It was supposed to be an easy victory for Liverpool tonight. The Reds had not lost at Anfield in more than a season and they had not conceded even a single goal at home since February. As the game ended tonight, both those streaks remained unbroken, but just barely. Brighton and Hove Albion, fresh from the win against Manchester United, gave the Reds a great fight and in the end, it was only a single defensive error and a beautiful finish that separated the two teams.
Liverpool came into the match knowing that their primary rivals for the title, Manchester City had dropped two points by drawing against Wolves at the Molineux. They knew that a win at home tonight would take them to the top of the table. They did achieve that win and, in the process, kept a clean sheet as well but there were several moments in the game when Reds fans must have had their hearts in their mouths. Their star keeper goofing up in trying to outsmart a Brighton forward and then making a great save to deny the Seagulls a goal of their own were just two of those. Liverpool boss, Jurgen Klopp had said in the pre-match conference that Brighton were to be feared. His players seemed to have taken that warning to heart, especially towards the end of the game, going by their nervousness in defence.
Brighton came to Anfield with the confidence of a team that had just beaten Manchester United. It quickly became apparent that this game would be much different than the thrashing that Liverpool had handed out to the Seagulls in May. Brighton organised themselves into a tight defence around their goal and focused solely on making sure that Liverpool’s fabled attackers did not have enough room to attack. While it was a defensive error that gave Liverpool their sole goal, it was also the only error that Brighton’s defenders made. Of course, Liverpool had some great chances – such as Trent’s free kick that bounced off the crossbar or when Robertson’s brilliant cross was headed goalwards by Firmino. But, most of those chances were met blocked and intercepted by a Brighton player. Then, when the Reds started to tire, Brighton threw in more forwards and attacked with purpose, leading to the aforementioned period of nervousness for Liverpool. Chris Hughton had organised his team to keep the Reds out and he almost succeeded.
A total of 22 attempts and 16 of them from within the Brighton box may make it look like Liverpool were extremely rampant. But the truth is that, while the Reds attempted to score a goal every 4.3 minutes, Brighton blocked more than a third of those attempts. Indeed, Liverpool’s non-shot xG from this game is 2.4, which means that the Reds’ play around Brighton’s penalty area indicates that they should have scored 2.4 goals, but their shot-based xG was 1.9. Liverpool seemed to dominate Brighton’s defensive third with 289 touches and 135 attempted passes (75% accuracy).
Brighton had far fewer touches (89) and attempted passes (38) in Liverpool’s defensive third but that seemed like a part of a plan in Hughton’s mind. Till the dying minutes of the game, Brighton seemed content to block out Liverpool. But, those last few minutes increased Brighton’s xG from 0.14 to 0.51, primarily thanks to Pascal Groß’s header, which Alisson blocked. A total of 6 chances and 2 on target does not tell the story about how close Brighton were to making sure they went home with at least a point from Anfield, something they have not done in ages.
When Liverpool started the game, it had been a bit more than 9 hours 30 minutes since they had conceded a goal at Anfield. After the game, that stands at a bit more than 11 hours. The primary reason for that is Alisson’s form in between the sticks. Like he did on Monday, he made a fine save and also played a key role in distribution. Both Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk had a good game as they ended many Brighton counter attacks before they even started. Joe Gomez especially was key in winning aerial duels from Brighton’s long balls, as well as in interrupting Brighton’s attacking play in the final third through crosses, blocks and interceptions. Trent and Robertson were more attack focused in this game, so much so that in the last few minutes, they combined in Brighton’s box to create a goal scoring opportunity.
For Brighton, the name of the game was going to be defence and it showed. Even though they conceded 22 shots to Liverpool, only 7 of them were on target. Like on Monday night’s performance from Sakho, the Seagulls’ defence faltered for only one moment and Salah punished them with a first-touch shot. But after that throughout the rest of the game, Brighton made sure that none of Liverpool’s attackers got an easy chance at goal. Matt Ryan saved 6 shots from inside his box. It was a great defensive performance and it showed in how Sadio Mane, Firmino and even Salah were largely kept quiet.
It was again a game where Liverpool’s attacking riches overcame a brave defensive performance. Liverpool, perhaps need to think of more ways to unlock tight, disciplined defences that focus on blocking everything out. Some of their players, primarily Mane and Keita had off games today but the defenders were top-notch again. In the midfield, Milner and Wijnaldum also had good outings. For me, the man of the match was Alisson, with his save off Pascal Groß.
Brighton can go home with pride at the scoreline, if not the result. They will, in fact, be disappointed to not be taking anything from the game. As the commentators kept saying throughout the game, this is a very different Brighton than last season and it showed. If they continue on this path, they will stretch their Premier League tenure by a season or two.