Liverpool's failure to close out games rooted in fitness issues
Late drama on Sunday between Liverpool and Tottenham turned a humdrum 1-0 home victory into a 2-2 "classic." Ask the fans at Anfield which they'd prefer and there would be a huge vote for humdrum win, but this isn't the first time the Reds have squandered late points and almost certainly won't be the last based on this evidence.
Everyone focused on the two penalty decisions late on, both for Tottenham and both contentious, yet the visitors were on top for almost the entire second half and had already grabbed a deserved equaliser. While Spurs didn't deserve to lose, how they eventually managed to stave off defeat was hard to swallow.
When the dust settles it will be Jurgen Klopp's task to solve a problem that will surely recur throughout the rest of the season. His players clearly put too much effort into the first hour of the game and though his substitutions tried to fix the problem it made little difference.
Tottenham simply rode out the storm, kept the deficit to 1-0 and took control. Victor Wanyama's superb equaliser struck a killer blow and left more than enough time for the visitors to seal victory. There seemed little that a spent Liverpool side could do to stop them.
This was also evident against Manchester City three weeks ago. Even after a three-goal second half blitz gave the Reds a 4-1 lead, it was almost squandered late on. As against Tottenham, a tired James Milner lunge gave away a dangerous free kick outside the box -- indicating physical and mental strength was waning rapidly -- though in that instance they held on for a 4-3 win.
This season Liverpool could have claimed a host of extra points had the referee blown for full-time on 80 minutes rather than 90, beginning on the first day at Watford when Miguel Britos struck at the death to secure a 3-3 draw.
Liverpool since struggled to seal victories against Sevilla -- twice -- Everton, Chelsea and now Tottenham, despite a wonderful second goal from Mohamed Salah that came out of the blue and surely too late for any decent team to concede the lead again.
Klopp's side have been unfortunate with referee decisions. There should have been an offside decision at Watford and Everton's penalty was questionable, as were both of Tottenham's on Sunday. That said, they almost squandered two extra points late on at Leicester and Burnley too.
In the latest instance, fans understandably complained the penalties at the Kop end -- something completely unheard of. Others didn't begrudge the away side their point, although they'll argue against Mauricio Pochettino's absurd suggestion they were "much, much, much the better side." (Even one "much" is too many.)
Liverpool were clearly the better side in a vibrant, dominant first half. Sadly they couldn't keep it up.
It can't be coincidence that most of these late lapses come against the best teams, with superior energy levels and better possession. Both played in midweek, Liverpool easily beating Huddersfield a day earlier than Tottenham's hard fought victory over Manchester United. So if anyone should have lasted the pace on Sunday it ought to have been the team in red.
Fitness and game management are a concern at Anfield. There's no doubt when they hit their top level there's few teams in Europe capable of dealing with them, however the wisest opponents seem to let Liverpool blow themselves out and hope enough time is left to pick them off at the end.
Liverpool's midfield has a tendency to run out of steam and perhaps the workload for three rather than a traditional four players is simply too much?
Jordan Henderson has played well this week but couldn't be expected to last the pace after coming back from injury, while the ever-willing Roberto Firmino looked in need of a rest up front. He won't get it though, because Klopp kept his powder dry in the winter transfer window and his options from the bench were once again limited to Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke
Klopp's style has been a breath of fresh air and when it works it is marvellous to watch but too often supporters watch the later stages of games through their fingers. This happened in 2016-17 when the last few league games became a matter of getting over the line as opposed to the free-flowing football seen previously.
This season there's a complication with the Champions League resuming in February. Klopp's style needs the fittest players and the most stringent training regimes to completely pull it off. He clearly doesn't have those and after 30 months in charge that's a worry.
Liverpool have conceded 38 equalisers during his reign, some in games where Liverpool were two or even three goals clear. That's too many for any team that wants to be successful.
The entertainment is top draw and few games involving Liverpool are boring. But football's harsh reality will eventually punish teams who aren't smart or fit enough to seal victory and the rest of the season will prove if Klopp is capable of solving this conundrum.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.