Jurgen Klopp’s sense of relief was palpable. The Liverpool manager had to wait until the 73rd minute for his side to break the deadlock against Crystal Palace on Saturday, by which stage he was probably afraid of dropping two more points against opponents outside of the big seven.
That was the Reds’ Achilles heel last season: while they were able to remain unbeaten in matches against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Everton, Manchester City and Manchester United, Klopp’s charges failed to win 11 of their 26 encounters with the rest of the division. One such victory – a 3-0 triumph over Middlesbrough on the final day of the season – wrapped up a fourth-place finish and secured Liverpool’s place in this year’s edition of the Champions League, but a title challenge could have been possible had the Merseysiders been more consistent against the bottom 13 teams.
Familiar failings undid Liverpool on the opening day of this campaign, as two concessions from set-pieces denied them victory against Watford at Vicarage Road. That 3-3 draw was followed by a fine 2-1 win at Hoffenheim in the first leg of their Champions League play-off on Tuesday, before the weekend’s meeting with bogey team Palace.
The south Londoners had won each of their three previous trips to Anfield and set about making life difficult for their illustrious opponents from the first whistle. The unavailability of Philippe Coutinho, officially injured but also heavily linked with a big-money move to Barcelona in recent weeks, was another issue for the hosts; the Brazilian is Liverpool’s go-to player when it comes to unlocking deep defences, and his absence – along with that of Adam Lallana – would have been welcomed by Frank de Boer.
There were two key reasons for Liverpool’s troubles against bottom-half teams last term. In the bigger games the Reds’ counter-pressing was essential to their chance creation, but it is harder to have success with such a tactic when opponents defend close to their own goal and avoid trying to play out from the back. The task then becomes prising open compact and well-organised defensive units, which Liverpool regularly struggled to do.
Secondly, the opportunities Klopp’s chances conceded tended to be high-quality ones. Once teams beat the initial line of pressure they often found themselves up against isolated central defenders and were therefore able to fashion excellent scoring chances, while set-plays proved a more specific but equally damaging problem.
On Saturday, though, they found a way to get over the line. Palace frustrated the hosts for much of the game and could have taken the lead through Christian Benteke early on in the second half, but Liverpool created the majority of the chances and ultimately deserved to collect maximum points, even if Sadio Mane’s winning goal was only made possible thanks to a mistake from Luka Milivojevic. Nevertheless, the Reds got the job done in front of their own supporters – and that, for now at least, is all that matters.