Irish international Shane Long put the final nail in Liverpool’s EFL Cup coffin in the dying stages of Wednesday night’s semi-final second leg.
Long finished off a sweeping counter-attacking move to see his Southampton side through to the final where they will most likely face Manchester United who go into Thursday night’s game against Hull City with a two-goal cushion.
Southampton pitched up at Anfield with a clear game plan. They would sit back with two banks of four, maintain a compact shape and try to hit Liverpool on the break. Having recently been relieved of both their first choice centre-backs, Jose Fonte and Virgil van Dijk, to West Ham and injury respectively, they had to batten down the hatches. Maya Yoshida and young Jack Stephens were brought in to deputise, doing so effectively. The new pairing were afforded as much protection as possible from Southampton’s midfield.
Jurgen Klopp selected Daniel Sturridge up front despite his dismal showing in the first leg; the thinking being it would be a tight game and if a chance was to drop to anyone he wanted it to be the Englishman. The 27-year-old looked sluggish from the off as he failed to show any real mobility remaining pinned up against Yoshida and Stephens. When he did try to drop deep for the ball Southampton’s central midfielders Oriol Romeo and Steven Davis took up such deep positions they were able to easily stifle Sturridge.
The Saints kept a tight, narrow shape throughout making it impossible for Liverpool to break through the middle. A couple of chances did fall to Sturridge: one was a wayward bicycle kick he perhaps should have attempted to nod in, the other was a strained effort to get on the end of a cross.
Other than those two chances, the England striker and Liverpool seemed unable to really break Southampton down.
Klopp did make a progressive substitution when he brought on Divock Origi for Emre Can, but with Sturridge remaining the focal point of attack Liverpool faced the same difficulties in breaching the Saints’ backline.
Some may suggest there was a lack of options on the bench for the Reds. Klopp doesn’t seem to have a great deal of faith in Origi’s finishing ability. The young striker is erratic in front of goal, but his movement drags defenders out of position. More importantly, it brings Liverpool’s attacking midfield three into play allowing them to get into scoring positions and hurt the opposition.
Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, who are so often able to cut through opposition with slick, sharp passing and carousel-like movement were conspicuous in their lack of attacking impact.
Southampton squeezed the space in the middle of the park nullifying the trio. Liverpool were forced to constantly funnel the ball out wide to James Milner who showed great industry getting up and down the line all night. Southampton manager Claude Puel was happy to make this concession and backed his defenders to clear any incoming balls.
The pattern remained the same right up until Long’s goal put the tie to bed.
After the game Klopp was emphatic in insisting the only thing his team did wrong was failing to score. Some fans may worry he tried to do so in the same, clearly ineffective manner all night.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena