January has been a terrible month for Liverpool in the recent seasons and with two losses in last two games, one to Manchester City in the league and then to Wolves in the FA Cup, it seemed that the Reds were just following the annual pattern. However, Jurgen Klopp’s rested but depleted team managed to hold on to a narrow 1-0 win at Brighton today, stretching their lead over Manchester City back to seven points, at least for two days.
Chris Hughton’s tactics today were focused on denying any celebrations to Klopp this time around, lest he forget to shake his hand once again. His side were smart in defence, making sure Liverpool, even in their 4-2-3-1 formation were blunted at the top. In the first half Shaqiri and Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s two most attacking players today, could not find room to run behind the defence and did not manage a lot of touches in Brighton’s penalty area. These tactics ensure that, when the first half ended, it was goal-less and more importantly, it was not completely dominated by Liverpool. During the half-time, some Reds fans might even have been worried if their team could lose today. However, the second half brought out more intent from Liverpool’s attack and when Brighton’s defensive discipline wavered for a brief minute or two the Reds pounced. Pascal Gross lost his patience for a brief moment and tackled Salah, who obliged by going down and earning a penalty. While the Seagulls did allow more room for Liverpool to attack after the goal, the Reds’ profligacy in front of goal, as well as better defending from Brighton made sure that Liverpool did not pile up too many goals.
Going into this game Liverpool were less worried about piling up goals, but were more hassled by their defensive lineup, or the lack of it. With both Joel Matip and Joe Gomez injured, Klopp expectedly asked Fabinho to partner Virgil van Djik in central defence. The midfielder put in a great performance, full of critical blocks and interceptions. After Liverpool had scored, Fabinho put in a crucial block to stop a good shot from Gross, which was possibly bound for the goal. His frequent interceptions and confidence on the ball also helped Liverpool to move the ball out in a more controlled manner. The other hero for Liverpool was Mohamed Salah, who in the 50th minute, held on to the ball in a crowded Brighton box and instead of hitting a speculative, low-xG shot, invited the tackle from Gross and then converted the penalty with ease. His finishing for a couple of chances after that penalty was not as clinical, however. Overall, Liverpool did play more cautiously than their usual style – they pressed with caution and the midfield focused on keeping the ball and protecting the defence, which given their recent results, as well as the squad difficulties, was an expected tactic.
Because Liverpool were not their usual dominant self, Brighton’s attacks seemed more potent than they eventually turned out to be. Brighton’s xG range was 0.4 to 0.54, but while watching the game, it felt that their xG would be a bit closer to Liverpool’s. Brighton took a total of 7 shot attempts, five from within Liverpool’s box, but none of them were a big chance. Their expected assists of 0.35 also reflect an overall ineffective attacking performance.
On the other hand, Liverpool made only 10 attempts at goal, 8 of them from within the Brighton box and three of those were big chances. Their xG range of 2.22 to 2.5, which when compared to the eventual scoreline reflects Liverpool’s profligacy in front of goal more than anything. The attacks were pretty well supported as well, which is reflected in the xA of 1.41 to 1.46.
Brighton’s defending was disciplined and focused on blunting Liverpool’s strengths. This was one of the reasons for Liverpool not being able to break it down in the first half. The Seagulls put in a total of 30 CBI (Clearances Blocks Interceptions) and Lewis Dunk put in 9 of those. Brighton did show a little bit of frailty in defensive discipline in the 50th minute, which led to Gross losing patience and tackling Salah in the box. But other than that one instance, Brighton’s defenders did a good job of keeping Liverpool at bay, although the Red cautious approach helped them too.
Defence was possibly the biggest weak point for the Liverpool side today, but the Reds’ makeshift defence easily overcame whatever Brighton threw at them. Liverpool put in a total of 22 CBI, of which 8 were made by Fabinhho. Liverpool’s defenders did a good job of ensuring that Brighton do not get any high-quality chances. The result was the 13th clean sheet in the league campaign for Liverpool and Alisson.
After allowing Manchester City back into the title race by losing at Etihad, it was imperative for Liverpool to win today. In fact, most of its remaining 16 league games will be treated as must-win for them. From that perspective, Liverpool fans can be happy that their side hung on to the 1-0 win despite not being their fluent best in attack. This win again extends Liverpool’s lead over City in the title race to 7 points, at least till City play Wolves on Monday night.
Brighton have fared well in this league campaign, leaving the worries of a relegation battle far behind and troubling the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United at home. They almost added Liverpool’s name to the list today.