Ralph Hasenhuttl screamed into the sky, dropped to his knees and bashed the turf with his fists at the final whistle. “We had to have the perfect game plan and luck,” Hasenhuttl said with tears in his eyes in his post-match interview. Southampton definitely had the former – which the players put into action perfectly – and a smattering of the latter. But while another limp Liverpool performance was forced by the Saints to a degree, much of the pain was self-inflicted through a lack of preparedness and a worrying malaise from Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s first touch was to boot the ball out of play after 10 seconds. If only his second had come a minute later. Instead James Ward Prowse’s smart, straight free-kick drifted in front of the full-back’s eyes, almost down the length of his body without any intervention and into the path of Danny Ings. That was the second error from Alexander-Arnold, who had already allowed the striker to get the wrong side of him.
The first-time finish was brilliant. Predictably so. Making Alexander-Arnold’s lack of awareness all the more baffling. ‘Watch out for Ings’ or perhaps a slightly more tactically acute message must have formed a large part of Liverpool’s preparation. It was a flat-footed, half-baked moment that summed up Liverpool in the first half.
Playing the unglamorous, nitty-gritty midfielders at centre-back didn’t help. Against a Southampton side that thrive on turnovers in the middle of the pitch, this was not the game to bring two midfielders back from long-term injuries. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was absent and Thiago looked as though he was crawling through a warzone rather than taking his customary walk in the park.
And Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, who would likely have fared better in a midfield battle, were experiencing their own issues against the tact of Ings and the speed of Theo Walcott, Nathan Tella and Moussa Djenepo before he was forced off injured. Alexander-Arnold will have been pleased to see the back of him.
The right-back’s defending was iffy, but that’s not unusual. His incredible ability to create usually means we are able to put the occasional defensive mishap to one side. But he gave the ball away 38 times in his 77 minutes, the most of any Premier League player this season. It would have been a stunningly poor performance from an average player, let alone one of the very best.
Talking of world-class footballers. You wouldn’t think it, but before Monday, Thiago had done nothing at Liverpool. An undoubtedly brilliant signing, people couldn’t wait to laud the midfielder. From taking the established master Andreas Christensen’s crown for most passes to shouting “go go Robbo” at Andy Robertson as though that’s some enviable, unseen quality in a professional footballer, and “12 brilliant minutes” out of 20 against Newcastle that had no impact on the result.
Glimpses of obvious quality – clever passes; neat touches – were blown way out of proportion.
Let’s not forget, in that record-breaking first game against Chelsea he conceded a penalty and in his only three other appearances, Liverpool have drawn two and now lost one. It’s not been a wonderful start, because it’s barely been a start: he’s played 240 minutes of football in a Liverpool shirt.
Thiago has given the ball away six times, committed five fouls and has been given the run around by Armstrong, but did you see that relatively simple first time pass? Class.
— Football365 (@F365) January 4, 2021
The first 45 of which on Monday consisted of him giving the ball away, committing fouls and being given the runaround by Stuart Armstrong. It was not a classy display, but one of a player that has barely featured, brought into the starting XI against arguably the worst opponents in which to make that return.
He was better in the second half, as were Liverpool. But for all their possession, much of which was probing, they had just one shot on target: a scuffed effort easily saved by Fraser Forster. And it was Southampton who came closest in that second half, as Alisson’s mental fatigue mimicked the obvious physical weariness of his teammates as he rushed out of goal and got nowhere near winning the ball in front of Yan Valery, who didn’t quite get enough on his shot to roll it into the empty net.
Southampton were superb – all of them. Ibrahima Diallo – making just his second start for the club – deputised brilliantly for Oriol Romeu, breaking up play with no little skill and poise on the ball. And Danny Ings was wonderful. His goal aside, his hold-up play, movement, quick feet in tight spaces and pure desire to fight and close down is Southampton, and also – dare I say – very Liverpool.
“I think I started to believe in the 92nd minute. The mentality was perhaps better than this ‘mentality monster’ team,” Hasenhuttl added in a statement that summed up the game and is surely the great hope for Liverpool’s title rivals. They’re still top, they’re still favourites, but they’re far from the impenetrable, untouchable force of last season.
Will Ford is on Twitter