Liverpool's weaknesses are exposed as resurgent Leicester begin post-Ranieri era with a win
It is hard to determine which was more unforgivable – Leicester City’s putrid efforts prior to their post-Ranieri revival or Liverpool’s failure to anticipate and cope with English football’s most anticipated improvement since Jose Mourinho departed Chelsea.
What is not difficult to conclude is that all of it was totally predictable. Leicester were always going to lift themselves and Liverpool were always going to wilt.
A chain of events was set in motion when Raineri’s removal was confirmed on Thursday and with each additional link the outcome of tonight’s game became increasingly inevitable. First, Leicester’s players were put in a position in which they had to respond having been found guilty of letting their manager down in the court of public opinion. Next, Craig Shakespeare, the coach who enjoys a close relationship with those players was put in charge, ensuring that the high-octane approach that they favour was always going to be implemented.
On the Liverpool side of things, Dejan Lovren’s latest injury problem left Jurgen Klopp with a choice between Lucas Leiva, a midfielder, and Ragnar Klavan, an average defender, at centre back in the knowledge that whichever one he opted for would have to handle not just Jamie Vardy, but Jamie Vardy with a point to prove. Faced with a difficult choice, Klopp went for the wrong one, leaving Lucas exposed to the kind of chasing that resulted in the Brazilian being caught muttering “for f**k’s sake” midway through a first half which will have had every Liverpool fan thinking exactly the same thing even if they did not say it.
On top of that, Liverpool had suffered a knock to their status in the previous 24 hours with Manchester United drawing ahead of them on the honours front. In years gone by, the great Liverpool teams would have responded to any threat to their superiority with a show of defiance. These days, it seems only to bring out the worst in them, as does facing an opponent at risk of relegation. A lack of leaders, of nous and of malice had already undermined them against Bournemouth, Hull City, Burnley and Swansea City. The Premier League table might have suggested otherwise but Leicester could have asked for no better opponent against whom to begin the post-Ranieri era.
For all of the focus on tactics in modern football, games are still won and lost by the simple virtue of one team being more up for it than the other and in the build up to kick-off few would have expected anything other than Leicester being the side which would show the greater urgency. Klopp might bristle against accusations that his players have an attitude problem but he can have no argument with the growing idea that they find it easier to perform against the teams around them than those at the wrong end of the table. Shakespeare might only have been taking charge of his first game since a brief stint as caretaker manager of West Bromwich Albion a decade ago but he didn’t need extensive managerial experience to know that if you hustle Liverpool, deny them space in central areas and look to hit them on the break they can be easily hurt.
Not surprisingly, Shakespeare sent his team out to play Sunday League football. This was not a night to perform with the style of champions, it was one when long throws would be a staple, when crosses and long balls would be launched at every opportunity, when tackles would carry an extra edge and percentages should be played. None of which is a criticism of Leicester’s approach. If there is a way to play Liverpool, this is it.
From the moment Vardy caught Sadio Mane with a nasty late challenge the tone was set. Leicester had demonstrated exactly what they were going to be about and it was up to Liverpool to respond. They didn’t. Vardy’s first goal had long been threatened by the time it arrived and the nature of it, a ball in behind Lucas for the forward to race onto, was as predictable as everything else that occurred. All that was out of the ordinary was the extraordinary volleyed finish from Danny Drinkwater which doubled Leicester’s lead. All over the park, Liverpool were performing as a team lacking leaders is prone too. Klopp claimed recently that it isn’t as straightforward as recruiting leaders from outside, an argument which Zlatan Ibrahimovic clearly does not subscribe to, which means he needs ones to emerge from within the squad that he has. As yet, there is scant evidence that this is about to happen.
Liverpool managed to show some spirit in the second half, but only enough to allow them to limit the damage that Leicester were inflicting as Philippe Coutinho reduced the arrears after Vardy had put Leicester 3-0 up. If that amounts to a show of character then it is of the kind that a club with top four pretensions – for that is what they are rather than trophy winning ones – can do without. If it needs three goals to be conceded against a team which had scored precisely that many in the league since December 17 before a response is conjured up then something is clearly amiss.
But just as it is overly simplistic to blame Leicester’s players for Ranieri’s downfall, it would be similarly crude to attribute all of Liverpool’s failings to Klopp even if this was a night when his honeymoon period came to an end if it hadn’t done so already. Like Leicester last season but not to the same extent, Liverpool have been over-performing with the squad at their manager’s disposal and the weaknesses in it are being increasingly exposed. What they did in the transfer market last summer they did well, Sadio Mane, Joel Matip and Georginio Wijnaldum have all impressed, but they did nowhere near enough.
So it is when the games come thick and fast, when injuries to key players occur and energy levels wane that the problems that had been hidden so well earlier in the season suddenly come to light. Without Lovren and Jordan Henderson, Liverpool were there for the taking and Leicester took full advantage. The only surprise would be if anyone was surprised. There was no need for a publicity hungry bookmaker to look to guarantee this outcome, everyone had already seen it coming. Everyone, that is, except for Liverpool. All Leicester had to do was turn up and for the first time in several weeks that did not prove beyond them.
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