Debunking Kneejerk Reactions to Liverpool's Premier League Opener

Rob LancasterFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2017

Miguel Britos was in the right place to deny Liverpool victory at the start of the new Premier League season.
Miguel Britos was in the right place to deny Liverpool victory at the start of the new Premier League season.Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Liverpool's trip to Watford on Saturday was meant to offer supporters the chance to forget about a frustrating summer and instead focus their minds on some actual football.

Instead, the 3-3 draw at Vicarage Road only made things worse.

Towards the end of a week in which the Philippe Coutinho transfer saga took more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie, Liverpool missed the chance to secure three Premier League points on the road.

The Reds struggled to match their opponents' physicality in the first half, caught fire in the second and then, painfully, conceded a late equaliser from a set-piece situation.

Just as it appeared there would be light at the end of the tunnel, Miguel Britos popped up (from an offside position) in injury time to plunge Liverpool fans back into a gloomy state. Hello darkness, my old friend.

Social media was awash with instant reactions to the result, many pointing fingers as they looked to pin blame on someoneanyoneafter a draw had been snatched from the jaws of victory.

Now that the dust has settled, the time feels right to take a look back at what happened at Watford and counter some of the criticism levelled at the players, the manager and the owners.

               

With Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool Would Have Won

Britos and Stefano Chuka Okaka both capitalised on crosses to score for Watford.
Britos and Stefano Chuka Okaka both capitalised on crosses to score for Watford.OLLY GREENWOOD/Getty Images

Jamie Redknapp and Jamie Carragher—two former Reds working for Sky Sports—agreed on one thing in the immediate aftermath to the result: the addition of Virgil van Dijk would strengthen Liverpool's defence.

However, the pair disagreed over whether the Dutchman—a long-term target who is now trying to force his way out of Southampton before the transfer window shuts, per David Hytner of the Guardian—would have made a difference to the outcome against Watford.

Redknapp rightly pointed out that Liverpool struggle to deal with set pieces. Van Dijk would potentially help combat the problem, seeing as he stands 6'4" and provides a dominant presence in both penalty areas.

But would one man really make that much difference? Can a centre-back who has made his name at Celtic and then Southampton truly solve an issue that has undermined Liverpool teams long before Klopp's reign?

Carragher argued (and it got a little heated in the studio) the issue goes much deeper than simply the personnel on the field. Even a high-price addition like Van Dijk cannot cover everywhere.

"The way Liverpool set up in the game, set-piece-wise, they will always concede goals. I don't care what defenders they go and buy, or how much they cost, it won't make a difference," Carragher said on air.

Sky Sports Statto revealed a telling figure on Twitter that shows how, under Klopp, Liverpool have suffered more leaks than Hillary Clinton's email account: 

"We did wrong and what do I want to do to sort it? Buy a new player in that position? I’m not sure if that really makes sense. We have to work on it," the German manager said in his post-match press conference, per Jim White of the Telegraph.

Yet Klopp can point to last season's run-in, when his side kept clean sheets in five of their last six Premier League games to secure a top-four berth and the opportunity to play in the UEFA Champions League, as an example of how they canwhen switched oncope with an aerial bombardment into their box.

That spell of games included a trip to Watford—then managed by Walter Mazzarri—and West Bromwich Albion, and we all know how much damage a Tony Pulis team can do at corners and free kicks.

Liverpool can defend dead-ball situations. But every time they concede a goal like the one Britos scored, they will be lambasted for their set-piece sins.

Adding Van Dijk might help incidents like Britos' equaliser occur less in the future, but he cannot be held up as a saviour before he's even signed for the club.

               

This Is Why Coutinho Wants to Leave

Around 24 hours before they kicked a ball competitively in the 2017/18 season, and fresh off the back of owners Fenway Sports Group publicly declaring their intention not to sell the player, Liverpool had to deal with the media storm surrounding Coutinho handing in a transfer request.

Per Paul Joyce of The Times, the emailed request was rejected. The owners had done the same on Thursday when Barcelona made a second offer for the Brazilian, according to Andy Hunter of the Guardian.

Coutinho sat out opening weekend with a rather convenient back injury.

However, the suggestion he must be retained to carry the Reds this season doesn't wash. Even without their ailing magician, Liverpool scored three goals against Watford. They couldand really shouldhave had more.

Sky Sports News' Kaveh Solhekol reported earlier in the transfer window how the player wanted to "amicably" leave the club that paid just €13 million (£11.8 million) to acquire him from Inter Milan in January 2013.

Now, though, Coutinho can forget any idea about a fond farewell during this window. His desire to get a move away has forced him to burn bridges; asking to leave means there will be no grateful crowd to wave him off from John Lennon Airport should a deal with Barcelona materialise in the next fortnight.

The La Liga club, with a boatload of money after the £200 million sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain, are a tough proposition to resist. At 25, Coutinho may see this as the perfect time to try his luck on one of the biggest stages in the game.

Yet his desire to depart isn't a statement about Liverpool's lack of spending. Nor is it a reflection of Barcelona's current stock; if the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday is anything to go by, they are a powerhouse who desperately need to flex their muscles in the transfer market.

If Coutinho goes (and that still remains a big "if"), Liverpool can cope. In fact, they can prosper. Mohamed Salah's fast start to life back in the Premier League (he scored the third for the Reds on Saturday) suggests he will make Klopp's 2017/18 squad even more potent in the final third.

                      

Winter Is Coming

Dietmar Hamann was particularly downcast in his assessment after the final whistle:

The former Liverpool player was as frustrated as any other fan after a winning position slipped away in the dying moments.

For the second successive season, they had conceded three goals in their first outing. The difference, however, is they won by the odd goal in seven against Arsenal in August 2016.

At the Emirates Stadium, they still conceded from a set piece, only Calum Chambers' flicked header from a deep free-kick didn't end up costing the visitors in the final reckoning.

Hytner's report for the Guardian described Liverpool as "vibrant and clinical" in north London. There was a positive air about the performance that day, even if they had nearly let slip a 4-1 lead.

Even Jurgen Klopp got a little carried away by Liverpool's display against Arsenal in August 2016.
Even Jurgen Klopp got a little carried away by Liverpool's display against Arsenal in August 2016.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Liverpool were riding high and had laid down a marker. Less than a week later, however, they had all the ball but no idea how to score in a 2-0 defeat at Burnley.

So, in short, don't read too much into opening-day results.

Conceding at the end was a gut punch for sure, but that doesn't mean the Reds are counted out yet. The two Manchester clubs may have laid down markers, but champions Chelsea were humbled at home. The Blues, by the way, had 10 points after six games last season. Title races can change in a hurry.

This is not a time for Liverpool fans to panic (even if that is something they've become used to doing).

Achieve a positive result at TSG Hoffenheim in a Champions League qualifier on Tuesday and then find a way to beat Crystal Palace at Anfield on Saturday (something they've admittedly done just once in the past four seasons), and Klopp's current crop will have buried the memory of their late wobble at Watford.

                 

Going Through Changes

Jurgen Klopp turned up at Watford on a bus—but he rarely parks one on the field.
Jurgen Klopp turned up at Watford on a bus—but he rarely parks one on the field.OLLY GREENWOOD/Getty Images

Klopp received plenty of criticism on Twitter for his use of substitutions.

He waited until the 81st minute to make his first, bringing on Divock Origi to replace Roberto Firmino as the focal point of the forward line. Shortly after, Salah made way for James Milner, a hold-what-we-have move.

Fresh legs in the closing stages can make a difference, but they can also create problems. It is tough for any player—particularly at the start of a new campaign—to immediately pick up the pace of a game.

Klopp's policy of being patient with his changes has been scrutinised in the past. Last season, he could at least point to a lack of depth as the reason for sticking with the starting XI for so long in certain games.

Too often he turned to his bench to see fresh-faced youth products looking back at him. You'd rather expose youngsters at a time of your choice, rather than have your hand forced by a lack of alternatives.

There were key absentees at Watford, though. As well as Coutinho, Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge were all sidelined through injury.

No doubt the fact captain Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane were playing competitively for the first time since picking up serious injuries last season crossed his mind. However, with the game still in the balance at 3-2, it wasn't the right time to rest key personnel.

Still, had Liverpool held on, no one would've been bothered by the decision to send on Gomez.

                  

Alberto Moreno Was the Wrong Choice

Alberto Moreno was chosen to start at left-back against Watford.
Alberto Moreno was chosen to start at left-back against Watford.Alex Broadway/Getty Images

With Clyne, Coutinho and Lallana sidelined, Klopp's major selection issue concerned who to start at left-back.

In the end, Alberto Moreno got the nod over Milner and Andrew Robertson, something of a surprise when you consider the Spaniard appeared to be out in the cold to such a degree last season that it's quite possible he nearly lost several toes due to frostbite.

A permanent fixture in matchday squads, Moreno had not started a Premier League game in 10 months before Saturday. He had begun the previous season at left-back too, only to endure a nightmare afternoon against Arsenal.

It was expected he would be sold to the highest bidder during the summer. Instead, a determined Moreno impressed in pre-season to such an extent that Klopp decided to keep hold.

A forward-thinking full-back, the former Sevilla player had previously been exposed for his poor positional play and naive defending.

Understandably, Watford looked to put him under heavy pressure, particularly in the first 45 minutes:

A failed attempt to win a challenge did expose Liverpool out wide in the buildup to Watford's second goal, scored by Abdoulaye Doucoure.

However, he did provide a more attacking option compared to Milner, the man who slowed down many a promising move last season with his desire to cut back inside on to his favoured right foot.

While it will take more than one half-decent display to convince his critics he has a future on Merseyside, Moreno showed enough to suggest it remains a three-way battle to start at left-backfor now at least.

                       

Rob Lancaster is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.