Liverpool – Sheffield United saw the defending Premier League champions come back from a goal down and win 2-1 at Anfield, moving level on points with leaders Everton in the process, on Saturday.
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Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota powered the comeback with goals either side of halftime, as the Reds continue to adjust to life without superstar center back Virgil van Dijk.
3 things we learned: Liverpool – Sheffield United
1. Liverpool taking fewer chances without Van Dijk: It was inevitable that Liverpool would have to change the way they play while Van Dijk is unavailable. There might not be a center back in the world who could step into Liverpool’s backline and perform as he does. Jurgen Klopp knows this, which is why on Saturday the Reds 1) switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation, and more importantly, 2) dropped everything — the backline, the line of confrontation and the full backs’ average position (roughly split 50-50 on either side of the halfway line) — by five or 10 yards. Without Van Dijk there to make heroic tackles while sprinting back to his own goal, Liverpool are now focused on keeping everything in front of them defensively, which should result in a brief adjustment period for their brilliant attacking unit.
2. Chances harder to come by without Van Dijk: This is the knock-on effect of sitting deeper defensively and taking fewer chances out of possession: Liverpool won’t win the ball nearly as high up the field, not nearly as often at least, which means they’ll face recovered and properly positioned defenses far more than they’re used to seeing. A team like Sheffield United — highly disciplined and risk-averse — is much more difficult to break down when Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino aren’t running at defenders one-on-one with 40 yards of open field ahead of them. To their credit, Liverpool appear to have adjusted accordingly and found their way through just enough on Saturday.
3. Blades simply not creating enough chances: Coming into the weekend, Sheffield United were fourth from bottom in terms of expected goals scored (xG). While they have shored up their defensive stability in recent games, Chris Wilder’s side is hurting for scoring chances. Outside of their early penalty kick, the Blades created very little other than hopeful shots from outside the box. It’s shaping up to be a long season if this trend continues.
Trent Alexander-Arnold nearly opened the scoring in under 180 seconds, and would have done so in truly spectacular fashion if not for Aaron Ramsdale making the last-second intervention. Alexander-Arnold took a free kick a yard inside his own half of the field and went for goal after spotting Ramsdale well out of goal. The ball was dropping under the crossbar, but Ramsdale pushed it over just before it crossed the goal line.
The opening goal came six minutes later as a result of another highly controversial penalty. Fabinho, who appears set to deputize at center back with Van Dijk out injured, was singled out for the slightest of touches against Oliver McBurnie atop the penalty area. Video review resulted in a penalty to Sheffield United, which Sander Berge tucked home for 1-0.
Sheffield United nearly kept their lead intact until the halftime interval, but Firmino tapped in a rebound in the 41st minute to make it 1-1 and turn the game upside down. Sadio Mane’s header was initially saved by Ramsdale, but he couldn’t hold the ball and spilled it for Firmino to clean up the mess.
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Speaking of controversial video review decision, Mohamed Salah had Liverpool’s goal for 2-1 taken away for another inch-by-inch offside decision. The Egyptian was perhaps three inches offside, rather than the standard one, when a brilliant ball was played to set up his even more brilliant finish.
Resilient as any defending champion should be, Liverpool were undeterred and found the back of the net again barely 90 seconds later, this time through Jota. Mane floated a delightful cross to the back post and the Portuguese rose above to head it past Ramsdale and make it 2-1.
Salah went inches from putting the game to bed in the 81st minute, as he raced past a pair of defenders and lifted the ball over the all-at-sea Ramsdale. Two inches to the left, and it would have been 3-1. Instead, the ball smashed the front of the post and ricocheted into the hands of Ramsdale, who knew nothing about the rebound.