Some day, the Premier League is going to settle down, the big teams are going to start being big again and the little teams little. Not yet, though. The glorious irrationality of this season carried on as Watford, aggressive and organised as ever, produced another stirring performance, beating Liverpool 3-0, the Reds’ worst performance under Jurgen Klopp.
Watford hadn’t beaten Liverpool at home since 1986 and, perhaps appropriately, this was an afternoon that felt very like those days of 30 years ago. It was blustery and chilly, the pitch was bobbly enough to hinder slick passing, and there was a raw energy about Vicarage Road that inspired the home side and with which Liverpool struggled to cope. This is what football used to be, before money came to dominate everything. Perhaps the quality isn’t what it was five or ten years ago, but the unpredictability is undeniably fun.
Or it is for those not directly affected. From Liverpool’s point of view, this was awful, a fourth game without a win since the 6-1 victory at Southampton in the Capital One Cup. It was dismal from front to back. Adam Bogdan had a nightmare in goal, Martin Skrtel was run ragged before limping off just before half-time, Mamadou Sakho struggled, while the game simply passed the more creative players by. Perhaps most worryingly for Klopp, his players were outbattled by Watford, certainly in the first half.
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The giddy talk of a title challenge that buzzed round Merseyside two weeks ago seems ridiculous now as, in fairness, Klopp said at the time. Liverpool lies ninth, 14 points behind the leaders Leicester City, whom it faces on Boxing Day, as one of a clutch of eight teams separated by six points in the battle for fourth. Watford is one of them, just a point now off Champions League qualification. Just because Leicester’s achievements this season have overshadowed it doesn’t make the achievement of Quique Sanchez Flores any less remarkable. His brief at the start of the season was to avoid relegation, and Watford is probably only three wins off completing that.
While Watford enjoys the ride, Liverpool’s position becomes harder to fathom. The ambition is probably still Champions League football, but if this is the level, it may not even make the Europa League. Those wins over Manchester City and Southampton offer hope but there are few consistent signs of progress. The goalkeeping position, most obviously, is a major issue.
Simon Mignolet had looked shaky in last week’s draw against West Brom, but his absence was the result of a hamstring strain rather than him being dropped. Only three minutes had gone when his replacement, the Hungary international Bogdan, gifted Watford the lead. Seemingly distracted by Troy Deeney’s run, he dropped Ben Watson’s left-wing corner and Nathan Ake jabbed in.
Bogdan’s uneasiness continued and he was fortunate after 33 minutes that his punched clearance, having struck Lucas, spun away from Ighalo just as he seemed like having a tap-in. Similarly the vulnerability from set-pieces that gave West Brom the point was still evident, Bogdan ending up making a sharp save as a Watson corner almost arced straight in.
Liverpool just seemed to be settling when Watford scored a second. Deeney outbattled Lucas for a loose ball in the center-circle and played a ball over the top. Ighalo ran on, held off Skrtel, and tucked an awkward bouncing finish in off the far post. It was a goal scored essentially because two Watford players had shown greater desire than their opponents.
The introduction of Divock Origi – perhaps significantly brought on ahead of Christian Benteke – at least gave Liverpool a focal point and, playing with the wind in the second half, it at least threatened a fightback, Heurelho Gomes making one superb save from Henderson. But the pressure was never sustained and, with Lucas installed at center-back, Liverpool always looked likely to concede again.
Not that that was necessarily the Brazilian’s fault. Alongside him, Sakho ever got to grips with Ighalo, who embarrassed him a couple of times with the trademark dragback he has dubbed “the Iggy Chop”. Twice in five minutes midway through the second half, Ighalo dumped Sakho on his backside, the second tome, as he ran onto Jose Manuel Jurado’s pass drawing a fine save from Bogdan that perhaps made some amends for his earlier howler.
It was that error, though, that set the game down its path, one that was deeply troubling for Liverpool. For Watford, though, the season f unexpected glee continued as Ighalo rounded off an incisive counter by heading in Valon Behrami’s cross for his 12th goal of the campaign.