Only the sharp contrast with Liverpool’s typical brilliance this season makes Saturday’s defeat a shock.
We have grown accustomed to Jurgen Klopp’s team finding a way — any way — to pull themselves over the line. To lose their first league match on the final day of February is an astonishing achievement.
They are also a better team (at least in the context of their dominance) than Arsenal in 2003/04. They are still likely to coast past 100 league points this season, breaking a record set by Manchester City that we assumed would never be surpassed.
A defeat or two will not take the gloss off their majesty. And yet their shock loss at Vicarage Road should cause some disappointment.
There is something truly historic about going an entire league season unbeaten, and Liverpool persuaded us that they could match the record of Arsenal’s Invincibles.
To pass up that opportunity in such a limp manner will irk Klopp and his players. They were outplayed by Watford, managing just a single shot on target.
The interesting question is whether the winter break put Liverpool off their stride. Common wisdom suggests that accumulated fatigue acts as a handbrake on a high-performing team, but under Klopp, Liverpool seem happier when playing regularly.
It is as if the team spirit and confidence that comes from winning overshadows any concerns about fatigue. As so many former players say, you just don’t feel tired when you’re in form.
Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at Goodison can be distilled as the travails of two goalkeepers.
England manager Gareth Southgate was present to check up on Jordan Pickford. His current No 1 should have done far better with Bruno Fernandes’ equaliser.
At the other end, David de Gea has his own problems. De Gea He dallied on the ball and then aimed his clearance straight at Dominic Calvert-Lewin. It was the seventh goal United have conceded as aresult of a De Gea error. No Premier League player has been responsible for more this season.
After the game, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, predictably, defended his goalkeeper, but his insistence that De Gea is still the best in the world in his position requires quite the a suspension of disbelief. His form has tailed off badly over the last 18 months.
Dean Henderson could be the beneficiary for club and country. His loan deal with Sheffield United ends this summer. If Manchester United need to raise funds toimprove their squad in a number of positions, selling De Gea isn’t as unthinkable as it once was.
Whilst the final table should be the only evidence required to judge the success of a league season, the reality is a little different.
A team that struggles in the autumn before going on a wondrous run to achieve a surprise Champions League place will always be judged differently to one that flies out of the blocks before stuttering and staggering to the same league position.
No Leicester supporter would have been disappointed with finishing sixth at the start of the season. European qualification was a cause for potential celebration in Brendan Rodgers’ first season, the first time in four years that the Big Six had been broken up. Leicester are still almost certain to do so with a smaller wage budget and having spent less money than the financial elite below them.
But Leicester and Rodgers are in a pickle. Defeat at Norwich on Friday night could be explained away by the absence of Youri Tielemans and Jamie Vardy, but this type of lethargic performance is in danger of becoming the new norm. Since beating Aston Villa on December 8, Leicester have taken 12 points from their last 12 league games. They haven’t scored foralmost 300 minutes.
After that Villa win, Leicester were in second place and 14 points clear of fifth. They may have only dropped to third, but that gap is now down to six points. Rodgers’ side must click back into form to avoid being pulled back into the chasing pack.
Against Manchester City last month, David Moyes sacrificed any chance of victory by picking a defensive team and never trying to score, even after City scored.
West Ham might have lost at Anfield last Monday, but they showed plenty enough attacking intent to convince Moyes that this must be their strategy if they are to get out of trouble.
They are not good enough defensively to sit back and close out matches. Moyes’ attacking plan worked against Southampton.
He picked four attacking players and saw three of them (Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen, and Sebastien Haller) score, while the other (Pablo Fornals) created two.
West Ham had 33% possession but seven shots ontarget compared to Southampton’s two. Here was proof that ceding the ball does not mean blunting your own attacking ambition.
With home games against Aston Villa, Watford, and Burnley to come before the end of the season, Moyes must now keep the faith. Bowen can get the best out of Haller, Fornals can service both, and Antonio offers a unique directness with the ball at his feet and a desire to run beyond the last man. This has to be the start of a sustainable improvement rather than just another false dawn.