In many ways, the Reds are in a bizarre situation. They are fourth in the Premier League, four points clear of fifth-placed Chelsea and the same distance behind Manchester United who occupy second spot, and they’re into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
However, last weekend’s disappointing showing at Old Trafford sees Jürgen Klopp’s team tasked with showing their mettle to bounce back from disappointment. They can’t dwell on a defeat at this stage of the season, not when a top-four finish is far from certain.
The visitors scored a last-minute goal on the opening day of the season to deny Liverpool all three points. The Reds have improved since then and Watford have changed head coach, but it won’t stop Klopp feeling as though he owes the Hornets after being stung by them.
Javi Gracia replaced the under-fire Marco Silva in January and things have quickly improved at Vicarage Road. In the six games under their new manager they’ve picked up ten points which has seen them climb away from the relegation zone and into tenth. They are now conceding just the one goal per game, a marked improvement on 1.83 under Silva.
But, as shown during last Sunday’s 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, old habits do die hard. The Gunners’ first goal was simple. A free-kick from Watford’s right was powerfully headed home by Shkodran Mustafi. It was the 14th set-piece goal Watford had conceded this season – the second highest in the Premier League behind only Brighton and Hove Albion (16).
While this remains a weakness for Gracia’s men it’s become something of a key part of Liverpool’s attacking arsenal over recent weeks.
There was, at one point in a time, a running joke to suggest Liverpool should just forfeit taking corners because they’d used up a decade worth of goals during the 2013/14 season. For love nor money, the Reds just couldn’t convert corner kicks.
It had been a similar story this season. A Football Whispers feature in February detailed the winners and losers when it came to corner kicks in the Premier League. Liverpool, at the time, converted just 2.52 per cent of theirs into goals – only seven teams had worse records.
But in recent weeks, Virgil van Dijk has changed the game completely for the Merseysiders. The world’s most expensive defender is a ball magnet and looks likely to score whenever he ventures forward for a corner.
He caused Newcastle United all kinds of problems and should have found the back of the net against José Mourinho‘s side last weekend. He’s only scored the one goal since his move in January – the winner against Everton on his debut – but it’s only a matter of time before he’s celebrating another.
When looking at stats on Football Whispers’ analytics hub, van Dijk’s xG90 (expected goals scored per 90) total is twice what it was while he was at Southampton. It’s now at 0.14 which, for context, is better than a number of the midfielders Klopp has at his disposal.
Watford, who have seen the opposition covert 6.21 per cent of their corners this season, must be fearful of the Dutch international dominating them in their own penalty area.
However, while defending set pieces is a weakness for Gracia’s men, they’re a threat on the counter attack and this may be how they do some damage to Liverpool on Saturday.
Richarlison, a player many Liverpool fans would like to see at Anfield, is dangerous when given space. He’s been out of form recently but still managed to cause Arsenal a number of problems.
The Reds have improved defensively since van Dijk’s arrival. Their xGA (expected goals against) tally has dropped from 1.13 to 0.79. The opposition are creating fewer high quality chances and it coincides with Loris Karius and van Dijk coming into the starting XI.
It might not seem like a huge difference but over the entire season it’s a 14-goal swing.
When dictating the tempo, the Reds now look like a solid team. But when the ball is quickly played forward and Klopp’s team have’t been able to transition from attack to defence they still struggle. It was evident in the loss to United last weekend.
All it took for the home side to score was two long kicks. Going direct and playing on the counter might not seem like they go hand in hand but both tactics look to bypass the midfield and nullify the press. The aim is to get the ball into the forward areas as quickly as possible.
Not many teams have someone as physical as Romelu Lukaku but in Richarlison Watford have a player who wins 3.9 aerial duels per 90 minutes, 0.4 more than the former Everton man. The Brazilian is also comfortable in the channels which drags centre-backs into those areas and exploits teams centrally.
Gracia can also call upon Troy Deeney (7.1 aerial duels won per 90) and Stefano Okaka (4.2 aerial duels won) who gave the Reds a torrid time on the opening day of the season. If they want to go down the United route then they could pose Dejan Lovren or Joël Matip a few issues.
This fixture might not be as straightforward as many Liverpool fans think. It’s on Klopp to ensure their winless streak of two games doesn’t make it three.