It really did feel as though Liverpool had turned a corner, so to speak.
The Reds visited The Hawthorns last week, with Tony Pulis and his band of giant centre-halves expected to expose Liverpool’s set-piece weaknesses.
Jurgen Klopp’s side not only withstood a dead-ball onslaught against one of the more difficult opponents provided by the Premier League, but they managed to hoist West Brom by their own petard: Roberto Firmino’s winner came courtesy of a header from a free-kick.
“It was a big win against a good, tall team,” Klopp said after that match. “We needed to adapt to what West Brom wanted to do. In all our plans, it was ‘no set-pieces, no set-pieces, no set-pieces’.”
Seven days later, it did not feel as if Liverpool even tried to “adapt”. There was no certainly discernible “plan”. And set-pieces once again proved to be the Kryptonite for this particularly uninspiring, vulnerable Superman.
As well prepared as the Reds were against West Brom, they were architects of their own downfall against Crystal Palace at Anfield, with that defensive Achilles heel targeted by master tactician Sam Allardyce.
“Liverpool at home play a superb attacking style which means both full-backs will go right up the pitch,” Allardyce said, sporting a deserved sh*t-eating grin. “It is very similar to Arsenal which means Matip and Lovren are very exposed.”
He continued, speaking after the match: “Because they are very exposed in that position, if you get the right runners in behind, then they are two big men that don’t like turning and going back to goal.”
Allardyce planned to target both Lovren and Matip, yet he could not have predicted the outcome. It was an effective but signposted tactic, a bear trap with a line of cookies leading up to it.
Lovren in particular could not resist. The centre-half was Liverpool’s third-oldest outfielder, and yet displayed all the inexperience of a teenager in his first Premier League game, not his 106th, as he pushed too far upfield before being beaten for pace by Yohan Cabaye and allowing the Frenchman goal-side for Palace’s equaliser.
Many had expected the Reds to cruise to victory against a relegation-embattled side after Philippe Coutinho’s free-kick opener, but Lovren had other ideas. Not content with his first-half efforts, he sought to outdo himself in the second. Under no pressure he lofted a pass straight into the path of Joel Ward, who cleared the ball forward for Andros Townsend to chase. Looking to atone for his error, Lovren lunged in, but Townsend got there first and forced a corner. From there, Christian Benteke had scored his second, sealing the win.
“Lovren’s involvement in both goals – both times, he tries to nick the ball,” noted Jamie Carragher after the match. “He should read the situation and know whether to dive in, and he got it wrong on both occasions.”
In a week where Klopp said that the club had held “very positive” transfer talks with a number of potential targets, it was difficult not to watch Lovren’s performance and wonder whether he would be upgraded. This was a return to the inauspicious form which saw him struggle under Brendan Rodgers.
And while this was Liverpool’s first defeat in 14 games with a central-defensive partnership of Lovren and Matip starting, it is clear that the Reds need reinforcements at the back this summer. Lovren has started the most games at centre-half (25), followed by Matip (23). Ragnar Klavan (15) and Lucas Leiva (6). Examine the centre-halves of the other sides hopeful of Champions League qualification, and Liverpool should not be a contender.
“I heard the supporters were not too happy with the performances of Dejan when he came in,” said Klopp in December 2015, two months after his appointment as manager. The showing against Palace was a reminder that even despite recent improvements, Lovren has previous for self-destructive defending, the sort the club cannot afford to rely on for another season.