Three Premier League games in a row, Liverpool have faced teams dicing with the very real threat of relegation. On two of those occasions, against Norwich City and West Ham United, they managed to come away with all three points by the skin of their teeth.
But in all three matches, Liverpool have performed drastically below their usual standards, and on the third occasion against Watford at Vicarage Road, they were ruthlessly punished for it, providing further evidence that any team in this league is capable of causing an upset regardless of where they sit in the table.
This was no smash and grab triumph from Watford by any stretch of the imagination, as Nigel Pearson’s side both outplayed and outfought Liverpool throughout the duration of the contest, walking away fully deserving victors – the first team to successfully crack the code against this Liverpool team in the league all season.
Despite having just 29 per cent of the ball, the hosts recorded twice as many efforts on goal as Liverpool (14 vs 7), while restricting Jürgen Klopp’s side to just a solitary effort on target. They therefore defended far better as a unit, and attacked with greater purpose and intensity.
While Liverpool have been stringent in guarding against complacency all season – hence their unpredecented levels of consistency up until now – every single goal they conceded here was profoundly lackadaisical in the way they allowed it to happen.
The first materialised from a simple throw-in into the box, which multiple Liverpool players were slowest to react to, with neither Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk or Andy Robertson covering themselves in any glory.
The second then resulted from another throw-in, this time near the half-way line, as a straightforward ball in behind caught the entire back line completely on their heels as Ismaila Sarr capitalised to race through and bag his second of the game.
Once again, the third was the product of incredibly sloppy, slack play by Liverpool, with Trent Alexander-Arnold this time the guilty party, playing a careless, undercooked back-pass deep in defensive territory, which Watford easily intercepted as Troy Deeney put the final nail in the coffin with an excellent finish.
As much as these players have managed to sustain extraordinary levels of focus for so long, there surely comes a point where a degree of complacency subconsciously seeps into the collective psyche when the buffer to second place is so absurdly vast.
It was clearly evident here, not just in Liverpool’s uncharacteristically shambolic defending, but also their bizarrely erratic passing and general lack of urgency and precision in possession, which was abundantly obvious well before Watford made the breakthrough.
That cannot be attributed to the absence of Jordan Henderson alone, as while the captain’s injury has clearly not helped matters, no one in a Red shirt played anywhere remotely close to the full extent of their ability here.
For the unbeaten record to be obliterated in such chastening fashion is a bitter pill to swallow, but by having their immortality stripped away, this experience will force Liverpool to look inwards at themselves, diagnose the faults they need to fix, and hit a re-set button of sorts.
In the past, this Liverpool side have showed tremendous resilience in the face of adversity and a powerful capacity to use set-backs to their advantage, and they must do so quickly now, with their FA Cup and Champions League prospects also at stake in the next two weeks.
This particular one was a jolting crash back down to earth which no one quite saw coming, and it’s imperative that they now learn from such a humbling lesson in order to ensure they don’t allow this miniature slump to bleed into the final months of the campaign.
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