You wait nearly four years for a Premier League home defeat and then two come along at once. Jurgen Klopp will not appreciate the irony.
What was billed as the tightest race in years may be on the verge of becoming a procession after Brighton’s Steven Alzate condemned the champions to the latest calamitous setback in their title defence.
If Liverpool’s crown was already slipping, Manchester City can take a step towards a third coronation in four years when they come to Anfield this weekend.
Brighton succeeded where Liverpool’s top four rivals from London recently failed, capitalising on the defensive vulnerabilities, and exposing the lack of attacking potency to win in this stadium for the first time since 1982. Take a bow Graham Potter. Ambition was rewarded. One wonders what Spurs and West Ham fans thought watching this.
“It wasn’t like we parked the bus,” Potter correctly observed.
“We defended well and were aggressive in how we pressed them and had the courage to play.”
All the fun is in Manchester now. The path could be clear for City and United to fight among themselves, Liverpool looking over the shoulder at those with Champions League aspirations whose hopes keep being refreshed by the rampant inconsistency of Klopp’s side.
“The gap to City? I know. We want to be champions, but you need the games and performances and we don’t have them,” said Klopp, who attributed the latest lapse to mental fatigue.
He didn’t quite concede the title, but came suspiciously close to doing so.
“We fight for other things,” he said. “We will try and see, but the gaps are not interesting at the moment. All we can influence is the next game.”
The champions cannot withstand continuous line-up changes.
There ought to be a weekly sweep at Anfield to guess which senior players will be absent next. Each matchday starts the same, rumours sweeping social media about the latest casualty, Wednesday’s mid-afternoon gossip accurately predicting goalkeeper Alisson Becker would sit out this game. The Brazilian is ill, which may at least ensure he is back for City.
So youngster Caoimhin Kelleher stepped in, as he has done on a couple of occasions already this season. Not that Alisson would have made a difference here. But for Kelleher, Brighton would have won by more. It’s the midfield and attack which has failed to produce at home in 2021. Liverpool have not scored here yet this year.
With Sadio Mane still out as a result of a three word phrase which now sends a shudder through Liverpudians’ spine – a ‘minor muscle injury’ – and the new centre-backs signed on Monday not considered match ready, hopes that Liverpool have been reacquainted with their swagger proved premature.
Brighton capitalised expertly. Despite their lowly position, they have more adventure than many above them.
Their outstanding three centre-backs Ben White, Adam Webster and Lewis Dunk provided the security, even if they were often looking around wondering if they would have a striker to mark. They were comfortable in the knowledge only Mohamed Salah would attempt to run beyond them.
When invited, Brighton sent more men forward than usual Anfield visitors. By the time they took the lead, it was no shock. They had two of the better chances of the first half, Dan Burn scuffing his shot skyward from six yards after Neal Maupay teased Jordan Henderson on the edge of the penalty area, and then Maupay glancing a header wide in first half injury time from Pascal Gross’ cross.
Liverpool spent most of the evening hunting for a final ball. They had found one in the third minute when Henderson sent Salah clear, the Egyptian chipping over when facing keeper Robert Sanchez.
Then came the prolonged routine – often seen this season – wherein Liverpool’s midfielders exchanged countless passes without penetration, the tendency of Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri to drop deep for possession ceaselessly leading down a cul-de-sac of Brighton retrievers.
In this system, Liverpool rely so much on Firmino to link the play, as he did so expertly against Spurs., When he does not function so well, the attacking threat withers – especially without Mane’s capacity to turn games in an instant.
Without Mane, Liverpool’s attackers were prone to wanting that extra touch when facing the goal, or were more inclined to make one more pass than necessary.
Klopp tried a formation change, moving Salah to a central striker role in the second half. But his side was soon chasing an equaliser, not a winner.
Solly March’s 56th minute cross from the right bypassed Liverpool’s backline as Burn sprinted unwatched along the left. The wing-back’s header into the six yard box caused indecision, allowing Alzate to make enough contact to beat the young Irish goalkeeper.
“Soome performances have been good without results,” said Potter. “Tonight was sensational.”
You can’t make any definitive predictions about what happens next in this league. What is certain is if Liverpool do not win their next home game, the Premier League trophy’s absence from Manchester will be brief.