Football can be such a strange game sometimes. How does one team go from being totally dominant to completely under the cosh at the drop of a hat, as though someone somewhere flipped a switch?
I’m not talking about the kind of reversal that can happen after half time, the type we saw at Old Trafford last Monday when Tottenham awoke from a first half sleepwalk to put three second half goals past Manchester United. That was clearly inspired by some tactical adjustment in the Spurs dressing room at the break.
Nor am I talking about the type of fortune change that can follow a goal. Goals change games, as they say, and examples abound of that: Liverpool at Istanbul in 2005 for instance, or Liverpool at Crystal Palace – Crystanbul! – in 2014.
There was an example of the kind of switch I speak of just before the International break though. And, for once, the trigger for the switch – the exact moment it all changed – was as clear as day. Liverpool dominated the opening 22 minutes of its clash with Leicester City so completely that Alisson might as well have caught a nap on his goal line.
Roberto Firmino could have scored after three minutes, Mo Salah should have scored from that rebound, and Sadio Mane did score after 10 minutes. Leicester could hardly get out of their half as Liverpool calmly moved the ball around and probed for openings. It seemed set up for an afternoon of one-way traffic.
Then it happened. Just after the 22nd minute, Gini Wijnaldum miss-hit a routine pass back towards Joe Gomez and Demarai Gray pounced on the loose ball and drove the home team forward. Ninety seconds later, Gray forced Alisson into his first save of the match, Leicester’s first shot on target.
More tellingly, it was the start of a remarkable twenty minute period of Leicester domination during which – in a bizarre reversal of what we’d seen prior – Liverpool could hardly string together enough passes to get out of their own half. But such is Liverpool defensive resilience these days that for all their endeavour Leicester could hardly get a sniff of Alisson’s goal.
Gray’s earlier shot on target proved their best chance of the half as Liverpool’s defensive organisation restricted them to shots from distance.
When you’re on top in this game though, you have to make it count. Liverpool would prove that very point once they regained control of the game in the 42nd minutes -three minutes before the break. For once, they managed to pass their way out from the back and Mane regained possession wide on the left as Liverpool quickly pushed back up into Leicester territory. A minute later, Gomez picked out Salah who saw a 20 yard curler pushed wide for a corner kick. Milner’s first kick, an in-swinger from the left, was headed out for a second kick. This time, his out-swinger from the right was headed home by Firmino to double Liverpool’s lead.
The graphic below, courtesy of SofaScore, shows exactly how dominance flowed from one team to the other during the course of this game. Far left is kick off, far right is full time.
It was clearly not the most dominant of performances by Liverpool, but their fans can take comfort in two things.
First, Liverpool showed yet again that when they dominate the play, they will create chances and, more than likely, score goals. They could have been three up in that early spell at the start of this game, and although they only came back to life late in the half, they still made it count to score a second goal.
Second, Liverpool showed they can defend resolutely when they lose control of the game for a sustained period. For all of Leicester’s control from that 22nd minute point and for most of the second half, they hardly ever got close enough to muster a real threat.
It’s been a recurring theme of Liverpool’s season so far and it’s the formula that has taken them to the top of the league with four consecutive wins, nine goals scored and just one conceded. In a nutshell: score goals when on top, defend impressively when not.
The opening week trouncing of West Ham aside, Liverpool is yet to consistently dominate any of their games. What they have done though is make the most of their periods of dominance and weathered the storm when opponents have seized control. At Palace, they even showed they can score goals when the other team appears to be dominant – like from a corner kick. Some have called it “winning ugly” but that’s not exactly an accurate characterization. Defending well need not be ugly.
Crystal Palace threatened for a spell at Selhurst Park two weeks earlier, and Brighton made a fist of it at Anfield the week before. Yet, Alison remains largely untested and can blame only himself for the one goal conceded so far. Liverpool’s defensive improvement was clear to see last season, but they’ve started this season – with Alisson in place and Gomez alongside Virgil van Dijk – looking even better and that has been key in preserving leads so far.
The caveat of course is that we are only four weeks into the season and West Ham, Palace, Brighton and Leicester hardly represent the Premier League’s elite. Sterner tests lie ahead for sure.
But if they can keep making the most of their dominant spells – and, more importantly, hit their stride and start extending them – they’ll be well placed to keep their impressive run going.