Liverpool again show they will sacrifice style in favour of results on the road to the Premier League title
BRIGHTON, England -- In any title-winning season there are games that end up being almost forgotten: staging posts along the road that offer essential nourishment but nothing in the way of vivid scenery.
Should Liverpool see the job through in May, this laborious win over an excellently drilled Brighton side will only merit a few seconds of the highlight reel. It will not matter one bit, because these may prove to be their most important three points of the entire campaign.
Make no mistake, there were question marks over Jurgen Klopp's side before this one; the smallest of signs that their narrow defeat at Manchester City had opened up wider wounds would have been seized upon. If that sounds harsh, it is just the way things work these days when you are in the throes of a title race with a margin for error that appears smaller than ever.
"From a maturity point of view, I would say it was the most mature of the season," Klopp said of a slow-burning affair that was decided three minutes after half-time by a Mohamed Salah penalty. At full-time Klopp allowed himself an understated fist pump, and it was a reaction in character with the previous 90 minutes. There was not a lot to warm the blood -- not even when Brighton, who had fulfilled one of Chris Hughton's primary objectives by still being in the game with 10 minutes to go, sent the cavalry up at the end. But there was a coolness, a shared purpose, a diligence to Liverpool that has been the hallmark of their current campaign as much as the full-throttle approach that characterised the previous two.
"We are not the Harlem Globetrotters," Klopp said. "We have to deliver a result, and that's difficult." It was a revealing statement, because it reiterated that Liverpool are absolutely content to be mean and grim-faced when it suits them. Last season they won this fixture 5-1, blowing Brighton away either side of half-time. That never looked on the cards this time but nor, really, did any kind of mishap once they were ahead. With six minutes to play Roberto Firmino could be seen tracking back 30 yards to dispossess Anthony Knockaert, thwarting a promising counter for the hosts. in the time that remained there were big defensive interventions from Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk, and those were the moments that satisfied Klopp as much as any.
"It was obviously a big challenge for everyone to stay calm and concentrated because each little situation can be a massive threat on the counter or whatever," he continued. "And not to make any fouls because Brighton are unbelievably strong on set pieces. That level of concentration is difficult to keep, but they did it."
It was a particular relief that Fabinho, whose increasing prominence in midfield had been a big factor in Liverpool's recent form, stayed firm at the back. He faced a gnarled, wily customer in Glenn Murray, and when he let the striker go in the 15th minute, watching in relief as the resulting header looped over, their shortage of centre-back bodies seemed at risk of being laid bare. Fabinho took an arm in the face from Murray shortly afterwards but would respond later with one of his own; after that rocky start he looked well attuned to the physical battle and excelled just before the hour, too, with a vital block from Pascal Gross's goal-bound shot.
Fabinho has a "defending brain", Klopp said, and it is testament to Liverpool that this can now be said of the entire side. They did not function as effectively going forward: Salah's first sight of goal had come only a minute before his winner, which came after Gross had clumsily halted his run into the box from the right. He missed a gilt-edged chance to wrap things up near the end, and Sadio Mane saw an effort deflected wide, too; Klopp said Liverpool's finishing was a bigger issue than their creativity but, in practice, their clear openings could comfortably be counted on one hand.
That might remain the case if future opponents follow the lead of Brighton, who were happy to sit in and avoid a repeat of their thrashing from 2017-18. "If you play an open and expansive game against them and go two or three down then generally there's no way back," Hughton said.
Perhaps a carefree, "heavy metal" Liverpool performance might have blown their resistance away far earlier, andd it may yet be, if the league leaders continue to find assignments like this slow going, that a more forceful approach is required to ensure the wins keep coming. A better balance might yet be struck to dispose of palpably weaker foes more comfortably. But this felt, for all its turgidness, like a return to business.
"If you fall from the horse, you can go back on it," Klopp said. Liverpool did that here, even if how they managed it becomes a footnote in history four months from now.