via a draw, he’d pick two of that trio alongside Fabinho. In other words, keep things solid and try and leave it up to the attackers for a moment of individual or collective brilliance. That’s a decent enough strategy if all three were in great form; I’m not convinced they quite are.
However, if Klopp – who is rarely out of the news and has this week been tipped to complete a maverick double touchline plan – sees this as a golden opportunity to extend the six-point lead to nine, there’s a different route he can take. And that involves the sacrificing of one of the midfielder battlers for the wildcard that is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The Ox is a particularly fascinating prospect for Sunday’s showdown as he has both current form and some notable history against Man City.
In the 4-3 Premier League meeting in January, 2018 he burst forward and fired home an angled drive to open the scoring in the ninth minute and in the 3-0 Champions League win three months later, the attacking midfielder picked up a ball 25 yards out and thrashed an Exocet missile into the top corner.
“It’s a driving run, it’s a brilliant shot,” says commentator Martin Tyler of his goal in the 4-3 victory and that sums up perfectly the added dimension Oxlade-Chamberlin brings. He’s the one with the extra zest and dynamism to surge into space and strike balls that goalkeepers can’t stop.
He’s had to be nursed back to fitness after his lengthy absence but, after another well-struck goal gave Liverpool victory over Genk in midweek, he now has four in his last four games.
Interviewed after that Genk victory, the Ox gave an honest assessment that he wasn’t quite back to his full levels defensively and, of course, that’s an issue against a City team which can still run rings around anyone.
Is Oxlade-Chamberlain back to his best?
(And this is a player who doesn't think he's playing well! 😳)pic.twitter.com/f2Vpk7pjAP
— TEAMtalk (@TEAMtalk) November 6, 2019
So does Klopp trust him enough in a game of such enormous magnitude? Could he perhaps play him for an hour, build a lead and then bring on a Milner/Henderson to protect it? Or could it all backfire and allow City to close the gap to three?
if you’re picking one to make way, it may probably be Henderson. It’s not that he’s done anything wrong as such, but he looks perhaps that little more vulnerable than Wijanldum….
Yes, a draw is okay but these are remarkable times. We are up against a title rival who amasses points on a ridiculous scale. This is our chance to stamp on their throats in one-to-one combat rather than hope they drop points somewhere else.
The carrot of a nine-point lead, plus the psychological lift of beating your greatest rival, is massive. So go on Jurgen, take the risk. Play the Ox from the start and see where it takes us….
By Dave Tindall. Follow him on Twitter.