Quietly, Liverpool might be happy that the post-match conversation around their win over Crystal Palace on Sunday was dominated by yet more VAR controversy. After the 3-1 win at Selhurst Park, the Sky Sports pundits discussed the decision to award the visitors a penalty for Vincente Guiata’s challenge on Diogo Jota, while social media was alight with incredulity.
The reaction was very much deserved. Kevin Friend’s decision to change his original correct take of the incident and allow Fabinho the chance to kill the game was poor.
As we know, once a referee has been referred to the pitchside monitor by VAR, a spot-kick or a red card is usually on its way.
The system needs changing and Palace and their supporters have every right to be angry: the decision effectively ended the game, just as a grandstand finish was in the offing.
But a day later, with the benefit of some time to reflect, the element of the match which has the potential to be more consequential for Liverpool has flown under the radar.
Liverpool’s defensive frailties were there for all to see at Selhurst Park and they were fortunate not to be punished.
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Virgil van Dijk opened the scoring for Liverpool with a free header from a corner, yet his work at the other end of the pitch is coming under increasing scrutiny.
The Dutchman has not performed as consistently as Liverpool have previously come to expect, while his first-choice centre-back partner Joel Matip is similarly patchy.
To cover for these minor problems, Liverpool need to maintain strong pressure on the opponents’ midfield when they have the ball, as this prevents dangerous vertical passes in the middle of the pitch.
That didn’t happen on Sunday and they nearly paid the price, with Palace fashioning some very presentable chances.
Michael Olise forced a good save from Alisson after a sloppy square pass from Matip before the Brazilian was called into action again to stop Odsonne Edouard’s back-heel from Jeffrey Schlupp’s knock-down in the six-yard box.
Matip’s casual style of defending did eventually prove costly as his weak header and Van Dijk’s lack of awareness allowed Schlupp to play Jean-Philippe Mateta clean through to set up a tap-in for Edouard.
The issue of the high defensive line being exploited is not a new one. Indeed former Liverpool player turned pundit Jamie Carragher was critical of it after the damaging 3-2 defeat – their first of the season – by West Ham in November.
“That is something Liverpool have done for a while and, me being in that position, I can’t quite get my head around it,” he said on Sky Sports.
“Liverpool do it an awful lot and the opposition will run through at the goalkeeper at least once a game.”
Carragher emphasised the same point after the 2-2 draw against Chelsea on January 2, in which Christian Pulisic got in behind the high line to score.
“The line is still the same but they’re not getting that pressure in midfield on the ball, but if you’re not getting that pressure you’ve got to drop at times,” Carragher said.
“It’s not, ‘we can’t play high,’ but there are certain situations where Liverpool’s back four have to go back five yards.”
Carragher is right. Liverpool are not the well-oiled machine they once were.
If they are to do the near-impossible and close the nine-point gap to Manchester City then Klopp needs to address his ongoing tactical weakness.