Liverpool 2 Wijnaldum 45+1’, Can 61’
Burnley 1 Barnes 7’
Last weekend, Liverpool marched to a 3-1 victory over Arsenal, putting in the kind of energetic and relentless performance that they had struggled to consistently produce in 2017. There were more than a few who quipped, in the aftermath of that match, that the true test of whether Liverpool had turned a corner in 2017 would come the following week, against Burnley. There was more than a little bit of truth to those jests: as everyone knows by now, the 2016-17 Liverpool squad have handled their peers with confidence but stumbled against the bottom half of the table.
Sean Dyche’s Burnley were, entering this match, just barely in the bottom half, and they did notably deal a setback to Liverpool in beating Jürgen Klopp’s men by two goals back in August of last year. That said, Burnley have been dire away from Turf Moor, and if Liverpool are to secure a Champions League spot for the following season, they will have to prove that they can handle sides that prioritize maximizing frustration over maximizing attractive football.
Against Burnley, Liverpool would also have to do it without Jordan Henderson or Roberto Firmino. Both players have been key fixtures for Liverpool during this campaign, and their absences have been accompanied by a worrying vagueness about what exactly is ailing them. In their place, Liverpool would start Emre Can and Divock Origi respectively. Neither player has made significant strides in development this year, and this could be a chance to make an impression in the last few weeks of the season.
From the first whistle, Burnley showed they were here to tear up the script, matching Liverpool in enterprise and aggression during the match’s early phases. Perhaps the hosts were surprised. Just seven minutes into the match, Matthew Lowton took advantage of an out-of-position Emre Can to find Ashley Barnes with a perfectly measured diagonal ball that eluded all the racing Liverpool defenders. Barnes did well to steer the ball past Mignolet, and Burnley had an early lead.
Instead of retreating into a shell to protect their advantage, Sean Dyche’s side continued to surprise Liverpool by committing players forward in support of Barnes and Gray, both of whom making nuisances of themselves at every opportunity. Decidedly on the back foot, Klopp’s starters tried but failed to exert consistent pressure on Heaton’s goal. Origi, Lallana, and Coutinho somehow contrived to remain largely anonymous even though they were involved in many of Liverpool’f forays forward.
Offensively, Sadio Mané was a solitary bright spot for Liverpool in the first half, putting his pace to good use and creating some of the few nervy moments for Burnley’s defenders in the first half. But it was always going to be an uphill battle while his teammates urgently tried to rediscover their passing ability. Few Liverpool players struggled more with this in the early phases than Emre Can, who seemed to have more luck finding Burnley players than his teammates.
Somehow, against the odds, Liverpool were level. Coutinho made some space for himself before laying the ball off to Origi, who launched it hopefully towards Wijnaldum in the box. The Dutch midfielder’s backheel didn’t quite come off, but in the ensuing confusion, the caroming ball sat nicely for him, and Wijnaldum showed great composure from close range to level the score at one apiece.
That bit of good fortune - for fortunate it almost certainly was - might have been enough to plant a seed of doubt in Burnley while simultaneously injecting Liverpool with some temporary confidence. Both sides came out swinging after the restart, without necessarily showing a great deal of guile or artfulness in doing so.
Just after the one hour mark, it was Emre Can who broke the deadlock of all people. Receiving the ball from the left and finding himself with a glimmer of space, Can unleashed a shot towards the bottom corner of Heaton’s goal. It was perfectly placed, not something you could say about much of Can’s play on the day, but that’s football for you. Liverpool now had a slender lead to protect.
Burnley, to their credit, stuck to their gameplan and might have come away with something from this match were it not for some resolute defending from Joël Matip and decisive play from Mignolet in goal. After going behind, Burnley continued to test Liverpool’s rearguard with balls over the top, looking for a fortuitous knockdown and a lapse in concentration from the home side. More than once, Mignolet was called upon to punch clear in a crowd, and he did so authoritatively, at great risk to his own health.
There were chances for Liverpool on the break, but the Reds’ ability to string passes effectively let them down, allowing Burnley’s defenders to defuse the danger. Sensing the need for something different, Klopp brought on young Ben Woodburn for a disappointing Coutinho in the 60th minute. When Burnley continued to threaten, Lucas Leiva was called into action in place of a willing, but far from impressive, Origi.
Woodburn, to the excitement of supporters everywhere, once again provided some evidence that he belongs at this level, providing a dangerous outlet on the left as well as doing the dirty work when Burnley were on the ball. There was a brief moment where the youngster lost his man in the Liverpool penalty area, which led to an excellent opportunity for Lowton to score what would have been a heartbreaking equalizer in stoppage time, but thankfully for the home crowd, the Burnley man fluffed his lines.
Aside from the very precious three points and Woodburn’s continued development, the most heartening aspect of the match might have been the solid play of Matip and Wijnaldum. Without being perfect, both made important contributions to the match, and allowed a team that was clearly not firing on all cylinders to just about outplay a determined opponent. The big question, of course, is whether just good enough will be good enough heading into the final stretch of the season, and with big matches against Manchester City and Everton looming. Liverpool’s top four hopes will hang in the balance.