It is the first minute of injury time. As Hoffenheim’s Nadiem Amiri prepares to take a free kick, Benjamin Hubner is at the far side of the area, tussling with Emre Can. But by the time Amiri’s cross floats into the area, Hubner has gone. He has slipped away, moving up to slot into the space between Dominic Solanke and Joel Matip. He rises into the night air and powers his free header … straight over the bar. On such moments rest entire campaigns.
Liverpool had much to be proud of in their Champions League playoff first leg on Tuesday night. The performance of Trent Alexander-Arnold was exceptional, capped off with a world-class goal. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were like two wolves on the hunt, tormenting their opponents all night. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet showed once again that competition for places seems to have a profound effect on his abilities. And, of course, they won 2-1. But the same old problems still lurk under the surface and there’s no quick fix.
One of the highlights of the TV coverage of opening week of the Premier League in the UK was a heated exchange between former Liverpool teammates Jamie Redknapp and Jamie Carragher. Redknapp opined that Liverpool’s issues could be solved simply with the acquisition of Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk, on the basis that he is a better defender than anyone currently on the payroll.
This is certainly true. While van Dijk’s powers may have been slightly overstated by a fan base desperate for improvement at the back, his steady, mostly indomitable, performances for Southampton indicate that he’s an upgrade at the very least. However, it fell to Carragher to point out that, as good as van Dijk is, he can only be in one position at any one time. Liverpool’s problems at set pieces have been caused by the other players failing to take responsibility, most notably when Roberto Firmino went into standby mode in the 3-3 draw against Watford. And Carragher is right.
There are some defenders whose core strengths tended to only be seen when watched in the flesh. John Terry could be flummoxed by a quick turn, Ledley King’s knees were an abstract concept, even Carragher himself could be ungainly, but all three of them radiated competence to their teammates.
They could communicate and cajole, they could organise their back line. When other players switched off in the late stages of games, Terry could always been seen, arms outstretched, ushering his defenders back into shape. Carragher was rather less subtle if he felt his colleagues were slacking, aiming volleys of abuse at them from close range. King simply exuded class, empowering his team by virtue of his presence alone. Liverpool have no-one like that.
Under Jurgen Klopp, they are always primed for the counterattack. They are capable of moving the ball at devastating speed. The manager is happy to put his faith in youngsters and to support players through difficult times. Others would have dispensed with Mignolet and Alberto Moreno, but Klopp has publicly defended them and welcomed them back into the fold.
Never underestimate the positive effect that style of management can have on the dressing room. Players are far more likely to act on their own initiative, crucial to that sort of football, if they know they won’t be crucified for errors. But as Klopp’s two year anniversary at the helm of the club looms, Liverpool still can’t be trusted at the back.
“I would have taken any win before the game — even 8-7,” said Klopp after full-time, but it’s not an entirely unrealistic scenario. Liverpool are as dangerous as any team in the Premier League. Mane has started this season like he’s making up for the frustrations of the last one and Salah has settled in so quickly it seems that he has been there for years.
But Liverpool remain a side that can beat anyone on their day, and yet lose to anyone on their day as well. They won’t win the title like that.
Klopp still has plenty of credit in the bank. Two cup finals and a top-four finish is a decent return, especially in a developing era of six, or perhaps seven, title contenders every year. But it won’t be long before impatience starts to spread.
Liverpool return to England with two away goals and a clear advantage in the second leg. But they will know, deep down, that having led 2-0 in the 87th minute, they could easily have thrown it all away before the end.
Van Dijk, if he arrives, will be an improvement, but he isn’t the magic fix-all solution. You defend set pieces as a team. And as a team, Liverpool have to get better.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.