Returning from the Premier League’s first winter break, the league’s top club by quite some distance visited the league’s bottom club by a lesser but still significant distance. Bets at any fast payout online casino were surely on the away side.
Jurgen Klopp set up his Liverpool team in their usual 4-3-3 formation, making only one change to the side that beat Southampton as Naby Keita came into midfield in place of Fabinho. Daniel Farke went for a 4-2-3-1 for Norwich.
It’s common during matches that aren’t particularly entertaining for the commentators to describe them as fascinating tactical battles. This is often a lie though: a lot of the time one side is simply nullifying the other and as a result there’s not much going on. Liverpool’s visit to Norwich was one of these games.
Liverpool’s initial gameplan appeared to be based around trying to draw a Norwich midfielder up the pitch to make space for one of the attackers to receive the ball in the space left behind him. Generally this was done by having Georginio Wijnaldum drop back alongside Jordan Henderson, while Keita pushed up closer to the forwards, however Roberto Firmino also tried his luck dropping deep to collect the ball. Not wanting to leave Wijnaldum or Firmino in space to receive the ball, Alexander Tettey would follow them into more advanced positions, leaving space behind him for Firmino or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to utilise.
Liverpool rarely managed to exploit this effectively though. Partially it was that they weren’t really moving the ball fast enough to create passing angles into this gap before Tettey would retreat back into position, needing to get back up to speed after their holiday. However it was also partially Norwich simply closing these gaps very quickly, working hard and always ready to get men back to defend. Liverpool were sluggish in trying to break down Norwich and, whenever they did look like mounting an attack, Norwich had nine men back to snuff it out.
Norwich weren’t solely a defensive outfit though, it was simply their main priority due to the gulf between the two teams. They largely did the same as most of Liverpool’s opponents in attack, trying to catch out Liverpool’s offside trap with long balls over the top, but they would pass amongst the defenders first to work a bit of space or draw Liverpool up into pressing, while also allowing the attacking midfielders to push up in support of Teemu Pukki so the Finn wasn’t completely outnumbered by Liverpool’s backline. One of these long balls in behind gave them the best chance of the first half.
With Plan A offering little, Liverpool made small adjustments to try to break the deadlock. They mostly did away with trying to pull Tettey out of position and instead had Keita dropping deep to pick up the ball and dribble forward with it. A combination between three Liverpool players on the left flank at the end of the first half gave Andy Robertson the chance to flash a low cross across the face of goal, so Liverpool were more frequently looking to get him into those same positions, although Norwich did a good job of blocking most of his crosses.
They were also pressing with greater intensity, making it harder for Norwich to pass between their defenders and catch their breath. Liverpool even managed to win the ball back in Norwich’s half several times, but Norwich would rush back into a defensive shape so quickly that Liverpool didn’t have the time to take advantage.
If Liverpool were going to get anything, it looked like it would come from a moment of individual magic. Although he was having to run into heavy traffic, Keita’s dribbling seemed to be getting Norwich on the back foot, while Mohamed Salah and Firmino turned on a sixpence to scare defenders without quite managing enough to put the ball in the net.
It was left to substitute Sadio Mane to rescue the Reds with his 100th goal in English football. Henderson lofted a long ball over the top and Mane gave a gentle shove to Christoph Zimmermann to ensure the German didn’t meet the flight of the ball. Running a little ahead of the pass, he ended up trapping it with his back to goal, requiring Max Aarons to turn if he was to have any hope of stopping Mane. The right-back dived to block the shot but Mane had already span and rifled it in at the near post.
It was a poor performance by Liverpool and a pretty miserable game to watch, however the fact that Norwich are rooted to the bottom of the table yet have managed to give this dominant Liverpool side two tough games is testament to the strength of the Premier League this season. Liverpool may have racked up an incredible points total, but they have rarely blew teams out of the water, and while the Big Six might be having an off-year, the likes of Leicester City, Sheffield United and Wolverhampton Wanderers have had excellent seasons.
When you compare this season to 2012-13 for example, you could make a case then for the entire lower half of the table deserving to get relegated, whereas now even those propping up the table are good value.
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