It’s hard to know which subject Jurgen Klopp found more wearing to discuss; the future of Philippe Coutinho or the reprise of his Liverpool side’s familiar defensive failings.
Both matters will have a significant impact on the club’s prospects this season but there is no doubt the more pressing issue confronting the manager is the need to resolve his side’s weaknesses at the back ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Hoffenheim.
The failure to overcome the German club in the Champions League qualifying play-off would undo much of the good work of last season in finishing in the top four, leaving the group stage of European football’s premier competition tantalisingly out of reach.
On Saturday, Klopp’s side demonstrated that even without Coutinho, sidelined with a back injury, and Adam Lallana, they have enviable options up front. They also showed, however, where their weakness lies as they conceded two goals from set-pieces, the second an added-time equaliser that denied them a victory that should have been assured.
Miguel Britos, the scorer of that goal, confirmed that weak spot has not gone unnoticed by Liverpool’s opponents and Hoffenheim’s scouts will undoubtedly have taken note.
“Yes we knew (about their weakness at set-pieces),” said the centre-back. “Maybe it is their weak point. We worked well on set-pieces and we scored twice from them. I’m not surprised by it because it not easy to work well, particularly when you mark a zone — and they mark a zone.”
The flaws in the zonal system were exposed by Roberto Firmino’s failure to deal with the run of Stefano Okaka as the Watford striker advanced to head home from Jose Holebas’ corner for the eighth-minute opening goal.
It was hard not to think that Virgil van Dijk, the Southampton centre-back coveted by Klopp, would have handled things much better although the manager was at pains to point out there was no quick fix.
“Because it happened to us last year we now can’t say ‘this year it won’t happen anymore’. It’s not really like that. It just feels different. We defend most of them well,” said Klopp.
“It’s not about the player. One player can not sort out the set-piece problem for Liverpool. Of course, it’s about positioning — do the right thing in the right moment at the right position.”
Sadio Mane, scorer of Liverpool’s first goal, was in no doubt about the need to address that problem. “This can happen in football. With all due respect to Watford, we should have won, we were the better team,” he said.
“But it’s football. We’ll accept it, forget it and try to be ready for the next game.”
Mane, Firmino, and Mohamed Salah certainly did their bit, particularly in the second half when they repeatedly combined to put Klopp’s side in control. Mane’s 29th-minute goal was met with Abdoulaye Doucure’s 32nd-minute reply that restored Watford’s lead but after the break a Firmino penalty and a close-range effort from Salah showed Liverpool can cope without Coutinho, who submitted a transfer request on Friday after a second bid from Barcelona for the player was rejected.
Liverpool wilted at the death, failing to deal with another Holebas corner and allowing Britos to score from close range after Simon Mignolet had parried Richarlison’s shot onto the bar.
As frustrating as that was for Klopp, Watford’s new manager Marco Silva saw his side rewarded for their unwillingness to concede. Britos said: “The football is like we want to play and he is a good coach. It is the beginning and we have to carry on like this. A new season, new coach, new players, and we have started well. It is positive. We keep going and try to work hard and correct our mistakes because we did make some today.”
Gomes 6; Janmaat 6 (Femenia 18, 6), Kaboul 6, Britos 7, Holebas 7; Chalobah 7, Doucoure 9; Amrabat 6, Cleverley 8, Pereyra 7 (Richarlison 49,6); Okaka 7 (Gray 63,6).
Subs not used:
Pantilimon, Prodl, Watson, Capoue.
Mignolet 6; Alexander-Arnold 7 (Gomez 89), Matip 5, Lovren 5, Moreno 6; Can 8, Henderson 7, Wijnaldum 6; Salah 7 (Milner 86), Firmino 8 (Origi 81), Mane 7.
Subs not used:
Karius, Grujic, Klavan, Solanke
Anthony Taylor (Manchester) 6
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