Turning up to Vicarage Road without your best player is bad enough. To turn up with your best player agitating for a move away being the reason for his absence (don’t believe everything you read about a fictional “injury”) is a nightmare. Jurgen Klopp will not have wanted to have his preparations for his teams’ first league game of the season away at Watford turned upside down by off field matters, but Philippe Coutinho’s transfer request yesterday did just that. It was time for Klopp to earn his money and divert his sides attention away from matters off the field.
Klopp has appeared to have made his mind up regarding the apparent three way battle for the starting goalkeepers spot, with Simon Mignolet beginning today’s game between the sticks. Trent Alexander-Arnold obviously did enough in pre-season to start ahead of Joe Gomez, who would only make the bench, at right back. Alberto Moreno, also impressive in pre-season, was rewarded by starting on the opposite side. Between the full backs were Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren. Jordan Henderson resumed his usual place in front of the back four and behind a central midfield pairing of Giorginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can, who has murmurings around Europe regarding his own future with Juventus sniffing around. Mohamed Salah made his competitive debut for Liverpool playing up front alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. Dominic Solanke was expected to start the season in the under-23’s but, after some very good performances in the build up to this game, started on the bench. He and Gomez were joined by Loris Karius, Divock Origi, Ragnar Klavan, Marko Grujic and James Milner.
Watford began the Marco Silva era with minimal changes to their line-up. Heurelho Gomes would start in goal behind a back four which consisted of Daryl Janmaat, Miguel Britos, Younes Kaboul and Jose Holebas. Nathaniel Chalobah made his Watford debut following his £8.5 million move from Chelsea. He joined Abdoulaye Doucoure and Tom Cleverley in the centre of Watford’s three man midfield. Roberto Pereyra and Nordin Amrabat started either side of Watford’s target man up front, Stefano Okaka. Watford would begin the game with new signings Andre Gray, Kiko Fermenia and Richarlyson on the bench, although Will Hughes and skipper Troy Deeney would miss out through injury.
The game started as expected with both sides flying out the blocks to close each other down and force mistakes. Watford especially seemed to use the advantage they had physically over Liverpool by trying to bully them off the ball. On 8 minutes, they were rewarded. Roberto Pereyra burst forward down the Watford left and attacked Alexander-Arnold. He was too much for the young full back to handle and managed to get into the box. He tried to fire across Mignolet’s goal but the Belgian ‘keeper was able to help it behind. From the resulting corner from the right, Liverpool employed a zonal marking system which saw the man in the middle of box turning out to be Roberto Firmino. Stefano Okaka waltzed into the 6 yard box unmarked. Firmino against Okaka was mismatch and the big man powered a header towards goal. The Italian would score via Mignolet’s face to put the home side ahead. Liverpool’s defending from the corner was criminal and had cost them dearly.
From there, Watford continued to press ahead. They seemed to be able to push more men forward and contain Liverpool at the same time. They were helped by Liverpool trying to play a direct passing game. Watford defended the ball over the top as they should have by not letting the ball bounce. Firmino, Mane and Salah challenging Holebas, Britos and Kaboul in the air was a no contest. Holebas and Janmaat were also doing an excellent job of neutralising the htreat of Salah and Mane. With Holebas’ strength and pace, he was more than a equal to Salah in every imaginable way. Holebas was also managing to pin Salah to the touchline, thus rendering a player who prefers to cut inside obsolete in the early stages.
In the 18th minute, Watford made a change that would alter them defensively. Daryl Janmaat had his fair share of injury problems during his maiden season at Watford and they would come back to haunt him today. The Dutch full back was forced off with an ankle problem and would be replaced by Kiko Fermenia, a recent arrival from Alaves. Fermenia prefers to play as a winger or wing back and his natural inclination is not to defend. Up against Sadio Mane, he would be a player Liverpool would look to exploit. Ten minutes after coming onto the pitch, he would be exploited to the maximum. Mane picked up the ball on the edge of the box on the left side. He dribbled across the 18 yard line and played a short pass to Alberto Moreno. Moreno fizzed a pass into the feet of Emre Can in the box. With a sublime flick, Can played a well timed ball into the stride of Mane. Mane, now on the corner of the 6 yard box and clean through on goal, took one touch before placing a shot into the top corner of Gomes’ net. On the balance of play it was harsh on Watford, but the goal was of the highest quality. The flick from Can needs to be seen to be fully appreciated and Mane’s finish was typical of a player who is fully aware of his own class. It should have been Liverpool’s passage back into the game. But parity wouldn’t last long.
Three minutes later Emre Can and Alberto Moreno were two on one in Liverpool’s left back position. Can stupidly tried to play a back heel to the full back but played it out for a Watford throw in. From the resulting throw, Amrabat battled with Moreno for the ball and it was a battle the Dutch winger won. Doucoure picked up the loose ball and played in Cleverley, who had took up position in the now open left channel. With nobody in red reacting to close Cleverley down, he squared the ball towards Okaka who was sliding into the 6 yard box. The pass evaded Okaka and Matip, who had slid in to clear, and arrived at the heel of a surprised Alexander-Arnold. His poor touch rebounded off the back of the prone Lovren and into the path of Doucoure who had continued his run into the box. With an open goal to aim at from 6 yards out, it was harder for Doucoure to miss and he put the home side back in front. Liverpool had been rightly punished again for some comical defending.
Watford would try to hold their lead for the rest of the half but found Liverpool a challenge. On 37 minutes, a rare mistake from Holebas let in Salah. The Greek found the ball tangled in his feet and Salah nicked it off him on the corner of the box. He bore down on Gomes and looked like he was about to bag his first league goal for the club. He tried to lift the ball over Gomes but scooped his shot over the bar. Liverpool were now having more of the ball. They seemed to have abandoned their direct tactic and were favouring their more natural, short approach. But it was from a corner that Liverpool would have their last chance of the half, with Moreno whipping it in from the left for Mane to flash across Gomes’ goal. Luckily for the home side it would end up wide of the Brazilian ‘keeper’s goal.
When Anthony Taylor blew for half time there is no doubt that Marco Silva will have been the happier manager. His side had turned up to bully Liverpool and they had executed their plan as well as they could have. They had a clear physical advantage over Liverpool which the reds couldn’t answer to but Liverpool were slowly coming back into the game. They had scored a goal which was a flash of brilliance and should have been a warning of what they were capable of. There defensive errors will have worried Klopp though. His side had conceded two goals which they really should have dealt with. Going into the second he will have been looking for his side to play quicker and shorter, as they had done towards the end of the first half. They had stumbled across some joy when doing so. The game was far from over.
Watford began the second period with an early substitute, giving Richarlyson a debut in place of Pereyra. The young Brazilian would struggle in the early stages of what was turning into a tight encounter. Liverpool were beginning to edge it and, on 55 minutes, they were level again. Mohamed Salah was played into the right hand channel of Watford’s area by Jordan Henderson. He had got ahead of Holebas but was now in a race to the ball with Gomes. The Brazilian stopper came haring out of his goal at the feet of Salah and needed to get the ball. But he didn’t. He caught the feet of Salah, bringing him down and conceding a clear penalty. With James Milner on the bench, the responsibility fell to Roberto Firmino who sent Gomes the wrong way and make it 2-2. But Watford wouldn’t level for long and, this time, it would be Liverpool who would take the lead.
Dejan Lovren found himself in possession on the edge of the centre circle in his own half. Kiko Fermenia had been ball watching and not keeping track of Firmino, who had peeled off the Spaniard on the Liverpool left. Lovren lifted the ball into the path of the Brazilian exquisitely and Firmino was now clean through. With Gomes closing him down, he lifted ball towards goal but it looked like it was falling wide. Seeing this, Salah stole in front of Holebas to tap in from all of two yards to give Liverpool the lead for the first time in the game. In a matter of four minutes, the Egyptian winger had announced his return to the Premier League in emphatic style.
After the goal Liverpool took control of the game and began to create more chances. Alberto Moreno battled with Fermenia on the left corner of the Watford box and came out with the ball before hitting one towards the Watford goal, which Gomes managed to tip behind. From the resulting corner, Matip managed to a flick his header onto the bar at the near post. Minutes later Liverpool had another corner, this time on the left, which was take by Alexander Arnold. Lovren found himself unmarked in the area but could only power his header straight at Gomes. But, despite their dominance, Liverpool remained in their panic stations when the ball come close to their defence. A ball forward by Cleverley should have been easily collected by the unchallenged Mignolet. But he attempted to punch and, with Dejan Lovren jumping to clear having obviously not heard a shout, he completely mistimed his clearance. The ball bounced but no opposition players were in the vicinity to take advantage. It was a let off for Liverpool but a sign of Mignolet’s persistent shakiness.
Liverpool needed another goal to seal the victory. With 5 minutes to go, the ball was played to Wijnaldum on the edge of the area. The Dutchman just needed to compose himself and get his shot on target. Instead he snatched at his effort and scuffed it wide. Liverpool would ultimately pay. With Watford pushing forward looking for an equaliser, Liverpool looked increasingly unsettled. In the 93rd minute Watford won a corner. Holebas took and put a poor ball into the near post. But Wijnaldum failed to deal with it and his header hit Richarlyson on the corner of the 6 yard box. The winger took one touch and lashed a shot towards Mignolet’s goal which the ‘keeper parried onto the bar. But he was being pushed by Britos and the Uruguayan centre half managed to nudge the ball over the line with his head from all of a yard out. Replays showed the Britos was in an offside position and clerly interfering with Mignolet as Richarlyson unleashed his effort. But if Liverpool peddle that excuse then it will be a feeble one. In reality the corner was hardly threatening and it should have been dealt with more effectively. The goal only served to place Liverpool’s defensive frailties under the microscope further.
Not long after the referee called time on a disappointing result for Liverpool. Having come from behind to take the lead, only to throw it away was a blow. To concede the goals in the manner they had will make the point even harder to swallow. After the game Klopp admitted he was unhappy with the goals that had been conceded, but bemoaned Britos’ equaliser and claimed Liverpool were unlucky for Doucoure’s goal. He fielded questions regarding the ongoing Coutinho saga but fed out the diplomatic line – he was here to talk about the players he had at his disposal and there a certain decisions he had not influence over.
There are a number of what if’s that will follow this result. What if Coutinho had played? What is van Dijk was in defence? What is Wijnaldum had dealt with the corner with more conviction? But none of that really matters. The fact of the matter is that there was more than enough quality in the Liverpool ranks to claim all 3 points today. Watford played well and had a clear physical superiority over Liverpool but they aren’t Brazil. Liverpool should be taking all 3 points back to Merseyside tonight. Instead they have been sent home licking their wounds and wondering what the future holds with the possibility of losing their best player lying in front of them.