As it goes with most things in life, nothing is ever as bad as it seems.
There was anger and disappointment – and that was just me in my living room – as Liverpool dropped points away at 17th place Luton Town.
Yet, after sleeping on it, you accept the result for what it is. Jürgen Klopp’s side were far from their best at Kenilworth Road, and the dropped points raises questions on whether talk of a potential title challenge are a year too soon for 'Liverpool 2.0'.
Though with 2.85 expected goals worth of chances created to Luton’s 0.8, you can rationale that on another day Darwin Núñez (or others) takes their big chance at 0-0 and it’s a different game.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day from a Liverpool perspective happened before kick-off, with Klopp shocking fans and Fantasy Premier League players alike by dropping the clubs only fit senior left-back in Kostas Tsimikas for right-footed central defender Joe Gomez.
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The position isn’t unfamiliar to Gomez, it’s where he broke into the Liverpool team under Brendan Rodgers in 2015/16, where all six of his Premier League appearances came before a cruciate ligament injury halted an extremely promising start to his Anfield career.
Yet – until late Sunday afternoon – he hadn’t played there in eight years, since a 3-1 loss at Old Trafford (yes, it was the game with that Christian Benteke overhead kick).
It was a calculated risk by the management team. With Robertson out injured, Tsimikas (alongside Luke Chambers and Calum Scanlon, who shared minutes against Toulouse) has been a mainstay in the team. However, the Greece international hasn’t exactly set the world alight with his performances (a statement I’m sure will cause some debate).
This led to Klopp opting for the former Charlton Athletic defender on the left side of his defence. While the major events in the game happened after Gomez had departed – replaced by Tsimikas in the 67th minute – he was on the pitch long enough for us to draw some conclusions, both negative and positive, from him starting in that role.
Personally, I was positive about Gomez starting there when the team was announced.
In my head it would let Liverpool operate with a solid back three of Ibrahima Konaté, Virgil van Dijk and Gomez, allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold the freedom to step up into midfield and do the things he’s really good at. Except it didn’t really work like that. Here’s a look at his heatmap from Sunday’s game (via SofaScore).
While the South London native doesn’t tend to venture near the Luton box, he is positioned almost as an old school left midfielder, rather than an outside centre back in a back three. This was perhaps a result of the opposition.
Luton are the lowest-ranked side when it comes to possession, keeping the ball just 36.2% of the time. They want teams, especially the top ones, to come onto them, and leave gaps in behind for Luton’s speedy wingers to exploit. It’s unclear whether this was instruction or if it was seen as opportunistic (given how much analysis and planning goes into games today, you’d lean towards the latter).
What it did do, though, is play into the Hatters’ hands.
I’d like to preface this next part by saying that I don’t think Gomez played badly, he was decent throughout his jut over an hour worth of performance. Defensively he won his battles – winning seven of his ten duels (6/9 ground and 1/1 aerial). He nullified the threat of Issa Kaboré (who eventually provided the assist for Chong after Gomez had left the pitch).
He even, from a statistical viewpoint, was efficient in possession. He attempted 54 passes (the fifth most of any Liverpool player) and completed 47 of them – an 87% success rate.
The issue was for the most part it was empty possession, possession that ultimately slowed Liverpool down and allowed Luton to set up their defensive block. While Gomez may have been one of the more active passers of the ball on the pitch, only one of those 47 completed passes were categorised as a progressive one – the least amount of any Liverpool player who started the game.
He also failed to complete a successful pass into the opposition penalty area and attempted just one cross throughout the entire game, despite his advanced positioning. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Gomez in possession, we know that he’s limited on the ball, if there was a word to describe his passing game then it would be ‘safe’.
And that’s fine, especially when he’s playing as a centre back and is alongside Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip or Ibrahima Konaté, all of which are progressive machines in their own right. It would have been fine as a left-back if he wasn’t asked to be so involved in Liverpool’s attacking play. But when he is being asked to touch the ball so often (again, the fifth most of any Liverpool player), especially in more advanced areas, he can slow the play right down.
It was a noticeable issue against Luton.
Liverpool, while creating a lot of chances, struggled to find a rhythm, with their attacking game looking laboured, bar the chaotic-can’t-take-your-eyes-away-for-a-moment performance of Darwin Núñez.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m pointing the finger directly at Gomez, because he was one of many who struggled to get going under the unique pressures that Kenilworth Road provided. Yet it was down his side where it felt most present.
Perhaps it was the lack of Luis Díaz on that side for most of the game, as Diogo Jota provides less of a wide threat and tends to use wide areas to make disguised runs into central areas to cause problems for opposition defence. The truth is though that Gomez’s passing slowed Liverpool down, and instead of looking to move it forward he turned back and gave the ball to Van Dijk or even Alisson a little too often.
It played right into Luton’s plan to slow Liverpool down and frustrate them.
If Klopp is unhappy with Kostas Tsimikas’ performances, I don’t think he should be put off too much by what happened in Luton with the Joe Gomez experiment.
Yes, there were things to dislike about it, but there was also promise. For it to be successful there needs to be tweaks. Joe Gomez is not a left-back, and I think Liverpool tried to play too much like he was one.
What they need to do is slightly alter the system so he’s essentially a third centre back (which is strange that they didn’t, given how Andy Robertson played before his injury). Gomez doesn’t need to be active in your attacking build-up, leave that to Alexander-Arnold, Alexis Mac Allister and co.
Let him win his defensive duels in wide areas, cover the spaces left by the more attacking players and recycle the ball effectively and a three-man defence of Konaté, van Dijk and Gomez may see Liverpool reap the rewards until their Scottish talisman has returned from his shoulder injury.