Jurgen Klopp arrives at Vicarage Road on Saturday looking to banish memories of his Liverpool side’s most recent visit to Herfordshire, a performance which will surely still haunt the German.
On February 29, 2020, Liverpool were flying. Top of the Premier League with a lead that grew week upon week, it seemed only a matter of time before the Reds would get their hands on a first league title in 30 years.
More pertinently, Liverpool’s league record read: 26 wins, one draw, no defeats. With just 11 games remaining, Reds supporters travelled to Hertfordshire with a burgeoning confidence that Klopp’s men could emulate Arsenal of 2003-04 and win the league as Invincibles.
Vicarage Road does not hold happy memories for Jurgen Klopp ahead of Liverpool’s visit
Ismaila Sarr (centre) and Troy Deeney (right) ran riot to put three past them in February 2020
Yet three goals in 20 minutes shattered that dream, with the Premier League leaders sent packing to Merseyside having been pummelled 3-0 by Nigel Pearson’s strugglers.
This was a story of pace and power undoing Liverpool’s imperious defence. First, Troy Deeney outmuscled Dejan Lovren to allow Abdoulaye Doucoure to advance to the byline. The Frenchman picked out Ismaila Sarr at the back post and he slotted home with ease.
Just six minutes later, Sarr was in again. Will Hughes caught Virgil van Dijk and Lovren off guard with a wonderful through ball for the Senegalese, who sat Alisson Becker down with a wonderful chip to send Vicarage Road into raptures.
Troy Deeney well and truly burst Liverpool’s bubble in the 72nd minute, coolly sweeping home after Sarr latched onto a defensive lapse to tee up his captain.
That defeat ended Liverpool’s 27-game unbeaten run and shattered their invincible dream
While Liverpool’s title was all but wrapped up, this defeat served as a hammer blow to Klopp’s champions-elect, and provided a huge shot in the arm for Pearson’s relegation-battling side.
‘It is a very satisfying and fantastic win, but with 10 games left we have got an awful lot of work to do,’ Pearson reflected after his side’s seismic win.
‘Our season so far has been I suppose littered with disappointment so we have a lot of catching up to do.’
‘I am not surprised by the performance because it would mean I have never seen something like that before – and I have seen it a lot of times,’ Klopp said. ‘We didn’t perform like we should have and Watford performed exactly how they wanted.
The Liverpool boss took away several lessons from his side’s pummelling in Hertfordshire
Dejan Lovren was no longer good enough for the top level and played just 17 more minutes
‘You break records because you are 100 per cent focused on each step you have to do, whatever record it is – a marathon or whatever – and for that you have to perform.
‘The boys performed and that’s why we won the games, but tonight we were not good enough and that’s not now a plus for me that I think in history, when they look back in 500 years and will say “Liverpool nearly did it!” That’s not my main concern, you cannot change that and it was always clear, sometime we would lose a game.
‘We didn’t wait for it, but it was clear it would happen – we didn’t think about it, but we knew it would happen and tonight it happened.’
Every game provides a lesson, and Liverpool’s defeat at Vicarage Road shone a light on a number of realities for Klopp.
Firstly, Lovren was no longer at the standard required to compete at the highest level. The Croat featured just once following that loss to Watford – a 17-minute cameo against Everton in early March – before being sold to Zenit St Petersburg that summer.
More pertinently, Liverpool’s rivals learnt that defensive colossus Virgil van Dijk is human
Plenty has changed at Watford since that night 20 months ago, with the side much altered
Claudio Ranieri has been tasked with keeping them in the Premier League and he has a good record against Liverpool
Equally, Liverpool’s Premier League rivals learnt that Van Dijk is human. The Dutchman was outstanding for 27 league games before the Watford visit, but Sarr exposed the frailties of a high defensive line when met with raw pace and power.
And that match-up between Van Dijk and Sarr provided the blueprint as to how to get at Liverpool’s defence. The Reds have since shipped seven goals to Aston Villa, three at Brentford and three at home to Leeds, as sides have adopted that fast and physical style to unnerve Klopp’s side.
So, what to expect this time around? Watford are a very different proposition to the side that put three past Liverpool 20 months ago, after they were ultimatley relegated before bouncing back up last season. Sarr is the only surviving member of the Hornets attack from that game, with Etienne Capoue, Doucoure, Hughes, Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu all leaving the club.
In true Watford fashion, they have also been through a few managers since that night. Pearson was sacked before the end of the campaign, Vladimir Ivic came in for the start of last season in the Championship before being replaced by Xisco Munoz, who was given his marching orders before this international break despite taking them back to the top flight.
Claudio Ranieri is now the man tasked with staving off relegation for the Hornets, and while his most recent spell in the Premier League with Fulham went miserably, his home record against Liverpool provides signs of encouragement that he can get this tenure off to a flyer.
The wily Italian has won four of his five home league games against the Anfield side – the best home record of any Premier League manager to have played five or more games against them.
His only defeat came in 2004, when a Bruno Cheyrou goal earned Liverpool a 1-0 win against Ranieri’s Chelsea side at Stamford Bridge, three months before his sacking.
As they did 20 months ago, Liverpool arrive at Vicarage Road unbeaten – although their seven-game run pales into comparison with the 27-game effort of 2019-20.
The Reds have been rampant in front of goal this season. Mohamed Salah is in sensational form and leads the Premier League scoring charts with six goals, while Diogo Jota and Sadio Mane are also providing much-needed ammunition that was missing for large parts of last season.
But Liverpool have still shown signs of frailty at the back. They were outmuscled by Brentford in their 3-3 draw last month and have shipped two goals against Man City and AC Milan respectively.
With the margin for error razor-thin in this hotly-contested title race, there is simply no room for slip ups for Klopp’s side, who will hope for no more mistakes in Hertfordshire.
With the margin for error razor-thin, Klopp will hope for no more slip ups in Hertfordshire