Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
There was more than a touch of poetic irony about Ragnar Klavan’s late winner here. Burnley, not Liverpool, were punished for a late lack of restraint. Liverpool, not Burnley, turned aerial supremacy into unlikely glory.
But, then, this New Years Day clash threw up surprises from the start. Hardly renowned for their attacking abandon, Sean Dyche’s side startled many with a determinedly high press.
Perhaps inspired by the manner of Leicester City’s opener two days prior, the Burnley manager’s ploy proved super-effective. And, although Saturday’s villain Joel Matip was rested, Liverpool’s harried defenders still coughed up the kind of turnover Jamie Vardy prevailed upon.
Within the first half-hour, both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Emre Can gifted chances to the Clarets, by losing possession in their own half.
Liverpool go long
Jurgen Klopp looked on bemused as his possession-based side were forced to embrace the long ball. A seasonal average of 59 per-game ramped up to 78 here, as Burnley continued to chase down the likes of Klavan, and Dejan Lovren, until the final whistle.
Callow striker Dominic Solanke, one of seven Klopp changes from Saturday’s comeback win, wilted under Simon Mignolet’s punts. The 20-year-old won a paltry 22% of his offensive aerial duels, meat and drink to the impressive Ben Mee.
Indeed, Liverpool’s only shot on target, of a ponderous first-half, stemmed from a rare successful attempt to play through Burnley’s press. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a left-wing disappointment, tested Nick Pope from range.
Burnley’s resolutely high-line, presently earning the Clarets a league-high 3.4 offsides per game, denied space to Oxlade-Chamberlain and co. Only Mee’s last-man tackle, to deny Solanke, hinted at potential peril from this approach.
Sadio Mané was twice caught in advance of the last defender in the first-half. But the struggling Senegalese more than compensated for another ineffectual showing, by pivoting into a wonderful second-half opener.
Mané’s goal, struck from a free edge-of-the-area position, was a rare example of Burnley’s midfield structure going AWOL. But there was more than a touch of misfortune attached, as Jack Cork lay prone in the opposition-half. Drawn inside to cover, left-winger Scott Arfield failed to stop Alexander-Arnold’s centre.
Facing a fifth consecutive failure to win, Dyche turned to his usual get-out-of-jail tactic. 4-4-1-1 predictably morphed into 4-4-2 again, as number-10 Jeff Hendrick made way for target-man Sam Vokes. This gambit has already saved points against the likes of West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur this season.
To no-one’s surprise, it was just as effective here. Both Lovren and Klavan had struggled under the high ball throughout the first-half, leading to late chances for Arfield and striker Ashley Barnes.
And, just seconds after Oxlade-Chamberlain failed to punish Dyche’s abandon on the break, Vokes spurned the game’s first clear-cut chance. Positioned ahead of Alexander-Arnold at the back-post, the Welshman could only force a save from Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s right-wing cross. Substitute Roberto Firmino, then Klopp’s nominal left-flanker, was nowhere to be seen.
Both managers reacted immediately to this obvious momentum shift. Klopp sought to buttress the efforts of auxiliary left-back Joe Gomez with the defensive reliability of substitute James Milner.
And Dyche again introduced Nakhi Wells from the bench to partner Vokes — the former should have converted the latter’s classic route-one knockdown into victory at Huddersfield. Barnes was shifted wide-left. Burnley were operating with three strikers-by-trade.
Then, Dyche was temporarily rewarded for his risk. Klopp had reinforced the wrong flank. Oxlade-Chamberlain, by then stationed on the right, allowed Charlie Taylor to profit from a short throw-in. Vokes headed on the former Leeds United full-back’s cross at the near-post — ahead of Klavan. Gudmundsson ran off Gomez at the back to do the rest.
Alas, for Burnley fans, who have reveled in their share of statistics-defying fortune this season, their side pushed for a winner. Hubris set in, allowing Can to maraud forward with the ball, forcing Steven Defour to illegally intervene.
The usual narrative, that Liverpool were again paying for their now customary lack of control, was upended. Burnley walked in their shoes, before being hoist by their own high-ball petard, as Lovren rose above Mee to head on Oxlade-Chamberlain’s redemptive free-kick.
Klavan’s resultant finish was Liverpool’s only big chance of the match, extending a trend of scant chance-creation that has built throughout the club’s last three engagements with Burnley. Counter-pressing may be the best playmaker in the world, as Klopp suggests, but it’s not much use against a side that doesn’t want the football.
The Reds had a moment of Mané magic to thank for their lead. But a familiarly awful defensive structure, in which wide players are slow to transition even when ahead, almost cost them yet again.
Unlike Burnley, Klopp’s side may not face many shots, due to their frequent residence in the opponents’ half. But when retreat is enforced, and defence is a must, neither back-four, nor those ahead, look up to the task.
This was no point of inflection for Liverpool, although many will see it that way. They ‘won ugly’ here, but they won lucky too; with a healthy dollop of Burnley’s poetically ironic mimicry to thank for it.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112