Liverpool and Cardiff City like to play high scoring games. The past three games between these two sides had yielded more than four goals per game. Moreover, newly promoted Cardiff were travelling to the fortress of Anfield and Liverpool had just dispatched Red Star Belgrade 4-0 in the midweek game in Champions League. So, it was expected that the result of today’s game would be a high-scoring Liverpool win. That is what it turned out to be. The only wrinkle in the narrative is that the scoreline (4-1) flatters the hosts quite a bit. This was not the typically dominant display from Liverpool that fans have come to expect since last season. Liverpool were stuttering and faltering but still managed to cruise past (in the end) Cardiff City.
The way Liverpool came out of the blocks at the start of the game, it seemed like they will repeat one of those six, seven or eight goal performances from last season. Indeed, right from the start, the Reds were encamped outside Cardiff’s box. It was a flurry of shots that resulted in the first goal as Salah ghosted away to the left and then blasted away Wijnaldum’s blocked shot. After that, the Reds struggled to find the final touch, the key pass till Sadio Mane drove his foot through the ball in frustration in the 66th minute and scored. Liverpool were still unfocused and error-prone and were punished by Paterson in the 76th minute. It was as if the shock of conceding a goal at Anfield after more than 15 hours of Premier League football spurred the home side. In those last 14 minutes, the Reds attacked with purpose and verve, scoring two wonderful goals. It was not a coincidence that Xherdan Shaqiri was on the field when Liverpool scored their last three goals. His brilliant cameo of the bench culminated in a calmly taken goal in the 83rd minute. Mohamed Salah, on paper, had a brilliant game, with one scored and two goals created. However, it was clear that he is still not in the form he has shown last season. But, without that form, he has scored 5 and assisted three goals in 10 appearances. Ditto for the other Reds winger – Sadio Mane. Mane scored a brace but overall did not have an impressive game. His performance in the last few games also has not been to the standards he has set in the past. But still, he has scored 6 in 9 appearances in the league. Jurgen Klopp will be happy with the win today, though he might want a better performance against Arsenal next week. For now, the German and all the Reds fans can relish the fact that Liverpool are top of the league till Monday night when Manchester City take on Tottenham.
Cardiff City’s manager Neil Warnock had nipped any fight his team might have had in the bud by declaring that it was virtually impossible to beat Liverpool at Anfield. Perhaps that is why when Liverpool’s performance was less than impressive during the period between the middle of the first half to the middle of the second half, the Bluebirds could not capitalise. Just two shots in the entire game and only one from inside Liverpool’s box tell the story of a side afraid to attack. As expected Neil Warnock had sent out his side to defend and only defend. But, their only shot from within the box showed them the value of attacking as it was the first goal the Reds had conceded in a long time at home. But Cardiff should not be too discouraged by today’s result – their position in the table does not change as both Fulham and Huddersfield lost, while Newcastle drew. They have played all the Big Six other than Manchester United and have also already played the in-form Bournemouth. That means their fixture list up to Christmas might be more relaxed and give them more opportunities to progress up the table.
It is rare for Liverpool that their non-shot xG is lower than the total number of goals scored. In this game, their non-shot xG was 2.8, but they scored four. This has happened only in the game with Southampton so far this season. What that indicates is that Liverpool are generally more attacking around the opponent’s box but are mostly stifled in the final pass or shot. But today they did not show enough adequate attacking intent and their chances were mostly lucky or resulted from direct passes into the box. Even their shots were not the best quality – their xG is estimated to be between 2.3 to 3.4, indicating that they were lucky in converting some of their low-probability chances as well.
Cardiff City on the other hand just did not create enough chances. Their goal came more from Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren’s mistakes than their own efforts. Their xG was between 0.64 and 1.1 and that is primarily because the xG for Callum Paterson’s goal was almost 0.6. The most damning stat for Cardiff, however, was that they took 47 minutes per shot today. Liverpool, by contrast, were taking a shot every 4.9 minutes.
While rotating some of the Reds regular players is important, a game like today’s is ample proof of why and how Lovren and Moreno reduce the Reds’ defensive solidity. Even such a goal-shy side such as Cardiff were gifted a goal as Moreno’s ill-timed press on the wing opened up space for a pass and Lovren was too easy to shake off for Patterson.
Cardiff had more defensive work to do out of both the teams today and arguably, for most of the game, they did it pretty well. They allowed only six shots on target out of a total of 19 and restricted the xGC (expected goals conceded) at 2.4. They did have nine defensive errors though, one of which resulted in a goal. A similar defensive performance against a less gifted team could salvage a point or three for them.
Everyone, including Neil Warnock, expected this game to end in a Liverpool victory and it has ended that way. Warnock can, however, take heart from the fact that Callum Patterson’s goal is the first any of his sides have scored at Anfield. Warnock’s side have done most of the hard yards from the first half of the season and should now focus on moving up the table.
For Liverpool, while the scoreline is adequate, the method of the victory is not as fulfilling as the midweek win in the Champions League. This game had many moments where a braver and more gifted opponent would have challenged them more closely. One such opponent awaits next weekend as Liverpool take on Arsenal at the Emirates in game week 11. A win there would reinforce the Reds’ title credentials.