Title hopes fade but Liverpool can have no excuses after losing to a Leicester side with stand-in centre-backs

Virgil van Dijk, who had been impeccable all evening, suddenly looked scared. Ademola Lookman had only been on the pitch for three minutes. Nobody else in blue had run so directly, so quickly or into such a dangerous position; Lookman had the element of surprise on his side. He had the composure to finish too.

This is an evening on which Liverpool may well look back in five months’ time and reason that their title bid faltered and reason that it shouldn’t have.

With Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane heading for a major international tournament in five days, Jurgen Klopp wanted to squeeze all he could out of his most stellar forwards. In Leicester, both cost their side the chance to hang onto Manchester City’s coattails.

Liverpool can have no excuses. The vagaries of Omicron variant football create scenarios that barely feel fair. Liverpool’s last game before Tuesday evening came against Leicester City in the EFL Cup and the vast majority of Jurgen Klopp’s starting XI had not taken to the field since December 19. Leicester, meanwhile, had played Manchester City on Boxing Day. Brendan Rodgers made five changes to his team to ensure some degree of freshness; he could never hope to match Liverpool’s.

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Leicester are also in the midst of a defensive injury crisis, which makes a nice change from just having a defensive crisis. Wesley Fofana and James Justin’s absences have been long-term, but they are joined by Caglar Soyuncu, Jonny Evans, Ricardo Pereira and Ryan Bertrand.

There are few more obvious needs in the January transfer window than Leicester buying another central defender. For all the joy of a statement home win, James Maddison and Jamie Vardy left the field with injuries.

This victory was improbable not just because of the starting XIs, but the pattern of play. Liverpool penned their opponents back in the first half, taking advantage of slack Leicester passing when they lost possession.

Player ratings and reaction

  • Schmeichel – 8
  • Dewsbury-Hall – 8
  • Lookman – 8
  • Jota – 5
  • Mane – 5

Jurgen Klopp: “So often these boys gave me the opportunity to say ‘wow, what a game!’ – tonight it’s ‘wow!’ but in completely the other way. It didn’t look good. It didn’t look like us, and that’s obviously the one thing we have to think about and change immediately.”

Full player ratings and reaction here

You can see how it happens: Rodgers wants them to pass their way out of defence, but when you have unfamiliar combinations of players, or players who are unfamiliar to their own positions, that can be exposed by a pressing opponent.

Those passing counter attacks can work beautifully – see Leicester’s three goals against Manchester City for evidence of that – but they effectively become defined by the weight, accuracy and location of the first pass.

Too often, Leicester’s defenders play “panic passes”; they pass the ball to the first place they look rather than the best option. A panic pass is also more likely to be misplaced – several times a Leicester player simply played the ball into space and it was intercepted.

But Liverpool did not score. No Premier League goalkeeper had saved a Salah penalty since Jonas Lossl of Huddersfield Town in 2017, but Kasper Schmeichel guessed right and then saw Salah direct his rebound header onto the crossbar.

Mane was just as culpable, sent through on goal by Diogo Jota but curling his shot over the bar when the brightest option would surely have been to direct it either side of Schmeichel. Before, between and after those glaring chances, Liverpool’s buzz was killed by slack passes, slight lapses in communication and snatched shots.

They were also thwarted by defensive competence; Leicester fans will happily concede their surprise there too. The great myth of Leicester City this season is that they have been undone by their inability to defend set pieces. In fact, that is simply a symptom of wider disease.

Only Burnley, Leeds and Newcastle have allowed their opponents to take more shots; only Leeds, Norwich and Watford have allowed more shots on target. It isn’t that Leicester have been bad at defending corners – it’s that they have been bad at defending in general.

Adversity demands resolve; that is what will please Rodgers most. Wilfred Ndidi and Daniel Amartey – both stand-ins – were not faultless but they were never fearful. They stood up Salah and Mane. They defended the second balls. They commanded those to the side and in front of them. They put their bodies in front of shots. They even cleared lots of corners! They created the platform for mission improbable and they defended its honour despite a late Liverpool onslaught. They might just have given Manchester City a commanding lead in the title race.

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