With 91 minutes on the clock Liverpool seemed to have done enough to return from the south coast with hinges creaking, parts falling off, but three points safely stowed away. An empty Amex Stadium on a sunny November lunchtime might seem one of football’s friendlier away dates. But Jürgen Klopp’s team were stretched to the limits in this 1-1 draw, and denied at the end by a penalty awarded by the VAR.
Was it a clear and obvious error? Is anything clear right now? Andy Robertson went to punt the ball away, but ended up kicking Danny Welbeck’s foot as he nipped in. In slow motion it looked like a foul. Then again, the game is played at full speed and there was little Robertson could do to avoid making contact in what is, after all, a contact sport.
Overall, it wasn’t so wrong as to be not right, and it wasn’t so right as to be clearly not wrong. Welcome to football, 2020, the age of studied imperfection. As Graham Potter offered afterwards: “Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t.” Which doesn’t seem much different from where we started out.
A point was enough to reinstall Liverpool at the top of the table. But Klopp’s suspicion the planets are arranged against him right now will have been confirmed. Liverpool scored one goal, had two chalked off by VAR, and were pegged back by that late video intervention, the penalty kick scored by Pascal Gross.
Afterwards Klopp confirmed that he wasn’t expecting any of his injured midfielders back in the next few days. He also returned pointedly to the subject of five substitutes: “If we had had five subs today, I [would] have taken Andy Robertson off for the last 20 minutes for common sense.”
None of this should distract from the fact Brighton were bold in their attacking play and fully deserved a point. Neal Maupay missed a penalty in the first half. Danny Welbeck gave a high-class performance of all-round centre forward-ship. Plus, the season is a slog right now. Victories will be wrung out in blood and twanging muscles, points will be dropped.
Much had been made in the build-up of Liverpool’s heavy workload. Here they played a Saturday lunchtime game to follow a Wednesday night, although the early kick-off gave more recovery space for Tuesday’s Champions League game. The real problem is structural: too much football, too little time.
Both managers selected a cavalier starting XI. Potter fielded three forward players, Maupay taking up a space in between Aaron Connolly and Welbeck. Klopp gave Takumi Minamino a start in a 4-2-3-1, with Mo Salah its most forward point.
The Amex was a lovely sight at kick-off, stands doused with sunshine, mist curling across the hills, the blue and red shapes sharp against the green. As were Liverpool in the early moments, Robertson and Salah combining sharply. But it was Brighton who had the first clear chance. A simple pass from Maupay was all it took to send Connolly scuttling in on goal. The finish was a casual thing, Connolly opening his body and curling a shot past the post when he needed to be merciless.
In that moment the seams of this make-do-and-mend Liverpool team were visible. Understandably so, with four members of the first-choice midfield and defence absent. That weakness was there again on 19 minutes as Neco Williams went to tackle with his left foot, reaching across Connolly as he ran in on goal and tripping his man. Maupay’s kick was poor, side-footed past the post as Alisson dived the other way.
For the rest of the half Brighton went toe to toe with the champions, the forwards upsetting Liverpool’s attempts to play the ball out from the back by marking everyone but Nat Phillips, who is a defender above all. Cruel, but effective.
Liverpool had a goal disallowed for a VAR offside, Salah sprinting on to Roberto Firmino’s fine pass, but dallying a few millimetres beyond the final man. It was so marginal as to seem both debatable and overly punitive. But Salah was also at fault. He doesn’t need to be that close to the line, such is his speed.
Klopp had seen enough. Jordan Henderson came on at half-time, with James Milner moving to right-back. There was more zip to the Liverpool passing. And just before the hour they scored. Robertson carried the ball in off the left and funnelled it to Salah, who moved it on to Diogo Jota. He feinted past a defender, took another step and then clipped a low shot into the corner.
The goal was Jota’s eighth in eight games for Liverpool. Again it was the clarity of his movement that stood out here, a forward who is always either in space or moving towards it.
Adam Lallana went on and then off again eight minutes later. Milner limped off to be replaced by Curtis Jones. Phillips produced an outstanding clearance in front of goal. Sadio Mané headed in from a free-kick but was ruled offside by VAR.
And at the last Brighton found their equaliser. They deserved a point. Klopp will still see two missed.