16 Conclusions: Leicester 0-4 Liverpool

Date published: Saturday 28th December 2019 12:09

1) It’s over. There will be talk of a race and contenders, of six-pointers and bottle. There will be a weekend – as unlikely as it seems – when the leaders drop points and the chasers pick them up, turning the chasm into a gulf but still nothing close to a gap.

There will be talk of last season, discussions of how this campaign is not even half complete. But that only highlights just how far ahead Liverpool are of everyone else. They have just visited the impregnable home of the team closest to them and beaten them by four clear goals.

Instinct and history tells us that there are twists and turns left to come but a 13-point lead with a game in hand after 18 matches is as preposterous as the football they are playing and the standard they are keeping. Liverpool have rewritten the rules.

 

2) The difference between Liverpool and the rest of the league is not necessarily summed up by them beating their closest competitors so convincingly, but in how they made Manchester City’s impressive win over Leicester look close and hard-fought in retrospect.

The Foxes led the reigning champions for eight minutes at the Etihad Stadium last weekend, with two of their five shots on target. Pep Guardiola described that as “an incredible performance” against such a “dangerous” opponent. He was not necessarily wrong.

But five days later Liverpool restricted Leicester to three shots at home, none of which came close to testing Alisson or denting a four-goal deficit. This is absolutely not normal.

 

3) It is difficult to know what Leicester can learn from this. Their approach in such games has been the slightest of dark linings to this season’s sensational silver cloud, with the Norwich draw a surprising exception to the rule of being beaten by the established elite. It feels as though they could have set up perfectly and played to their absolute limits and still have been beaten by this machine.

But Brendan Rodgers must surely see that Liverpool’s brilliance can only account for a portion of Leicester’s impotence. It was the first time he named this starting line-up since it lost 2-1 at Anfield in October; it was the first time Leicester looked as powerless as that ostensibly narrow defeat. That is no coincidence.

And it is the first time of his wonderful reign that the Foxes have gone three consecutive Premier League games without victory. This is about as far from a crisis as is possible – a ten-point cushion to 5th is remarkable – but the halfway stage is as good a point as any to reflect and improve. Laurels are not to be rested upon.

 

4) Seriously though: Leicester had conceded five league goals at the King Power Stadium all season. The latest they had conceded at home was Harry Kane’s for Tottenham in the 29th minute of a game they won 2-1 in September. Their aggregate score in the last half an hour of games this season was 20-3. They had conceded three second-half goals all campaign. This was a team resolute in defence with had an unerring ability not to fade late on.

So Liverpool scored one fewer goal in 90 minutes than Leicester’s other nine opponents in 810, with all four of their strikes coming in the 31st minute or later. The Foxes also conceded as many goals in the second half as they had after half-time in the league at home since April.

Liverpool examined the only defence with a comparable record to theirs this season and summarily deconstructed it. It cannot be emphasised enough how much that should not be downplayed.

 

5) It is not as if there was no warning. By the 33rd second Kasper Schmeichel was spilling a long-range Trent Alexander-Arnold shot. Leicester opted to afford the right-back enough space and time to manoeuvre; he would exploit that courtesy for the rest of the game.

Before the first minute was out, Sadio Mane had missed a gilt-edged opportunity from inside the six-yard box after Mo Salah’s sumptuous cross. By the fifth minute, the Egyptian had fired over from Roberto Firmino’s lay-off. Liverpool sprinted out of the blocks while Leicester were still tying their laces.

 

6) That is the only explanation for their generosity in possession. Leicester attempted 21 passes in the opening eight minutes and just nine found their target as Liverpool’s front three pressed so high and with such ferocity that the fans behind Schmeichel’s goal must have feared for their own well-being.

It forced a number of Leicester mistakes. Jonny Evans misplaced a simple five-yard pass to Dennis Praet, allowing Georginio Wijnaldum to intercept and create a chance. Caglar Soyuncu had not even touched the ball at this point. Wilfred Ndidi then conceded possession to Firmino inside the area for Henderson to shoot.

To Leicester’s credit, they did take the sting out of the tail. They had almost all of the ball for the next couple of minutes, with Evans, Soyuncu, Ben Chilwell and Youri Tielemans passing between them in defence to try and calm down a situation perhaps exacerbated by a vociferous home crowd. That James Maddison did not get his first touch until the tenth minute rather summed up the fare: this sort of fast-paced, incessant style was not for a player of his bellwether ilk.

 

7) With Liverpool having already enjoyed some more than presentable chances, Leicester did well to regain a foothold. One moment saw Dennis Praet slip the ball into the sort of space that Jamie Vardy dreams about when he isn’t hooking Red Bull and port to his veins. Alexander-Arnold came across well to clear the danger but Vardy was soon played in behind again to cross from the left.

It was put out for a corner which brought about another opportunity; for Liverpool. The delivery was headed away, Salah flicked it over and into the path of Naby Keita and his return ball was an utter delight. Salah rounded Schmeichel but ran it too far. He has never been able to finish from tight angles.

The sight of Liverpool’s players swarming out of their own area after the ball was cleared was quite something. A red sea of seven or eight swept Leicester away as defence was turned to attack in an instant. And to be fair to Leicester, they almost created an opportunity themselves from a similar counter-attack at a Liverpool corner moments later, only for Joe Gomez to beat Harvey Barnes in a #footrace. But to see the Reds use an opposition corner as a means of creating their own attack was to realise that this team of throw-in coaches and ridiculously high defensive lines is building its success on the sort of simple idea that most others would ignore. They were already thinking two or three steps ahead when seemingly on the back foot.

 

8) As insatiable as Firmino, Salah and Mane were in poking holes in the armour, Jordan Henderson was utterly sublime in controlling the flow. His is not a role that particularly lends itself to superlatives unless you watch him intently: the positioning, the awareness, the intelligence, the anticipation, the timing.

And that damn passing range. The diagonal balls to Alexander-Arnold and Salah in the opening half an hour were tantalising, and rarely did he take more than one or two touches before effortlessly spreading them 30 and 40 yards across the pitch. It’s almost enough to make you forget that a) Fabinho was Liverpool’s best player for the first few months of the season, and b) Henderson has somehow been an improvement as his stand-in. If you still don’t rate him, this sport isn’t for you.

 

9) For example, many will point out that he created no chances and had a single shot – deflected – in a 4-0 win. It is jarring to think that a central midfielder is doing enabling work for the full-backs, but you cannot argue with the results.

“People talk about the future and could he come into midfield and be a Kevin de Bruyne type player,” Jamie Carragher pondered of Alexander-Arnold in October. “He has more quality now than Liverpool’s midfield players and you think about the crosses that De Bruyne puts in from the right midfield position and maybe that’s a position where Trent could play.

“But at the moment you wouldn’t think about moving position because he is playing so well,” he continued, and thus that particular debate is rendered moot. Liverpool should and will not contemplate changing Alexander-Arnold’s position and role for some time because opponents are yet to figure out how to counter his threat. It really is that simple.

The discussion will continue as the onus is almost always on how a player – especially a young one – can improve rather than how brilliant they already are. The fact remains that the best attacking outlet for the world, European and future English champions is a 21-year-old right-back who won’t be moving anytime soon.

And that, in itself, is quite jarring. Carragher himself captured part of the conundrum by describing full-backs as “either a failed winger or a failed centre-back,” and that “no-one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville” a few years ago. Times have changed; there are plenty of kids on Merseyside dreaming of emulating their new hero at right-back.

 

10) Rodgers even noted after the game that Alexander-Arnold was a right-back playing in central midfield. So quite why he deployed Maddison on the left wing as his direct opponent is anyone’s guess.

The 23-year-old is a fine player, blessed with a delicate touch and deft pass. His is the sort of quality that is easy to appreciate and impossible to ignore. But Rodgers played to his weaknesses instead of his strengths. Maddison was wasted on the left either way, reduced to either constantly tracking Alexander-Arnold as a defender or proving anonymous as he drifted into crowded central positions. The result was an attacking midfielder making one tackle and creating no chances as he was caught in between a role he cannot do and one he could not do.

 

11) Leicester’s naivety certainly helped with the opener. As Andy Robertson’s corner was cleared, the ball found its way back out to the Scot on the edge of the box. Maddison applied some slight pressure before Alexander-Arnold received it about 30 yards out, just left of centre, on his right foot. Vardy sauntered out of his area, the only Leicester player within ten yards of one of the league’s two best creators in a dangerous position.

That would be no crime if the Foxes were otherwise prepared. Evans and Soyuncu might simply back themselves in an aerial duel against any opponent, and rightfully so. But not this one. Evans was marking no-one, while Soyuncu at least occupied himself with Virgil van Dijk.

But before Alexander-Arnold even took a touch to set himself, Salah had raised his hand to request the prime delivery and started his run as Barnes watched on with no appreciation whatsoever of the danger. Firmino joined the Egyptian, both jumped for the ball and the former just happened to win it ahead of Chilwell at the back post. Either man would have scored, and in both scenarios Leicester would have had only themselves to blame for not stamping out the embers before a predictable fire broke out.

 

12) Liverpool were content to sit on their lead. Mane forced a clever save from Schmeichel after Evans’s mistake in the 33rd minute and it was not until Salah’s attempt in the 53rd that they had another. The visiting supporters must have been contemplating demanding a refund.

Leicester’s brightest moment coinciding with Liverpool’s first instance of indecisiveness. A loose Robertson backpass was kicked out for a throw-in by Alisson deep in his own half. Vardy was hunting the ball down, Ndidi was cutting off passing lines, Praet was lurking and Marc Albrighton, on for Barnes, summed up the renewed impetus and energy.

It was a spell that lasted around ten minutes and was ended with Jurgen Klopp’s double substitution of Keita and Salah for James Milner and Divock Origi, and the ensuing penalty award for handball against Soyuncu. That Leicester had one weak Praet shot to show for their supposed ascendancy encapsulated their struggles.

 

13) The aforementioned penalty was converted, Firmino trebled the lead from Alexander-Arnold’s driven cross four minutes later and by the 78th the man of the match secured his pièce de résistance to make it 4-0.

It was the best goal of the lot, a crisp, first-time finish from Mane’s pass that sliced delightfully into the bottom corner.

But one man played something of an unheralded role in all three of the final goals. Milner beat Schmeichel with what was actually a pretty bad penalty, ghosted into space and called for the pass from the wonderful Firmino so he could play in Alexander-Arnold down the right for the third, then found Mane in acres of space in the centre while under immense pressure for the fourth. Klopp could not have timed that change any better if he tried; that sort of calm was precisely what Liverpool needed.

 

14) Perhaps only two players emerge with credit from this game for Leicester. Vardy, Soyuncu and Ricardo Pereira did nothing to damage their reputations, at least, but Ndidi and Praet showed much more ability than the rest of their teammates.

Tielemans, in the other central midfield role, was a huge disappointment. Asked to play deep alongside Ndidi to provide a passing option and bypass the press, he did little more than congest an area Liverpool thoroughly dominated. The aggression and energy of Hamza Choudhury was needed – and delivered altogether too late – instead of the more passive Tielemans. Rodgers must surely see that he, Chilwell and Barnes would benefit from some time on the bench.

 

15) Joseph Dave Gomez has not lost a Premier League game since he started at right-back against Swansea in a 1-0 defeat in January 2018. In almost two years since he has been usurped due to injury and form, reestablished himself at centre-half, suffered more setbacks and now again looks to be Van Dijk’s best partner. That the same has been said of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren in recent months is probably just testament to the Dutchman.

But Gomez was the better of the two here, thwarting Barnes and Vardy with his pace, blocking a third of Leicester’s shots and creating more chances than Pereira, Chilwell, Ndidi, Tielemans, Praet, Maddison and Vardy combined.

For a 22-year-old to show such mental fortitude is incredible. He started the opening-day victory over Norwich, then played 17 minutes of Liverpool’s next 14 Premier League games. He came back in at right-back for the 3-0 win over Bournemouth, started at centre-half for the 2-0 victory against Watford and has continued with a dominant performance in this 4-0 win. His personal mini-slump is over.

 

16) And again, so is this title race. Liverpool have won 26 of their last 27 Premier League games. Leicester and Manchester City have dropped 15 and 16 points respectively this season; the Reds have dropped 19 since May 2018.

They have dropped 13 points in their last 45 matches, stretching back over a year to November 11. They will need to drop as many in their next 20 not to win this title – and that is only if the side they have just dismantled maintain perfection from here on in.

Klopp will play it down because he has to. The players will focus on taking each game as it comes because they are media-trained. The fans will preach caution because they have been burned before. But this is it. The next five months will only be as agonising as the last 30 years because the long wait for a first Premier League title is over. There are no jinxes, no superstitions, no curses, no slips, no facts. Liverpool, the best team in the world and on the continent, are quite comfortably England’s finest.

Matt Stead

 

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