Liverpool travelled to Watford on the opening weekend of the 2017/18 season, and found that the home team were prepared for them. It was never going to be their day, was it? Not after what happened on Friday.
Jurgen Klopp, unable to count on several of his favourite options, chose the following setup:
Marco Silva, taking charge of his first competitive game at Watford, decided to arrange his team thus:
That Liverpool were going to put in a lacklustre performance became rather obvious very quickly. They started on the front foot, dominating possession and pushing their hosts deeper, but just five minutes in Sadio Mane lost the ball to Daryl Janmaat in a very dangerous position. Although nothing came of it, that moment seemed to have given some strong drive to the Hornets, and just two minutes later they threatened again. Pereyra broke through and charged towards the box, and his shot was blocked and went out for a corner.
Holebas swung it in to the edge of six yards, Matip got caught between two Watford players while Firmino failed to track the run of Okaka. Mignolet beaten.
With a quarter of an hour gone, Janmaat went down and stayed down for a while, apparently needing treatment, and even though it initially looked as if Watford right back had already started wasting time, three minutes later he was substituted by Kiko Femenia.
This was a period of the half when Liverpool started forcing themselves to lift their play, and again took control of the proceedings. Emre Can at this point started pressing higher up the pitch obviously trying to emulate the influence of the missing Adam Lallana, and he was rather good at it. Both Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren on the other hand dealt with a lot defensively, but their passes were often wayward. Watford’s Britos seemed to be trying to return that favour by badly misplacing several passes of his own.
Liverpool’s attack however looked unusually lame, and the lack of a game-controlling attacking midfielder was just becoming painfully clear when it suddenly sprang alive in the 29th minute.
Mane laid the ball off for Moreno who was coming in from the left, passed it to Can on the edge of the box and the German’s clever little flick found the continued run of Mane. The Senegalese took a marvellous first touch to set himself up and effortlessly put it past Heurelho Gomes into the net.
For the next minute or two it looked like the whole Liverpool team would liven up and grab the game by the throat, but then a lamely conceded throw-in from Moreno and Can enabled Watford to catch their defence off guard, and Cleverley sent the ball in from the right across the box, Trent Alexander-Arnold failed to deal with it and it fell for Doucoure for an easy tap-in. The clock was showing 32 minutes.
There are obviously still a few problems even the presence of a fully fit and loyal Philippe Coutinho wouldn’t have solved.
The Reds again responded quickly though, but Gomes was also quick to get off his line and thwart Mane’s through-ball for Mohamed Salah.
In his eagerness to swing the game back Liverpool’s way, Mane earned a booking for a late challenge.
And then, 38 minutes in, a beautiful chance was created when Firmino got the ball off Alexander-Arnold and threaded it through for Salah, but the Egyptian’s toe-poke went over the bar. In the dying minutes of the period, a corner from Firmino found Mane but his skilful header went just wide.
That was it for the first half, with the general impression that Watford had deserved their lead, fulfilling their manager’s instructions to the letter, defending in numbers and charging forward also in numbers when required. They certainly looked happier going into the dressing-room. Liverpool on the other hand overall seemed rather dejected.
But in the second half, Watford got over-confident apparently, or Liverpool simply turned their play up just a notch. Whatever it is, the Reds were suddenly the better team.
Three minutes in, another injury forced Silva to use up his second substitution, and Pereyra limped off the pitch to be replaced by the newcomer Richarlison.
In the 52nd minute, Moreno, with a bit of luck on his side, set up Mane for a cross from the left, and even though Firmino and Salah charged in to capitalize, the ball disappointingly went over them and out for a goal-kick.
But just two minutes later, Firmino and Salah took matter into their own hands and set the score level. The Brazilian employed the Egyptian beautifully, Gomes again came out, but this time he was too late and with his arms swept the feet under Salah. The referee took a second and then blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. Firmino was the executioner.
As mentioned before, Lovren’s passing seemed rather poor in the first half, but two minutes after Firmino’s penalty the Croatian centre-back produced a fabulous long ball over Watford’s defensive line. Firmino was the player looking for it, and it got him through on goal. Gomes came out, Firmino sent a lob over him, and just as it was going to end up slightly wide of the mark, Salah made use of his speed and tapped it in.
For a relatively short period that followed, we were again seeing the same devastating Liverpool that put six past Watford last season at Anfield.
In quick succession, Trent set up Salah for another chance, Moreno produced a blast to the near top corner that Gomes barely managed to tip over and Matip’s header hit the bar from the resulting corner.
Just after an hour’s play, Silva made his final substitution and decided on the pace of Andre Gray over the strength of Okaka.
73 minutes in, a communication breakdown between Lovren and Mignolet reminded everybody that the game was not decided yet, even though Liverpool goalkeeper eventually dealt with it.
Still, a little later Mane engaged Salah again but Salah’s shot went wide again.
10 minutes from time, Klopp made his first substitution by withdrawing Firmino and introducing Divock Origi.
Salah then found himself in a goalscoring opportunity again, courtesy of a pass from Emre Can, but Gomes was the winner of that race. Right after that, Gini Wijnaldum had the best chance to put the game to bed, but trying to hit Mane’s cross from the left first time, he had a miskick and it went considerably wide. He was unmarked, unblocked, centre of the goal, about 13-14 yards out.
Then Salah went off and James Milner came on, followed by Mignolet getting booked for time-wasting. And as much as a goalkeeper getting booked for the cause three minutes from time rarely has consequences, the fact that Liverpool resorted to that piece of tactics against Watford seems alarming in itself.
Just as the 90th minute ran out and the fourth official signalled there would be five additional minutes, Klopp sent Joe Gomez in instead of Trent, probably with the idea of improving the team’s aerial ability towards the end.
But just as such a change failed to make desired impact last season at home against Bournemouth, so it failed again.
Three minutes of added time were gone, when a corner was swung in from the right by Holebas again. It was relatively low, directed to the near post. Wijnaldum tried to clear with a header from five yards out, but he hit Richarlison at very close range. Watford’s new winger took a shot straight away, Mignolet stretched his arm out and parried it upwards, it fell on the goal-line itself from where it was impossible for Britos’ header to miss.
This game was very far from what we had been hoping to see in the Premier League season opener, but with the events of the previous day taken into consideration, blaming anybody seems harsh. Let’s not dwell too much on this game but hold our heads up high, and walk on. Walk on, to Hoffenheim, and to the Champions League.