One of the most persistent cliches of sports commentary is the must-win game, but as the 2018/19 Premier League season is winding down, and as Liverpool and Manchester City keep leapfrogging each other weekly in a record-setting race for the title, it is difficult to avoid the phrase.
The Reds’ trip to St Mary’s was another match that Jürgen Klopp’s men could ill afford to drop points in, much less lose, yet after ten minutes of play on the South coast, many fans feared this would be the banana peel that finally saw the Reds slip, down a goal as they were to Shane Long’s opener.
In the end, there was little reason to fret, because...
Liverpool are really, really good at overcoming adversity
With 33 games played, Liverpool have, incredibly, only found themselves in a losing position seven times. That is impressive, but not unreasonable for a side that is as stingy on the defensive end as Klopp’s men have been this season. More impressively, they have earned 16 of a possible 21 points in those seven games, winning five, drawing one, and losing one, the latter against title rivals Manchester City, a match in which the Reds managed to draw level once before ultimately falling to late Leroy Sané goal.
This sort of mental fortitude — for which Liverpool’s players have been given extremely little credit, with bottlers a far more common moniker than comeback kings — could very well end up being a deciding factor in the title race. For comparison, Manchester City have found themselves in a losing position six times in 2018/19, and have earned four points from those matches, winning once, drawing once, and suffering four losses.
The ability to save points from losing positions can be down to a number of factors, but on Monday night, there was mostly just the one. You see...
Klopp’s substitutions turned the game around
Even just looking at the box score, it’s staring you right in the face. In his thirty minutes on the pitch, captain Jordan Henderson contributed a goal and an assist, effectively winning the match for his team. Sure, his assist saw Mohamed Salah carry the ball 50 yards and dink it into the bottom corner with a composed finish belying his 9-game goal drought, but Hendo still pulled out a perfect headed pass to send the Egyptian on his way.
Beyond the end product, though, Henderson contributed what the normally so effective but less energetic Georginio Wijnaldum could not; a burst of zealous dynamism. The captain threw himself into the game with reckless abandon, forcing the opposition into mistakes where Wijnaldum’s more measured approach had seen the Dutchman bypassed on several occasions. Klopp himself pointed out the need for verbal aggression, and his captain’s celebration of the final goal was certainly both those things.
This is not the first time subs have been crucial for the Reds
Squad depth has been a massive issue for Liverpool in the past, with the quality of the starting XI too often far superior to the secondary options, and the dropoff as soon as injuries, suspensions or fatigue hits much too steep.
The Merseysiders certainly don’t have the same number of £50m superstars on their bench as their nearest rivals do, but that doesn’t mean their substitutes don’t make an impact. In fact, 11 of Liverpool’s goals this season have been scored by substitutes, nine in the final ten minutes of a match. Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri may not be quite up to the task of ousting the starting frontline from their perch, but they have certainly made a valuable contribution to the cause this year, with each player coming up with match-winning or point-saving goals.
A word on some long-awaited goal scorers
Naby Keïta and Mohamed Salah were in similar but different situations ahead of tonight’s match; both were chasing a highly demanded goal, but while the Guinean was looking for his first in Red, Salah had been searching for number 50 since early February. As is all too common among football fans, recency bias had begun to sow seeds of doubt about the quality of both players, and thankfully, the cathartic goals will halt its growth for a while.
The goals could not have been more different in their representation of the respective players, however, and while Mohamed Salah racing away on the break before tucking one home is a familiar sight, fans won’t do themselves any favours if they expect Keïta to score another header anytime soon, as tonight’s deflected effort was only the third headed goal of his professional career. The 24-year old’s relief was no less affecting however, and the piggy-back ride he earned from best friend Sadio Mané was well-deserved.
The Reds take a 9-day break from Premier League action now, but before they host Chelsea in yet another must-win clash next Sunday, a visit from Porto in the Champions League quarter final is on the dock.