Liverpool midfield's inability to retain possession is exposing shaky defence
SEVILLE, Spain -- Ultimately, when you concede two goals from crosses into the penalty area, it is difficult to absolve defenders from the blame, and there is never any shortage of finger-pointing toward Liverpool's back four when the ball ends up in the back of their net.
There are some basics that every defence has to master, and -- no surprise here -- Liverpool's failure to do the simplest of tasks in their 18-yard box is costing them time after time, just as it did in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, with Sevilla overturning a 3-0 half-time deficit to claim a remarkable 3-3 draw following Guido Pizarro's stoppage-time equaliser.
Guess what? Pizarro's goal came after Liverpool failed to clear a corner, allowing the Sevilla midfielder to beat goalkeeper Loris Karius from the loose ball. Earlier, the diminutive forward Wissam Ben Yedder was allowed to direct a header into the net for Sevilla's first, despite being one of the smallest players on the pitch.
On the face of it, the usual basic errors in defence cost Liverpool, and it was a case of Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno, Ragnar Klavan & Co. being the culprits for another failure to hold on for victory.
Jurgen Klopp's defenders deserve to be scrutinised once again, but the group of Liverpool players who continually escape the spotlight are those whose job it is protect the back four: the midfielders.
Klopp hinted at his frustration with the likes of Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum without directly criticising them after the game, speaking instead of his team's failure to retain control of the game after the break.
"We stopped playing football in the second half," Klopp said. "We have one real weapon -- playing football -- and we didn't do that in the second half before we conceded the second goal.
"It was absolutely OK that we were confident after that first half. It's obvious what we did. The real problem is we stopped playing football.
"We were passive, a little bit too deep. A team like we are has to control the ball, but we opened the door for them and didn't close it, so they could score in the last minute.
"But my players are human beings. It was a misjudgement. To control the game, it's not allowed to become passive like this."
Klopp's problem is that he does not possess the midfielders to control a game and shut it down when required.
At Borussia Dortmund, he had Ilkay Gundogan to dictate the tempo of a game, with the Germany midfielder, now at Manchester City, capable of retaining possession and keeping the ball away from the opposition. Liverpool do not have a Gundogan, but they have not had a player of that ilk since Xabi Alonso, and he left Anfield way back in 2009.
Henderson, Wijnaldum and Emre Can are all players with similar qualities, but none can orchestrate play and control it like Gundogan or Alonso. The same applies to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain -- remember him? -- and James Milner, who rarely plays in midfield nowadays after arriving at Anfield with the ambition of playing in the centre.
So when Klopp talks of not being able to control a game, it is because he has a gap in his squad in terms of players capable of doing that job for him.
Henderson, whose energy and commitment cannot be questioned, has never convinced as a player who dictates the tempo of a game, and he summed up his own shortcomings by admitting after the game that he didn't know how Liverpool threw the victory away.
"I am not sure [how the collapse happened]," he said. "The first half was very good, disciplined. We scored good goals.
"But the second half was very bad. We didn't start well at all. We stopped playing football and did not get the ball to the front three to cause them problems.
"The message at half-time was to keep going, and they were going to give it a right go. They had nothing to lose, and we could not cope with it."
Teams aiming to win the Champions League know how to keep the ball, however, and suffocate a game. It might not be Klopp's style, but possession is king in football, and Liverpool are too heavily weighted in favour of playing on the counterattack, exploiting the incredible pace of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
But while Liverpool can score goals at will -- this was the fifth successive game in which they scored three or more goals -- their inability to kill a game is killing them.
Yes, the defenders fell short again, but the damage is being done by the midfielders in front of them. If they cannot keep the ball, it inevitably goes to the opponents, and the defenders are then subject to too much pressure and eventually cave in.
It is difficult to see the story changing until Klopp finds himself a new Gundogan or Alonso.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_