Most supporters fear their team is always on the brink of a mishap but not every team’s fans feel nervous about visiting a side they have destroyed 6-1 earlier in the season. But the trepidation among many Liverpool fans before their visit to Watford was understandable, even after a weekend in which their rivals for a top-four finish had fallen over themselves to drop points.
The sense of anguish was palpable right up to the final whistle, with even Jürgen Klopp admitting his heart missed a beat when Watford’s Sebastian Prödl smashed a shot against the crossbar in the last moments. “I said to the players after the game if they want to kill me, that’s a good way to try it!” he quipped.
One would think Liverpool’s manager would be used to scares by now. Some say he is partly to blame for them. Sixteen months and 96 matches into the German’s reign, his side remain an oddity, sometimes brilliant, always brittle, apt to beat the best and lose to the lowly. One can see what Klopp is trying to do and it is marvellous when it works; but when it does not work, one wonders whether he can see the problem. And whether he has the clarity of mind to fix it.
Evidence from the trip to Vicarage Road could be used to build a case either for those who believe Klopp is the man to lead Liverpool back to glory or those who believe he is turning the Anfield club into the new Arsenal, a hyperactive but similarly flawed version of Arsène Wenger’s chronic disappointments.
On the one hand Liverpool have done well to be third in the table at this stage of the season, given their shortcomings and relatively shallow squad. On the other hand, it must be exasperating for fans that Klopp’s side are not already safe in the top four, or even challenging for the title, given that they have proved they can overwhelm even Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. As it was, strengthening their chances of reaching next season’s Champions League was their one remaining ambition when they arrived here. They seized their chance. But they almost let it slip, too. The only progress that really matters now is the number of points gained and Liverpool got the three for which they came. Beyond that it was difficult to know how satisfied they should be.
Liverpool have frittered away points this season against all seven of the teams below Watford in the table. Last week they lost at home to Crystal Palace, after which the sound of Sam Allardyce blowing his own trumpet was excruciating for Liverpool fans because they knew the former England manager struck the right note. Liverpool, as Allardyce had anticipated, defended set pieces with all the poise of circus attendees who had accidentally volunteered to face the knife thrower. And Klopp’s next public move was not reassuring. It was perverse.
Awarding Dejan Lovren a new four-year contract days after the centre-back was bullied by a striker (Christian Benteke) whom Klopp had deemed unsuitable for Liverpool (while Mamadou Sakho sat in the stands as an exiled Liverpool player) seemed the sort of idea that an internet troll might have suggested. The fact that it came from the club raised uncomfortable questions about Liverpool’s summer investment plans and Klopp’s judgment, similar to the question that was first raised when Simon Mignolet was handed a new contract two months after Klopp’s arrival.
A solid performance from Lovren, left, and the rest of Liverpool’s defence would be the best way to start answering those questions. The test was of their concentration as much as their skill and strength. Watford’s ploy was to defend deep and count on an opportunity to score from a rare counterattack and/or a Liverpool mistake. That has worked for many lesser sides against Liverpool, who have at times struggled to create chances against massed defences.
With Watford posing no threat in the first half, Lovren, usually the last man in Liverpool’s defence, had little to do but collect passes and keep the ball circulating. He mostly did that fine but a couple of times Klopp had to remind him loudly to push out after making a pass so as to preserve the offside trap. A coach needs to keep on top of Lovren.
Liverpool then went in front thanks to Emre Can’s well-executed scissor-kick. Briefly they seemed to control proceedings with encouraging authority. But then came some trademark snoozing from Mignolet, who was almost caught napping by a long-range shot from Daryl Janmaat. Then, in the dying seconds, and despite the presence of three Liverpool centre-backs after Klopp had introduced Ragnar Klavan, Prödl somehow found himself free in the box with a clear sight of goal. His miss was a let-off for Liverpool.
If Klopp’s team finish in the top four, their season will be a success and they will have got away with their defects. And Champions League participation will make it easier to attract players who can add stability. Klopp needs to pick the right ones.