Three things learned: Saints v. Liverpool (video)

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SOUTHAMPTON — It wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty as Liverpool surged to a late 3-1 win at Southampton to go back to the top of the Premier League.

[ MORE: “World class” Liverpool led by Salah

Saints took a shock lead through Shane Long, but an equalizer from Naby Keita was followed by late goals from Mohamed Salah and Jordan Henderson to send Liverpool two points clear of Manchester City with the latter having a game in hand. The title race will go down to the wire.

Here’s what we learned from a gripping clash at St Mary’s, as the win was far from routine for Liverpool.


SALAH KEEPS TITLE BID ON TRACK

For most of the evening, Mohamed Salah’s performance summed up Liverpool’s display. He huffed and puffed, but there just wasn’t an end product. Until he won the game. 10 minutes from time Salah burst free after Saints had a corner, ran almost 50 yards with the ball and clipped home a delightful finish for his first goal in nine games for Liverpool. He loves playing against Southampton, and has now scored in all four of his PL appearances against Saints with five goals in total.

His stunning goal showcased the Salah of last season, as he tore off his shirt in delight and Liverpool’s title bid was back on track after a tense 80 minutes where Southampton threatened to hold them to a draw. Salah has now scored 50 goals in 69 Premier League appearances for Liverpool, and that is the fewest number of games of any player in club history to reach half a century. Salah is back delivering moments of top quality, and his latest sent Liverpool back to the top of the league.


KEITA CAN DELIVER MIDFIELD DYNAMISM

With stalwarts James Milner and Jordan Henderson left on the bench, there was plenty of pressure on the shoulders of Fabinho and especially Naby Keita. In his 28th appearance for Liverpool, Keita popped up with a massive goal towards the end of the first half which swung the game in their favor. He didn’t play particularly well, but he made a difference, and with Klopp criticized for his ultra-defensive lineups in central midfield in recent months, this was a chance for Keita to show he has a role in this team.

The Guinean midfielder didn’t see a lot of the ball early on, with Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum caught in possession and Keita looking a little lost tucked in on the left side of midfield. But what you could see was that his runs into the box were timed well, and that is exactly what happened on the goal. He arrived to head home Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s marvellous cross and that kind of dynamism and end product is why Liverpool paid $70 million for him last season. In the second half he ran into the box and was clipped by Maya Yoshida and was lucky not to win his team a penalty kick. We haven’t seen those kind of moments anywhere enough from Keita in his debut campaign in England, and although he struggled overall, there is hope he can offer Liverpool a different midfield dynamic late in the season.


SAINTS TO MARCH ON

Shane Long gave Southampton a shock lead, but in truth, it was what they deserved. They rattled Liverpool’s cages often, and particularly early on, with Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s famed high-pressing in full flow on several occasions as Saints won the ball back high up the pitch. Long should have converted a second early on, and even though Saints failed to grab anything from the game they proved they have made significant progress in Hasenhuttl’s 17 games in charge. Had Danny Ings been able to play (his loan from Liverpool meant he was ineligible) it could have been a different story. They ran out of steam and kept giving the ball back to Liverpool, but with a more fluid attack, they could have caused even greater problems.

There is a plan to their play, an identity and Southampton’s young squad can challenge the big boys again. For so long Saints have upset the odds with four-straight top eight finishes before a bad season last season where they just avoided relegation. Saints are back on track and the turnaround Hasenhuttl has made with only the struggling players he inherited and no money spent deserves huge praise. Against the teams outside of the top six they will fare well, but Liverpool were just too good late on. There is no shame in that for Saints, who went toe-to-toe with an exceptional Liverpool team until Salah’s moment of magic.

Stars and duds from Liverpool-Tottenham Hotspur

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There are many talking points from Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat of Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Sunday.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

This was a match rife with mistakes and squandered chances, and there was not a man who was perfect.

Andy Robertson was very, very good, but a part of the Spurs equalizer. Danny Rose was a Spurs star, but flubbed a late bid to send in a beautiful cross.

Stars

Andy Robertson — The Liverpool left back not only served up an assist while habitually cooking Kieran Trippier, he blocked a seemingly surefire Christian Eriksen equalizer.

Roberto Firmino — This was about so much more than the opening goal — though what a header! — as the Brazilian striker served as a calm playmaker and a bully on the ball.

Georginio Wijnaldum The least celebrated of a safe midfield, Wijnaldum was the best of the bunch and went 90 minutes in the win

Danny Rose — Has been in fine form for club and country, and was a big part of several promising moves coming from Spurs’ left side. Almost was removed from this list for a horrid 87th minute blunder on a scoring chance, but was just too important over the first 87.

Christian Eriksen — Inventive and undeterred, his spinning assist was a just reward for his day’s work.

Lucas Moura — Struggled for much of the first half, but scored the equalizer and took a very smart tactical yellow with Salah on the break in the 79th minute.

Duds

Hugo Lloris — The match-deciding goal is entirely on him, even if it ends up going over the line via an otherwise steady Toby Alderweireld.

Kieran Trippier — As noted in the Robertson blurb, Trippier was very poor on the flank. His quick pass on the equalizer helped, but

Alisson Becker — A fine parry in the second half, but mostly looked out-of-sorts in a big spot.

Moussa Sissoko — Here for one reason: Sprung for a 2v1 with Heung-Min Son, he dribbled toward the defender until a pass was impossible before blazing an effort nowhere near the goal. Son could’ve helped by running away from goal, but my goodness.

Harry KaneThis was going to be “Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah,” but it felt like kicking a dead horse to put Salah here for struggling when he, along with Lloris, produced Alderweireld’s own goal. Kane was largely absent for a star striker, and working hard doesn’t get you the plaudits when you’re a Golden Boot chaser. So maybe Mohamed Salah should be here, too, having scored just once in nine matches.

Watch Live: Liverpool v. Tottenham Hotspur

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Jurgen Klopp turns to a Premier League veteran midfield as Liverpool meets Tottenham Hotspur for a huge Top Four tilt at Anfield on Sunday (Watch live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson start behind the club’s celebrated attacking trident.

Spurs keep Heung-Min Son on the bench in favor of Lucas Moura, with Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen all drawing starts.

LINEUPS

Liverpool: Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner, Mane, Salah, Firmino. Subs: Mignolet, Fabinho, Lovren, Keita, Lallana, Shaqiri, Origi.

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Rose, Sissoko, Eriksen, Dele, Lucas, Kane. Subs: Gazzaniga, Davies, Foyth, Skipp, Wanyama, Son, Llorente.

Klopp: Defending, experience will help Liverpool

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Jurgen Klopp seems to be a bit calmer now that Liverpool has clinched a berth in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals.

Drawing Porto for its next tie probably didn’t hurt his new vibe.

[ MORE: Analyzing the UCL draw ]

Reflecting on what worked for Liverpool against Bayern and how it needs to translate to the rest of the tournament, Klopp pointed to defense. That may explain why he opted for a midfield of James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson to start the second leg. From the BBC:

“The last five Champions League games we lost is because we didn’t defend like we wanted to but at Munich we did and from this basis you can win, it’s the experience from last year we get this and it has helped a lot. … If there is a final at the end, good – but we think about that at the end, not now.”

As for this weekend’s Premier League match with Fulham, which gives the Cottagers a chance to go atop the table, Klopp expects the Reds to be ready despite its monumental win over Bayern Munich in Germany.

The Reds’ boss has to quickly turn around his men for Saturday’s visit to Fulham, who are desperate for points and playing a bit better under interim boss Scott Parker.

“We’ve been over it and we have to make sure we are spot on from the opening second to win the game.”

Why are Liverpool stumbling in title race?

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With a 0-0 draw in the Merseyside derby at Everton on Sunday, Liverpool have now dropped 11 points in their last nine Premier League games.

[ MORE: Klopp blames the weather ]

Something is not quite right with Jurgen Klopp‘s side, as they have now drawn against Leicester, West Ham, Man United and Everton in their last six games. They aren’t playing badly, but they just aren’t themselves consistently.

What are the key problems for Klopp to solve in the final nine games of the season?

Here’s a look at the main issues troubling Liverpool, who could have led Manchester City by seven points had they beat Leicester on Jan. 30 at Anfield.

Instead, a few weeks later they are now one point behind City heading into the final stretch.


Lack of midfield creativity

This has been an issue all season long for Liverpool. Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson are very good at what they do. The issue is, they all do the same thing. Liverpool can break up the play and shield their solid defensive unit well. But when it comes to keeping hold of the ball and having midfielders running past Salah, Firmino and Mane, it doesn’t happen that often. Naby Keita was supposed to do that but he’s struggled to adapt to the Premier League, and Klopp’s resistance to play Adam Lallana or Xherdan Shaqiri more prominently could come back to haunt him. Not signing Nabil Fekir in the summer could also leave him with plenty of sleepless nights as Liverpool just don’t have a central midfielder (a la Philippe Coutinho) who can turn the game and unlock an opposition defense with a moment of magic. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may be risked in the final weeks of the season, as he has those qualities Klopp badly needs from at least one of his central midfield players.


Salah not trusting instincts, as front three stall

Mohamed Salah isn’t as sharp as he was last season. That has been clear for much of this campaign and he has scored just once in his last seven outings for Liverpool. His form has flitted in and out, but in recent weeks some self-doubt has creeped into his game. Last Sunday he was hooked off at Man United in the 0-0 draw as Luke Shaw had him in his back pocket, and although Salah started well at Everton he isn’t taking chances like he did in his incredible 2017-18 campaign.

Klopp summed up Salah’s recent hesitancy best: “He is doing everything right until the last moment, that last millisecond.”

And that is pretty much all it is. Salah was clean through twice on Sunday but delayed that split-second longer to give Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane a chance to deny him. Last season he was letting his instincts take over. He wasn’t thinking about his finishes. This season he is.

“I felt we created enough chances to win. We defended well but of course we are disappointed because want to win every game. We just need to be a bit more clinical,” Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson said, as his side have now failed to score in three of their last four games in all competitions.

Sadio Mane has blown hot and cold, Firmino has been out injured and Salah’s struggles are well documented. Liverpool’s defensive solidity is clear for all to see with five clean sheets on the spin, but the success of their team is built around the front three delivering and it isn’t clicking at the moment. Salah needs to think less and shoot more. The other attackers will follow suit if he regains his mojo.


Klopp being too conservative

Now, Klopp didn’t like being asked about this after the game. At all. After being sarcastically applauded off the pitch by an Everton ballboy, who he confronted, Klopp was then asked in his post-match press conference about not taking enough risks with his team selection.

“Do you think we didn’t take enough risks today? That’s a really disappointing question… do you think it’s Playstation? Bring an extra attacker, and everything changes?” Klopp said. “Football is not like that. We don’t lose our nerve, not like you obviously. A question I don’t get.”

Klopp was scoffed at after this game for blaming the “wind coming from all directions” at Goodison, as it mirrored other comments he made about the weather after poor displays during his time at Liverpool.

But what about himself? The German coach is being conservative with his lineup choices. There’s no doubt about it. With 15 minutes to go against Man United last week he sent on Xherdan Shaqiri for Jordan Henderson. On Sunday at Everton he only made like-for-like replacements and failed to ‘go for it’ and mix up his formation or chuck an extra body up top. Liverpool are just one point behind Man City in the title race, but right now Klopp is setting his team up as if they have a 10-point lead at the top.


Nerves from fans filtering to the players

This is a small but significant factor, and if you scan Twitter on Sunday evening you’ll see that a lot of Liverpool’s fans are fuming at the build-up of draws in recent weeks after so many wins throughout the early months of the 2018-19 campaign. 29 years without a league title is a long time for a club of Liverpool’s stature. So often the pressure of expectation is talked about at Anfield, as players can crumble under the weight of expectation that ‘this year will be our year’ to finally win the title again. This year could still be their year, but the fans need to somehow curb their negativity because in this age of social media dominance their frustration and fear is drifting towards the players. Try as they might, Liverpool’s players are only human beings and the pressure is now on them as they’ve given up a lead and Man City have the advantage in the title race. If City win out, Liverpool can’t do anything.