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Liverpool recover their composure after Southampton’s stinging start

Paul Doyle at St Mary’s Stadium
@Paul_Doyle
Fri 5 Apr 2019 23.36 BST 

For a painful half hour it looked like Liverpool’s title dream would perish because they were out-Klopped. But by the end it seemed their German manager’s grand plan could be coming together at exactly the right time. The way this match unfolded could barely have been more restorative in terms of belief in Liverpool’s ability to be champions. Maligned players provided a powerful tonic. And there could certainly be no jibes about Liverpool’s bottle.

Yet they started like a team stunned to be confronted by opponents who treated them as they like to treat others. Which was a surprise, given that Jürgen Klopp is very familiar with Ralph Hassenhüttl, both having been on the same coaching course many years ago and having preached similar tactics ever since. But for 30 minutes the visitors were rendered ragged by hosts who pressed and thrust far better than them. Outfought as well as outthought, Liverpool were terribly uncomfortable or, to be fair, plain terrible.

One of the strange features of Liverpool’s title pursuit this season has been that it has often felt counter-intuitive, like a team playing while constraining their own instincts. They are not the freewheeling marauders of last season, as Klopp has strived to be more measured, to channel their bursts more precisely. They have been less exposed at the back but, on the downside, less barnstorming going forward. And at times control has been a euphemism for excessive caution. Even when they needed winning goals against Everton and West Ham recently, Klopp could not bring himself to attack with the gusto of last season, almost accepting draws. But against Tottenham Hotspur last week he went for broke and was rewarded with a lucky break in the form of a last-minute winning goal presented by Hugo Lloris. Maybe that helped to convince him to go bold with his team selection here.

In keeping with popular demand, he dispensed with James Milner and Jordan Henderson in midfield and started instead Fabinho and Naby Keïta. This, in theory, would give Liverpool more penetration, make their attacking trident less reliant on full-backs for service. Perhaps the thinking was also that Keïta, a disappointment since his £52.7m arrival last summer, would be inspired by the sight of Hassenhüttl, the manager under whom he thrived at RB Leipzig. Before this match he had completed 90 minutes only three times in the Premier League this season and the early stages here suggested he could expect to be hauled off before the end again, probably to more groans about money unwisely spent. He, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum struggled to match the aggression and track the runs of Southampton’s snappy midfield, particularly Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.

At least Liverpool’s failure was looking collective – there was no individual moment of torment that risked being classed alongside Steven Gerrard’s 2014 slip in the file marked ’title killers’.

But fatalism did not take hold of Liverpool. Instead they gradually got to grips with the game. They took control in midfield and pulled themselves together in defence. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who struggled uncharacteristically from the start, played a decisive role in the equaliser, curling a delicate cross to the back post, where Keïta rose well before sending a downward header into the net. It was his first goal for Liverpool and his reaction spoke of relief more than joy; it was understandable that he indulged that emotion for a moment as most of his teammates hurried back into their half, eager to resume the match and their quest for the title.

Keïta’s performance thereafter suggested the goal had released the potential that has lain curiously dormant since the summer. And soon Henderson helped himself to a similar feeling. Sprung from the bench to help the chase for victory, Henderson took the armband and led the charge. His header after a Southampton corner began the counter-attack to Liverpool’s crucial second goal. Mohamed Salah was determined to score it and banish frustration of his own, ignoring Roberto Firmino to fire into the net an end an eight-game scoreless streak. Then Henderson sealed the win with his first goal of the season, securing a victory, a vindication, that will be remembered as vital if Liverpool go on to end a 29-year title hoodoo. Manchester City must have been left cursing after this.

© 2019 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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