It wasn’t so much a replay as a tape that seemed stuck on the same loop, the nasty video that seemed to confirm Gareth Southgate’s view that Kieran Trippier has a better all-around game than Trent Alexander-Arnold. At half-time at Anfield, TV screens that can be viewed internally repeatedly showed Brighton’s opening two goals. And then again.
There was Alexander-Arnold, with a bad header to allow Brighton to win the ball; it’s a weakness in his game, when a diagonal ball finds him at the far post. Here he is beaten too easily by Leandro Trossard before opening the scoring; he’s not a one-on-one defender of the caliber of Kyle Walker. There he was, attempting a daring bit of chest control, only to have Danny Welbeck head the ball away from him in the build-up to Trossard’s second. Jurgen Klopp had put together the case for the defense of Alexander-Arnold in an eloquent and passionate way on Saturday. The prosecution could show the pictures and not care about the words.
The strongest adjectives Klopp deployed after the 3-3 draw with Brighton were ‘awful’ and ‘awful’. Neither was applied to Alexander-Arnold, although the Liverpool manager said his side could have defended all three goals better. Defending, Klopp argues, is a collective enterprise. The four defenders are the obvious culprits when the goals are scored. “From the outside it’s okay,” said Virgil van Dijk, who admitted his own performances were below his usual standards. “It’s more complex than that. Defense starts from the front.
And yet, despite Alexander-Arnold’s eye-catching mistakes, structural problems may have come in the middle. “I don’t know how many times I saw their attacking players spinning between the lines, it was awful, really awful to watch,” Klopp said. Trossard’s contributions in the penalty area made him the first visitor since 2009 to leave Anfield with a hat-trick, but his ability to drive unchecked between the lines was also instructive.
Brighton thrived where, in old-fashioned terminology, an inside left and an inside right might have been; it was often Trossard, sometimes Pascal Gross or Solly March or Moises Caicedo or Welbeck. “Our gaps in the areas where they want to play were too big, obviously,” Klopp said; that Graham Potter has bequeathed Roberto De Zerbi a team loaded with players who like to appear in the No.10 position has helped, but they have proven elusive in the half-spaces either side of Fabinho, who does not have his dominance usual, behind Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcantara.
The names had a certain meaning. The Liverpool midfielder has been disrupted and scrappy, frayed and unknown on several occasions this season, but with very different combinations. Still, they were the final trio in the Champions League, the engine of Klopp’s strongest team, an experienced trio believed to provide solidity. They were united for the first time since Thiago left after half an hour at Fulham on the opening day. They have only lost one game yet, all three started as a midfield trio; at Real Madrid in Paris. They had never conceded three in a game where everyone was at the heart of the team; in the past two seasons there has only been one game, at Brentford, when two started in midfield and Liverpool left three.
The gaps, the space between the lines were not characteristic. Klopp’s full-backs can be caught in front of the ball, his midfielders rarely – that’s a reason why they deliver so few goals and assists – but Trossard and co backed them up. That’s why Klopp’s definitive midfielder remains Gini Wijnaldum around 2019; the quiet workaholic who provided a platform. For Klopp, problems must be solved at the source, with a proactive approach to prevent chances; what at first seemed ferocious gegenpressing then became more calculated to smother opponents.
“Pressure is always what we try to do,” explained Van Dijk. “Get into the right spaces and do everything together. We’ve been doing it for four or five years consistently, and we need to get back to that consistency, all of us.
When this pressure is released, the high defensive line that can be a source of strength can become a point of weakness instead. “A lot of runners behind, not a lot of pressure on the ball, things we have to do a lot better,” Van Dijk added.
When trailing 3-2 on Saturday, Klopp felt his side were caught between two strategies, successfully pursuing neither. “Then we weren’t sitting deep, we weren’t defending high but somewhere in between,” he said.
It was a lack of conviction that led an unrepentant Remainer to say his team needed to regain control. He probably meant in midfield, and not just because Fabinho and Thiago were dropping unusually high passing percentages. The midfielder protected Alexander-Arnold. But while his mistakes were the most glaring, the feeling was that Klopp was more horrified by the failings of the defensive midfielders than the attacking right-back.