Lethargic Liverpool succumb to yet another bout of Saturday lunchtime fever
Bournemouth were outstanding, but the big question to come from their lunchtime win over Liverpool is why their visitors are *so* inconsistent…
If nothing else, the last six days in football discourse have been fascinating as we’ve all tried to come to terms with a result that still feels so incredible that it might not even have happened. Liverpool 7 Manchester United 0. No matter how many times you re-watch the goals (and the reaction video compilations), it still kind of feels as though it almost didn’t happen. Truly, we live in the strangest timeline.
Of course, a lot had to be said about Manchester United’s reaction to that most unexpected level of defeat, and a pointedly unchanged team responded with a 4-1 win against Real Betis in the Europa League on Thursday night. But what of Liverpool? What happens next when you deliver not just the result of the season, but the result of a lifetime?
Following this up with a Saturday lunchtime trip to the Dorset coast added extra layer upon layer of narrative. After all, Liverpool put nine goals past Bournemouth at the end of August, a record-equalling pummelling which in part led to the sacking of Scott Parker, just four league games after he took them to promotion. With surprising symmetry, Parker was sacked for the second time this season, this time by Club Brugge, as we absorbed the fallout of Liverpool’s latest right hammering.
Liverpool followed up their 9-0 win against Bournemouth by beating Newcastle and they followed up their 7-0 win at Rangers in October by beating Manchester City. But Saturday lunchtimes can have a funny effect on teams, and if you turn up for the early kick-off acting as though haven’t quite yet woken up you can be punatively punished. Liverpool surely knew this going into the match, having played four times previously in Saturday lunchtime kick-offs this season and having won precisely none of them.
Liverpool's lowest pts/game rates by Premier League kick-off time under Jürgen Klopp (4+ games):
13:30 – 1.63
12:45 – 1.75
12:30 – 1.76
All early kick-off slots… #LFC #BOULIV
— Michael Reid (@michael_reid11) March 11, 2023
So it was that Liverpool found themselves a goal down after almost half an hour, Dango Ouattara breaking on the right and springing a curdled-looking offside trap before crossing for Philip Billing to side-foot in from six yards out. The previous 27 minutes had, somewhat ironically, been fairly bright and open, which had felt as though it would suit Liverpool better than it would the team at the bottom of the league table. But when the goal came, it was like a hot knife through some butter that looked as though it had been sitting at room temperature since the previous Sunday evening.
And precisely this has really been Liverpool’s key characteristic so far this season, their ability to swing from emotional low to emotional high, seemingly at a click of the fingers. There have been periods when they’ve been more good than bad, and periods when they’ve been more bad than good, and it not only can it become impossible to tell what will follow, but those movements can be jarringly massive, from losing to Manchester United in August and then putting nine goals past Bournemouth in their very next game.
This has not only emerged as a broad theme over the course of their season, but even within individual matches. Consider, for example, the first 15 or 20 minutes of their Champions League match against Real Madrid versus the rest of it. The defining motif of Liverpool in 2022/23 has been that emotional rollercoaster. It all comes down to which version of these wild oscillations is in the forefront at any given time.
Even by half-time, when they returned to the dressing room a goal down to the team who’d started the weekend at the bottom of the table, there had been small causes for optimism. Virgil van Dijk headed wide when in a position from which he should have scored. Early on, he’d had a header cleared off the line. But Dominic Solanke shot narrowly over and Bournemouth had a penalty appeal waved away. Outtara repeatedly found himself out-flanking on the right. Liverpool’s defence looked lethargic and consequently porous, the worst of their old habits dying surprisingly hard.
What might have been playing in the heads of the Bournemouth players by this point in the game is also worth pondering, considering that they’d lost their previous game after having taken a two goal lead. This wasn’t the only time they’ve been pegged back recently, either. They have something of a reputation for this sort of thing, having also lost a two-goal lead against Leeds at the start of November and dropped points from winning positions regularly elsewhere, as well.
Liverpool started the second half a little more brightly, half-time substitute Diogo Jota breezing through and forcing an excellent save from Neto, but they soon fell back into their previous shapelessness. On the sidelines, Klopp ran through his full range of anguished facial expressions. And it’s not difficult to see how infuriating it must be to see almost exactly the same people – ten of the 11 who started against Manchester United started this game – put in two such wildly different performances in the space of less than six days.
Milner, Henderson and Firmino came on for Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Darwin Nunez, a reversion to the faces of experience in an attempt to pull something from the game. The result was almost immediate, a cross from Milner, a header from Jota and a stray arm from Adam Smith. It took, as is the fashion these days, an age to get there, but there was a sense of inevitability about the penalty kick being given, although there may have been a question about Smith’s proximity to the ball when it was headed towards him and the fact that he didn’t seem to be facing the ball.
But if you’re going to be given these absolutely gilt-edged opportunities at redemption, you simply have to talk them. Mo Salah stepped up to take the penalty for Liverpool and blazed the ball wide of the post. It’s very easy to read too much into a footballer simply having a moment and blasting what should have been a routine penalty kick into the back of the stand. But yet again, that’s the thing about Liverpool. Narrative simply clings to them. Salah’s penalty felt like Liverpool’s entire afternoon to that point boiled down to one comically inept strike of the ball. This season, this match, or this one strike of the ball. They will find a way of confounding your expectations.
Jurgen Klopp reaction: Liverpool ‘didn’t enjoy the challenge’ of facing Bournemouth – ‘what can I say?’
The Vitality Stadium lived up to its name throughout the closing minutes, the ground fizzing with nervous energy as Bournemouth held their line with a reasonable degree of comfort. The clocked ticked over 90 minutes, and no sooner had this been announced than Antoine Semenyo scampered through on the left and shot across goal and wide. And even at this late, desperate stage of the game Liverpool had nothing to offer in response beyond the hitherto anonymous Cody Gakpo shooting over from an angle.
For the fifth time this season, Liverpool had caught their fifth heavy bout of Saturday lunchtime fever of the season, but none of this should detract from Bournemouth’s performance. The bottom half of the Premier League remains as baffling as ever, with the heat having been turned up under the other eight within five points of the relegation places. That a team should neven be able to rise from 20th to 16th place in the table in the middle of March is extraordinary, but let there no doubt that they deserved it, and how psychologically strengthening might it be for them to have held on to win this game just a week after their Arsenal capitulation.
Liverpool, meanwhile, continue to baffle, To put a little perspective on the extent to which this was an opportunity missed for them, a win from this game would have put them into fourth place in the Premier League for the first time this season, above Tottenham Hotspur on goal difference. What better a follow-up “LIVERPOOL ARE BACK” statement could they possibly have made? Instead, less than a week after one of the greatest results in the history of their club, they were brought back to earth with the most crashing of bumps. Such wild inconsistency remains the most consistent thing about them, this season. They remain the Premier League’s most whiplash-inducing team.