Liverpool Run Out Of Steam At The Vicarage
It wasn’t that it happened that was the surprise. Liverpool have had enough wins this season when it felt as though their performance did not quite match the run of form they’ve happened across this season, while their run of wins since the winter break that Jurgen Klopp made so much noise about wasn’t exactly stellar before last week’s Champions League loss against Atletico Madrid. Much had been made of this Liverpool team equalling Arsenal’s record of going an entire Premier League season unbeaten over the last few weeks, but that this now isn’t going to happen doesn’t feel like too much of a shock. Perhaps it was something to do with the match being played in the 29th of February, the first time a full roster of matches has been played on this date since 1992.
There was certainly a hint of witchcraft in the air at Vicarage Road last night. Such has been the unique nature of Liverpool’s season – and it’s difficult to place a historical context on all of this, because it really is pretty much precedented in more than 130 years of league football in this country – that those who would wish Liverpool to fall, or at least stumble, have had to rely on increasingly thin gruel for nourishment so far this season. There have been times when their performances haven’t been stellar, but the hopes against hopes of those who wanted them to fail have fallen by the wayside to such an extent that, as early as the new year, they felt like an irrelevance.
What was surprising about the end of this run was the way in which it ended. Watford went into the match one place off the bottom of the Premier League table and without a win since the 12th of January. Nigel Pearson’s managerial honeymoon period, it was reckoned, had ended some time ago, and recent results had thrown them back into the lower end of a relegation battle which they’d prevously looked like scrambling away from. With the best will in the world, there was nothing in Watford’s recent to suggest that this would be the team who would finally rein Liverpool in, if only for ninety minutes.
Liverpool, however, were blown away by Watford. They certainly didn’t look like a team that had gone its previous 44 games unbeaten in the league, the last 18 of which were victories. To a point, it’s possible to believe that a degree of complacency set in yesterday afternoon. The cycle of domestic and European football can be exhausting at the best of times, and it felt at points yesterday evening as though the Liverpool team was relying a little too much on what they’ve already achieved this season in order to get through this particular ninety minutes.
The warning signs, however, had been there for a couple of weeks. They were reliant on some terrible goalkeeping to beat West Ham United last weekend, a result considered a foregone conclusion before the match was actually played. And then there was the defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. This was the second loss that Liverpool have suffered in their defence of this particular trophy, and although conversation after the match centred around the extent to which result was an irrelevance in a way because of the team’s awesome record at Anfield in recent years. There is, of course, a possibility that the return leg of this fixture might be viewed through a slightly different lens in the light of yesterday’s goings-on.
Whilst Arsenal supporters might have had something at stake – their own club’s entirely unbeaten season in the Premier League remains short of the attention that it deserves as a unique achievement in the history of the game – though, for the rest of us, there was little more than a shallow hint of schadenfreude about it all. Liverpool remain twenty-two points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table, and will almost certainly be crowned champions for the first time in thirty years later this month.
And perhaps this defeat coming at this time is what this team needed. The latter stages of this year’s Champions League are coming up, should they negotiate their way past Atletico Madrid in the return leg, and these matches are likely to be more challenging than they’ve faced in either the Champions League or the Premier League so far this season. Any pressure over going the entire season unbeaten has now lifted, and the jolt that will have accompanied their ungraceful plummet back to earth last night may well prove to be useful, when they have to resume concentrating on defending that particular trophy in the final weeks of the season.
Liverpool will still win the Premier League – there surely can’t be anbody left who doesn’t believe this, can there? – and they may well, regardless of whether they want to or not, match this by completing their second league and cup double. There will be bigger challenges ahead for them this season in the Champions League, but question over the effects of losing for the first time in a very long time indeed, of how the team might react to finally losing that unbeaten run, is now broadly academic.
And neither should be anything taken away from Watford, either. This win lifted them out of the bottom four, and to win such a match entirely on merit is a demonstration of Nigel Pearson’s abilities as a manager as well as of the potential that this team might have, should they cling onto their Premier League place this season. It’s easy to get caught up in the flurry of laughter at the bigger club getting taken down a peg or two, and one of the big ironies is that we tend to forget the achievement of the lower-placed club in doing so, but Watford’s performance yesterday evening deserves better than to be remembered as a footnote of little to no consequence in somebody’s story of unprecedented success.