Having gone through an extremely rough patch with a severely depleted squad, Liverpool finally managed to book fresh three points as they beat Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Sunday, courtesy of a composed finish by Curtis Jones and a deflected Roberto Firmino effort, given eventually as an own-goal to Kean Bryan.
Improved performance sees Liverpool break defeat streak
The champions lost four Premier League matches on the trot before travelling to Sheffield, a string that saw them lose all but a fool’s hope of defending the title and brought even top-four placement at the end of the season into serious doubt. They didn’t look as bad as the results suggested during that run, but a serious lack of focus at either end of the pitch always cost them all that they had to give.
It was a lot different on Sunday. The whole team played a very solid match, if not maybe as spectacular as they often did in the previous two seasons. In the absence of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, newcomer Ozan Kabak paired up with the inexperienced Nathaniel Phillips in the heart of defence, and with all things considered, they did a fine job. Phillips did get beaten for pace a few times and Kabak did make some arguably rash moves with the aim of defending on the front foot, but they dealt with everything that came their way for 95% of the time.
And when they didn’t, Adrian did. Though he is now the third-choice goalkeeper under Jurgen Klopp, the Spaniard was called upon to step into the breach left by Alisson Becker’s compassionate leave and the injury of Caoimhin Kelleher. Liverpool fans mostly feel extremely apprehensive when they see his name on the teamsheet, but this time he showed he can still be relied upon when needed.
In the middle of the park, Curtis Jones, who turned 20 just over a month ago, again looked like a seasoned professional, a player who can always be counted on just as much as Georginio Wijnaldum or Thiago Alcantara, two experienced, Champions League-winning midfielders. His goal, though defended poorly, was as calm as they come, and a fully deserved moment in this young man’s career.
The front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah looked much more dangerous than in previous matches, and the Blades can thank their goalkeeper for saving them from a much more painful defeat. Even though the second goal was eventually taken away from him, it still will have given an important confidence boost to the recently much criticized Firmino.
Sheffield’s Premier League goodbye
If the season has been disappointing for Liverpool, it’s been much more so for Sheffield United. By the time a half of if was gone, their realistic chances of Premier League survival were gone too, which is something few could have imagined at the end 2019-20. It took Chris Wilder’s men 18 league matches to record their first win, having earned just two points from the previous 17 outings. They are now 15 points behind Newcastle in 17th place, the lowest to grant survival to its end-of-season occupant, and their goodbyes to the English top flight are already being said, with relegation confirmation being only a matter of time.
This particular match provided a glimpse of a lot of things that have gone wrong for the Blades this term, though it should be said that Wilder also had a large number of players missing through injuries. Defenders Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell, John Egan, and Jayden Bogle were all absent, as were midfielders Sander Berge and Jack Rodwell.
The players that were on the pitch, those at the back specifically, completely failed of their task in the 48th minute when they believed the ball had gone out for a goal-kick before Trent Alexander-Arnold managed to whip it into the box. They raised their arms looking at the officials and inexplicably calmly watched Jones slam into the bottom corner from around 13 yards, with no thought of trying to stop the young Liverpool midfielder. The officials gave the goal and VAR stayed quiet, with footage showing the ball actually hadn’t crossed the line completely
The midfield section was expectedly outplayed by the visitors, while their attacking ideas mostly came down to hopeful passes being sent in behind the Liverpool defence which neither the pair Oliver McBurnie and David McGoldrick, nor the combination of McBurnie, Billy Sharp and Oliver Burke later, managed to make use of. And whenever it seemed they might, one of them was offside.
It was a very underwhelming performance from a team that looked to have made peace with the prospect of imminent relegation, but still haven’t mustered enough courage and defiance to try and win a game to mend a hurt pride. The only two names who stood out from the group where defender Ethan Ampadu and Ramsdale in goal. Ramsdale looked particularly good, making a number of high-quality saves.
Liverpool still have a lot to do
Liverpool face Chelsea at Anfield on Thursday, and it will certainly be a much sterner test for Klopp’s men. The London Blues played a 0-0 draw against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, but they look like a team already in a different league to Sheffield United. They are in fifth place with 44 points at the moment, one more than Liverpool in sixth.
The Merseysiders will likely have Alisson in goal for that contest, as well as Fabinho and forward Diogo Jota in their ranks, which is certainly a boost, but they will have to do much better overall if they are to inflict Chelsea with the first defeat since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard at the helm. And it is very important that they do, or at least avoid getting beaten. A defeat on Thursday would turn a difficult situation into a dire one for Liverpool.