Liverpool fans at Anfield on Sunday would have been forgiven for thinking they were witnessing a sense of déjà vu when the Reds slipped to a 1-0 deficit against Burnley after less than ten minutes.
Liverpool had lost the reverse encounter with Sean Dyche’s side back in August, with Burnley securing a 2-0 victory – despite Liverpool enjoying over 80% possession – and was helped by an early goal.
Having opened the season with a brilliant 4-3 victory away to Arsenal, it is incredible that so early into the season Liverpool’s pattern for the campaign was set – blow away the bigger teams, struggle against the lesser sides.
In fairness, Burnley have since gone on to prove their victory over Jurgen Klopp’s side was not a fluke, boasting the fifth best home record in the Premier League. It is the reason why they look set to avoid relegation this season, despite having spent far less than almost all sides in the league.
However, away from home Burnley have yet to register a win and have only picked up two draws. Yet for a moment they appeared likely to end that run against Liverpool – which many Liverpool fans would have been cursing as typical fashion for their team.
Burnley’s away form is better than it appears – one of those two draws was against Manchester United at Old Trafford, while they could have easily secured another stalemate against Arsenal at the Emirates, were it not for a dubious goal from Alexis Sánchez, followed by a late penalty.
Nevertheless, Sunday was a game Liverpool had to win, as the Reds have slipped up against many of the teams in the bottom half of the table, not just Burnley. Every one of their five league defeats this season has come from sides occupying these positions – Bournemouth, Swansea City, Hull City, Leicester City and, initially, Burnley.
Despite their admirable record against their fellow members of the ‘Big Six’, there are a far greater number of fixtures against non-Big Six clubs – and Liverpool have suffered from a lack of ruthlessness against these teams, which has cost them dearly in the title race.
By contrast, Chelsea have only dropped four – yes four – points in fixtures against teams outside of the Big Six, emphasizing why Antonio Conte’s outfit are romping to another league title.
Liverpool’s form had been patchy in December – before dropping to dire in January. 2017 has not been kind thus far to the Reds, out of both domestic cup competitions and now facing a fierce fight to finish inside the top four and secure Champions League football for next season.
By stumbling to a 2-1 victory on Sunday against Burnley, Liverpool have stretched their lead in fourth place to five points from Arsenal and six from Manchester United, though both sides hold two games in hand.
With a trip to the Etihad Stadium against Manchester City next for the Reds, before Everton at Anfield after the international break, Liverpool had to secure three points this weekend.
Yes they may possess an unparalleled record against the big teams, but Liverpool cannot rely on guaranteeing wins against sides of such quality. Far better to go for victory in these encounters with the pressure off, having won the games you are expected to win, the bedrock of your points in a league season.
Liverpool have almost tried to build from the opposite direction, and few finish in the top four pursuing such a method – even fewer win titles.
On paper, after the Merseyside Derby Liverpool’s fixture list appears very promising, containing the likes of Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Middlesbrough. All eminently winnable fixtures, but Liverpool need to prove they can actually win games like these on a consistent basis.
Therefore, they can take confidence from beating Burnley on Sunday. Not for the performance, which was wretched, but for their determination and character. They ensured that they would not yet again slip up in a match where they were the overwhelming favourites, against a side that would view any result at Anfield as a bonus.
No one in red was at their best, but the persistence shown from the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can, who were trying to get on the ball, run into the box and make things happen, was eventually rewarded for these two goalscorers.
It was far from pretty, but if Liverpool can adopt this trait by winning ugly, it will stand them in good stead in the battle for the top four.
However, such is the quality of all the teams in the Premier League, Liverpool have to improve their performance levels considerably, making sure that the Burnley victory was not an isolated incident.
Instead, regardless of the results against City and Everton, the Reds need to show until the end of the season that they can break down these lesser teams and remorselessly accumulate victory after victory, both to inspire hope of Champions League football and in preparing for a possible title challenge next season.