EPL 2016-17: How Liverpool recovered from a slow start to down Stoke City
Perhaps Stoke City took the memo of this being the season of giving much too literally. On Tuesday at Anfield, their misery was capped after seventy minutes when an errant back pass from Ryan Shawcross found the substitute Daniel Sturridge, who required but a few deft touches, taking the ball past goalkeeper Lee Grant and putting it into the net for Liverpool’s fourth and the game’s fifth.
Fifty-six seconds elapsed between Sturridge’s introduction and his most meaningful touch. It was not quite Lars Ricken in the 1997 Champions League final, but then again, this was Sturridge’s first goal in his thirteenth game in the Premier League this season, after twelve scoreless appearances. It was an error, nay, a gift that saw Liverpool the lucky benefactors of the visitors’ munificence.
Also read: Liverpool 4-1 Stoke City - 5 talking points
Yet, it did not accurately illustrate what went before. Stoke had begun the game in remarkable style, taking a lead after twelve minutes through Jonathan Walters. The post-game stats suggested a dominant Liverpool victory, but it was the hand of both teams here – one that gradually strengthened and another than gradually attenuated – that swung the balance of the game from one side to another.
Good (or bad) things come in threes
Four days ahead of a game against Manchester City at home, Jürgen Klopp named a full-strength line-up to take on Stoke. The bench looked slightly improved than before, now that Sturridge had returned to the squad, although Philippe Coutinho and Joël Matip were still absent.
By contrast, the visitors boasted a pretty strong list of substitutes, although it is worth noting that the defenders they had out on the pitch were their only ones available.
The home side lined up in their usual 4-3-3, with Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino occupying their now-usual positions of central and wide left respectively. Stoke’s approach, however, was more interesting. It was unclear upon a simple reading of the names as to what shape they would be arranged in on the pitch, with three forwards in the starting XI and their top-scorer Joe Allen used in a more attacking role this season. On commentary, Jim Beglin could be heard speculating a 4-4-1-1 as Mark Hughes’ formation of choice.
In the event, Stoke were placed in a formation that used a back three – Shawcross, Bruno Martins Indi and Glen Johnson - as well as effectively a front three – Walters and Allen either side of Peter Crouch. Giannelli Imbula and Glenn Whelan were deployed in front of the defence and Mame Biram Diouf had the right flank all to himself.
The Potters’ direct approach bore early fruit. A thumping ball upfield from Grant released the forwards, and the Reds’ defending that followed left a lot to be desired. Really, it was the fault of no single player, but rather of several, and it is to be said that Stoke did well to take the lead.
Much like Everton in the recent Merseyside Derby, Stoke enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges. Walters and Allen – deployed, no doubt, to offset Crouch’s relative lack of mobility – pressured Liverpool effectively. Their nerves frazzled, the home side’s attack was marked by a manic urgency.
Stoke’s goal seemed to have disturbed Liverpool’s headspace remarkably; they began misplacing passes and shooting from distance, as opposed to the smooth passing game and switching of sides that they were capable of. There was a stage mid-way through the first half where Liverpool had exchanged 200 passes to Stoke’s 88, yet the most important statistic was in the away side’s favour.
At the back, the heat was beginning to tell. A breakdown involving Dejan Lovren and Jordan Henderson left Allen with only Simon Mignolet to beat, but the Belgian produced a critical, sprawling save from the Welsh midfielder. The ball crossed Crouch and then reached Walters, but Ragnar Klavan was able to clear.
The missed opportunity was vital here; of the 13 games in which Liverpool have conceded this season, in only 5 have they conceded more than a single goal, including both league defeats this season. It suggests that staying in the game was important if they were to effect a comeback, and so it was the first key moment in the game where the tide began to turn.
The second came after some excellent hold-up play from Origi and a finish from a tight angle by Adam Lallana to make it 1-1. Just before half-time, Liverpool having expectedly recovered well after scoring, and now motoring forwards, James Milner passed to Firmino just inside the area, where the Stoke defenders – two or three of them, but perhaps Johnson most egregiously – failed to close him down.
The finish past Grant clanged both posts before going in, but the quality of the finish was less significant than the time it came at. Having scored just before the break, and heading into half-time with the lead, Liverpool had dealt their opponents a psychological blow by scoring at a time most opportune.
Despite an often poor first half, the Reds were in front at the interval and it seemed they were on top and the momentum on their side. Liverpool's total passes in the first half outnumbered Stoke’s by around two hundred, but this time the most important metric was also in their favour – 2-1.
Red Machine in full effect
The two goals functioned not only to get the home side’s noses in front but also to calm their nerves. A lead heading into half-time now permitted Liverpool the chance to attack with more focus and deliberation, rather than desperation, and this is what they did.
Perhaps the fear of defeat here, that particular prolegomenon meaning the game against Manchester City assuming even more enormous proportions than before, played a part in the chaos of the first half.
Also read: Liverpool 4-1 Stoke City - Player Ratings
Nevertheless, Georginio Wijnaldum kept a steady hand on proceedings, and Henderson and Sadio Mané played notably well in the second half. The latter two were also involved in the third goal.
Origi scorched Johnson down Stoke’s right, sending Henderson’s piercing pass through the channel across the front of the goal. Mané attempted to divert the low cross into the net, but Imbula got there before him, giving Liverpool a two-goal cushion.
About ten minutes later, Sturridge – substituted on at the same time as Emre Can, the pair replacing Origi and Lallana – latched on to Shawcross’ error for an easy fourth goal.
New Year’s Eve showdown
Besides England manager Gareth Southgate, the other famous face watching the game was Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola. One wonders what the former Barcelona man observed on his reconnaissance mission – perhaps a vision of his own playing days in Henderson’s razor-sharp pass for the third goal, or that Liverpool’s second-most productive period for goals is the fifteen minutes after half-time (10 goals) this season.
As for Stoke, they now play league leaders Chelsea. December 31 is a day where at least one of Chelsea’s two closest challengers are certain to drop points, so it is entirely possible that instead of being crucial to the title race, the fixtures could only end up reinforcing the status quo.
But the grander scheme of things aside, the focus should be on two of the finest coaches of the modern era taking on each other as 2016 hopes to go out with a bang.