While Liverpool took one huge step closer towards qualification for Europe’s elite competition next season, the battle to finish in the top four is far from over.
Although the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City dropped points at the weekend, they all have at least one game in hand over the Reds.
One slip-up could see the Reds drop out of the top four towards the dying embers of the season and Champions League football is of paramount importance for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Their fixture at home to Southampton on Sunday at Anfield will go a long way towards deciding whether they will get the desirable spot in Europe for next term. A draw or defeat could seriously damage those aspirations.
Liverpool, however, have struggled against the Saints this season both domestically and in the league. After Ronald Koeman’s departure at the end of last season, Claude Puel was appointed as the club’s new manager and whilst they haven’t been as consistent as last season, they have been a pain in the neck for Jurgen Klopp’s side in 2016/17.
This unwanted cult will have to be brought to a halt on Sunday lunchtime ugly or not.
Saints Give Reds The Blues
The two sides first met on Saturday 19th November at St Mary’s, this was back when the Reds were tipped as serious title challengers. They went into the clash top of the league on the back of a demanding international schedule. Unfortunately, Liverpool were unable to extend their lead at the top after a frustrating afternoon on the south coast.
Klopp’s stellar winger Sadio Mane was denied by Saints’ keeper Fraser Forster – but it was Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Nathaniel Clyne who were most culpable of missed opportunities in the 0-0 draw. How often have we been able to associate the word ‘misfiring’ with regards to the side’s attacking force? On the bright side, though, it did at least keep Liverpool top of the table by virtue of goal difference.
The sides were drawn together in the EFL Cup semi-finals in January and the first leg was contested again at St Mary’s. Many were optimistic that Klopp’s Reds would be on their way to domestic glory this season but those hopes were dealt a blow on a poor evening away from home.
The hosts took the lead early on thanks to Nathan Redmond, and the away side never really recovered and deservedly lost 1-0.
The return leg was at Anfield and the noise was pumped maximum volume ahead of what was cited as an imperative game as Liverpool were in the midst of a forgettable January slump. But these hopes proved to be in vain, as Shane Long’s late winner in front of the traveling fans distinguished any hopes of cup success on a disappointing evening.
What Can Be Done Differently?
Sadio Mane, who was ruled out of both cup defeats to Claude Puel’s side, will again be sidelined after a collision in the Merseyside Derby last month. On the bright side, midfield engine Adam Lallana is expected to be given a start after his cameo away at Watford last week. This should prove to be the missing cog in the midfield.
Another problem is the tactical personnel. Whilst the 4-3-3 has proved effective against a number of sides with quick, physical outlets, it may make sense to switch the system for this game.
It became apparent how well-drilled Southampton were in all of the Reds’ fixtures against them this season.
Shane Long – the goalscorer of the Saints’ away win at Liverpool in January, spoke how their defence restricted Liverpool’s customary preferred central game – by forcing them out wide regularly.
‘Keeping a clean sheet against Liverpool is no mean feat. I think it came from the whole team trying to force them out wide and not letting them make passes through the middle to get one-on-ones with the keeper.’
This comes as no surprise and speaks volumes as to how poor the likes of James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne are offensively. That’s one massive flaw with the 4-3-3 and our personnel.
The 3-5-2 formation seems to suit our mix of interchanging attacking players against Southampton more than the 4-3-3 did. It offers the much-coveted width, gives Coutinho & Adam Lallana the license to wreak havoc & pace and balance out wide. Whilst I don’t advocate how poor Alberto Moreno is defensively, he could be the missing puzzle in the jigsaw here.
Georginio Wijnaldum, the new summer signing from Newcastle, has been reborn in recent weeks as a box-to-box midfielder as is beginning to perform in big games. However, I feel there is more required of him in the games against ‘lesser’ outfits – and dropping him here out of the available midfield quartet sounds logical.
Nathaniel Clyne isn’t great with high balls, but in recent weeks his end product offensively has been non-existent; and with Trent-Alexander Arnold impressing in recent weeks with his off the ball movement, I believe he merits a start. Some may believe that pressure isn’t a youngster’s best friend right now, but he’s a better offensive option than Clyne.
Whilst the 4-3-3 has been a winning formula in recent weeks, it will not be the answer to our issues against Southampton.
It’s not to say Klopp has to play the 3-5-2 though. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stuck by his tactical 4-3-3 blueprint – but it may bring back the same issues the side suffered earlier in the season against Puel’s side.
Whilst personnel and tactics are important, the priority really has to be the three points. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s ugly or not – the manager will be delighted that his side have found a penchant to grind out wins when they most matter. That will have to be done on Sunday.
This game will go a long way towards deciding the fate of Liverpool’s season. At this stage of the season, a draw/defeat will simply not do. Only none points will do in order for Champions League qualification. If not, they simply do not deserve a spot in Europe’s elite next season. Simple as that. Learning from mistakes is a commodity that this side must learn to achieve.
Let’s get behind the team on Sunday. The 12th Man will need to be in good voice yet again.