I didn’t think it was possible to be this frustrated after a 4-1 win, but here we are.
Yes, the most important thing in knockout football is to progress in the competition, and that’s exactly what Liverpool did on Friday night. Job done.
But it was far from a job done well. Even up against a team of Aston Villa trainees who didn’t have a single first-team appearance to share between them before this game, there were times where there were genuine doubts over whether the Reds would win the game.
No matter what the circumstances are – and, admittedly, in this case they were pretty extreme given the home side’s entire squad had been ruled out because of Covid – a starting XI featuring the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and Fabinho should have no issues in this scenario.
Yet, Liverpool really struggled. Enormous credit must be paid to those Villa youngsters, who played their hearts out in what will have been the biggest game of most of their careers, but you can’t ignore this rut that the Reds seem to be in.
After disappointing draws against West Brom and Newcastle we wanted a reaction at Southampton, which we didn’t get. Liverpool looked pedestrian as they fell to defeat. There was little fighting spirit on show that night, when a season or two ago you feel there would have been a late spirited push at the very least.
Without a win in three, Jürgen Klopp wanted that response in the FA Cup. He kept to the strong team he was planning on putting out against Villa’s senior side, even after it had emerged that, if the game was to go ahead, it would be a very young, inexperienced group of players representing the Midlanders.
It was an opportunity for a goal glut. Not a statement, because the quality of the opposition never allowed that, but the feeling of scoring goals and winning a football match comfortably was on the table.
It even felt like that would happen when, just a few minutes in, Sadio Mané rose to head beyond Ákos Onódi and set the Reds up for an early show of force.
But it didn’t come. This group of players so often lauded for their mental fortitude and desire to win looked disinterested. Cocky. It was unprofessional, and it was unbearable to watch at times.
When Louie Barry galloped clear of Rhys Williams to slot coolly beyond Caoimhín Kelleher, it was not the teenage defender who I was looking at – though he should have dealt with it better – but Jordan Henderson who had meekly lost the ball in midfield and, uncharacteristically, attempted only a half-hearted job back in the aftermath.
And the lack of creativity from some quarters continues to be a real concern. Without Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the pitch, the first half felt like an endless stream of aimless crosses into the middle with no real conviction – those young Villa defenders will hardly have believed how easily they were able to fend off the Reds for the most part in that opening 45 minutes.Embed from Getty Images
After all the effort they had to put in, it was inevitable that this group of youngsters would tire. Signs of that began to show early on in the first half, and the exhaustion was clear to see during that five minute spell where Liverpool scored three times – all three goals could perhaps have been closed down and cleared by a defending side with more fuel in the tank.
Credit too must go to substitutes Thiago and Xherdan Shaqiri. The Spaniard was constantly aware of his surroundings and calmly made the right passes at the right times, while the Swiss provided a creative spark which no-one else seemed to possess.
All that matters in knockout football is progression to the next round, and that is what Liverpool did. Make no mistake, though, this performance for the most part was the absolute bare minimum which was required, which is simply not good enough for a side in poor form, and one which needs to prove it can restore momentum.
A year ago, if Liverpool were trailing in a game there was never any doubt that they would claw their way back into it – nowadays it feels like that same hunger isn’t always there.
It’s worrying, and it’s something which will need to be addressed if the Reds have any hope of retaining their Premier League crown.
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