It may have only been against Sheffield United – lowly, goalshy, soon to be relegated Sheffield United – but Liverpool will still have been extremely relieved to have picked up a routine 2-0 win on Sunday evening.
Going into their trip to Bramall Lane, the Reds were at the lowest point of the Jurgen Klopp era. With their squad ravaged by injuries, they had lost each of their last four Premier League games. This run of form left them a gut-wrenching 22 points off leaders Manchester City and some way off West Ham in fourth.
During this same period, they had conceded ten goals and prior to the game were also without a clean sheet since they drew 0-0 with Manchester United well over a month ago. Even against a side as hopelessly toothless going forward as Sheffield United – the Premier League’s lowest scorers by some margin – the chances of Liverpool ending this run without a shutout seemed slim before kick off.
Due to the tragic death of his father, Alisson was replaced in goal by the error-prone Adrian, while inexperienced pair Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak started at centre back. Despite these mitigating factors, Roy Keane was not in a sympathetic mood while previewing the game for Sky Sports.
Addressing claims that the Reds’ makeshift backline might be cut some slack, he said: “We’ve spent the last six months talking about Liverpool’s problems. They’re signed with Liverpool Football Club, if they can’t deal with playing Sheffield United away, they should retire.”
Harsh, but fair.
Fortunately, Phillips and Kabak showed they don’t want to hang up their boots just yet, steering their side to just their seventh Premier League clean sheet of the season.
The pair certainly did not possess a telepathic understanding throughout – the Turkey international even inadvertently put one into his own net in the first half, only for the offside flag to save his ignominy – but there were plenty of bright signs in the duo’s performance.
Phillips may have limitations on the ball but even against the physical Oli McBurnie he competed superbly, winning seven aerial duels and also throwing himself in front of several shots.
He is a proper old school English centre back and while he may not be good enough to start for the Reds at full strength, he continues to show that he has more than enough to contribute beyond this strange campaign.
The same could be said for Kabak. In contrast to his partner, there are glimpses that his ceiling is high but he is far from the finished product. At Bramall Lane he was occasionally clumsy on the ball but at other times he looked like the real deal, completing an impressive amount of long switches.
He was also assertive when he needed to be. While Kabak continues to adjust to both the shell-shock he suffered playing in that Schalke team, and Liverpool’s new system with minimal preparation time, he still managed to complete a game high three tackles, as well as a team high four clearances.
Together, Kabak and Phillips provided their side with an impressively stubborn last line of defence. The clean sheet, much like the win, was much needed, and could potentially provide the momentum Liverpool require to get their truly mad season back under control.