The more things change at Liverpool, the more they stay the same.
Saturday afternoon was supposed to represent the dawning of a new era at Anfield, in which Jurgen Klopp could lay the groundwork for the title challenge that Liverpool fans have been crying out for since arrived at the club in a blaze of glory almost two years ago.
Instead, it just reminded everyone of how far from a title-winning team Liverpool really are.
There was already an air of trepidation among Reds fans following the events of 24 hours earlier, as Philippe Coutinho did the one thing that they were assured he would never do and hand in a formal transfer request to try to force a move to Barcelona. As it was, the Brazilian was left out of the team to face Watford due, the club insist, to an ongoing back problem.
However, it was the sight of Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip in the heart of the defence, Alberto Moreno out left and Simon Mignolet in goal that seemed to frustrate Liverpool fans the most – it wasn’t that these were bad players it’s just that the need to strengthen in the summer was obvious and Klopp and FSG had not done that.
Their worst fears were confirmed when Stefano Okaka headed Watford into an early lead having found himself unmarked in the Liverpool box. It was then that reality hit home – that defence is going to cost them again.
Having done the hard part and hauled themselves back into the game at the half-hour mark thanks to Sadio Mane, they shot themselves in the foot all over again and allowed Abdoulaye Doucoure to put the home side back in front, a scoreline which remained the same for the remainder of the first half.
In the second half, the forward line again more than did their part, first Roberto Firmino levelling from the spot and then Mohamed Salah getting a goal on his Premier League debut in Liverpool colours, and yet again the backline let them down. A more assured team in defence would have shut Watford down – the game was won if Liverpool allowed it to be and that should have been that.
But yet again, it was panic stations. Klopp either doesn’t seem to realise how inept this defence is as a unit or is unable to do anything about it. Either way, it’s a pattern that cost them dearly last season and looks like doing it all over again in the campaign.
The team looks completely top-heavy right now. Firmino, Salah, Mane, Sturridge, Origi, Ings, Solanke (Coutinho if he stays) – that is a formidable attacking unit, easily one of the best in the country. Can the same be said for what’s going on behind it? How must they feel knowing that for all of their good work, for all of their goal-getting ability, that will come to nothing if the defence loses its concentration and gives a sloppy goal away?
Waiting for Southampton to thaw their hardline stance on Virgil van Dijk is admirable from Klopp in a sense insofar as the Dutch centre-back is his preferred choice and he refuses to budge on that. However, there are only just over two weeks left of this transfer window, at some point Plan A will have to go out the window. Having more than one target might not be the ideal scenario but when Southampton are refusing to sell to them (and rightly so, given what has gone on), then it becomes the smart one. The scouting network is there for a reason; use it.
In any event, Jamie Carragher believes that the problem isn’t necessarily the personnel but how they are set up, and there is more than a ring of truth in that. Lovren and Matip are international-standard defenders – regardless of how much they can be improved upon, conceding goals like the efforts they let in on Saturday is sloppy. Is that how they are set up in training? Perhaps, but they should still know not to leave a prolific threat like Okaka free in the box, or be capable of clearing a ball in the box without having a coronary episode.
For all of the talk about missing out on Naby Keita, he would have been an important signing for Klopp but a new defender is absolutely vital. By any logic, a top-quality defender is a necessary addition regardless of how the marking system works.
Klopp has said that new signings are on the way, all against the backdrop of either a €100m+ sale of Coutinho, or else reintegrating an unhappy player back into the side having denied him a dream move to Camp Nou. It’s not a nice situation for the German to be in, to put it mildly. With the season already having begun, it’s all a bit chaotic.
Defeating Hoffenheim and reaching the Champions League group stage would alleviate some of the tension and lift some of the gloom around Anfield, but if they fall short of that and end up in the Europa League, then it would have all the bearings of a long season for Liverpool.