Jurgen Klopp’s team overcame sloppy first-half defending to take a 3-2 lead through second-half goals from Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. But that sloppy defending reared itself again at the death, with a second poorly defended near-post corner costing the Reds three points.
It had caused Liverpool to slip behind early when Stefano Okako forced in an 8th-minute header from close range. Sadio Mané equalized for Liverpool 20 minutes later, but the visitors were behind heading into halftime after Abdoulaye Doucouré scored Watford’s second on 32 minutes.
Liverpool appeared to have turned the game on its head in a span of three second-half minutes, and appeared be on its way to a crucial away win against a lesser opponent, something it often struggled to claim a year ago. Results against the bottom half of the league have held Klopp’s teams back ever since he took over at Liverpool in 2015.
Saturday was his 100th game in charge, and perhaps it could have been portrayed as a turning point. But up popped Watford’s Miguel Britos on the goal line in the third minute of second-half added time, and down went that narrative.
Liverpool’s set piece troubles
The second match of the Premier League campaign — after Arsenal’s thrilling 4-3 victory over Leicester on Friday — began ominously for Klopp’s side. Watford won an early corner, and Liverpool’s marking was shambolic.
There was enough pace on the corner and enough red-clad men seemingly in position to meet it to keep Simon Mignolet rooted to his goal line. But none of those Liverpool players attacked the ball, and Okaka knifed into a glaring hole in between two of them to power home the header.
— NBCSN (@NBCSN) August 12, 2017
One of the problems for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp was the identity of the players in a position to attack Jose Holebas’ corner. At the near post and at the middle of the six-yard box — arguably the two most important positions in a zonal marking scheme — were Joel Matip, hardly the most dominant of central defenders in the air, and Roberto Firmino. Here’s how Liverpool set up:
Matip got sucked into challenging Younes Kaboul’s leap. When the ball sailed past both, Firmino looked totally out of his element and didn’t come close to challenging Okaka.
Liverpool’s first equalizer
Mané’s all-around brilliance brought Liverpool level, though. The Senegalese forward picked up the ball from a throw-in near the right sideline. He shrugged off Doucouré’s pressure and carried the ball across the field to the left. When he received it back from Alberto Moreno near the top of the box, he again held possession under a challenge from Doucouré, showing impressive strength and body control.
The threat of Mané in possession 25 yards from goal drew Nordin Amrabat out as a second defender. But Amrabat’s decision to double-team the ball failed to account for the fact Mané is even more dangerous without the ball than with it. He slipped the ball back to Moreno, darted into space vacated by Amrabat, and the end product crafted by he and Emre Can was superb.
Watford re-takes the lead
Watford then pounced on some more lax Liverpool defending to go back in front. Alberto Moreno tried and failed to win this ball when he found himself wrong side of Amrabat:
Moreno took Amrabat out of the play, but three Liverpool players — Mane, Jordan Henderson and Can — stood and watched rather than following Watford runners:
Doucouré continued his run into the box and picked up the scraps of a poor clearance.
Liverpool’s second-half turnaround
The first half wasn’t your prototypical Liverpool-struggles-against-a-bottom-half-team performance. Watford didn’t just bunker into a low block. The Hornets confronted Liverpool like they would any other team, won midfield battles, and were probably the better team on the balance of the first 45 minutes.
But in the second half, they — and particularly their 31- and 32-year-old center backs, Kaboul and Britos — looked leggy. Liverpool still didn’t boss the game in midfield, but the pace slowed a bit, and holes started to open up when the Reds went forward.
First, Gomes mistimed a charge off his line, fouling Salah and allowing Firmino to convert from the penalty spot.
Two minutes later, Watford’s back four was all out of sorts. Right back Kiko Femenia didn’t track Firmino’s run off the Liverpool left. The near-side center back, Kaboul, held an offside line that would have been strong enough to elicit a raised flag from the linesman if not for the far-side center back, Britos.
Britos dropped off to try to match Firmino’s run from 30 yards away. He played the Brazilian onside. Firmino took Dejan Lovren’s lofted through ball in stride, lobbed Gomes, and Salah was there at the doorstep to stab home his debut goal.
Watford’s team defending was extremely flawed. There was no pressure on the ball several yards away from the halfway line. With that in mind, Watford’s defensive line was far too high. And the defenders, ultimately, were not on the same page.
The second goal seemed to have broken Watford’s collective spirit, and although the home team still pushed forward, they didn’t create many clear-cut opportunities — until the clock struck 90 minutes.
There were questions about offside on Watford’s equalizer — Britos’ left shoulder appeared to be ahead of the ball, putting him in an illegal position when it was fired toward goal by Richarlison:
“The equaliser was offside,” Klopp said after the match. “It’s obvious because the linesman is on the line. He needs to see it.”
But the goal stood, and Liverpool was left to rue dropped points against a lesser opponent — a feeling that’s become all too familiar for fans over the past two years.
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