The sense of déjà vu could not be shifted on Sunday afternoon, even though the circumstances were contrasting. There were 196 days separating Southampton’s double use of a straightjacket on Liverpool in the league, but while the goalless draw at St Mary’s in November kept Jurgen Klopp’s side at the summit of the division, the stalemate by the same scoreline at Anfield over the weekend left them clawing on in the top four.
Still third in the standings on 70 points, with Arsenal doing them a favour in a 2-0 victory against Manchester United, the Merseysiders have been short of the swagger that defined them at the start of the season as they crawl closer to the Champions League.
Since Sadio Mane sustained meniscus damage in the 3-1 victory over Everton at Anfield on April 1, they have failed to win games there against Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Claude Puel’s men. “It’s not what I want,” Klopp, still without a league victory against Southampton, admitted post-match. “First of all, I think to be successful you have to have kind of a fortress at home, that’s very important.”
Seven goals have been scored in the six fixtures sans the Senegal international, three of which have been worldies; Emre Can’s overhead wonder at Watford, Philippe Coutinho’s curling free-kick in the defeat to the Eagles, and Roberto Firmino’s swerving volley which undid Stoke.
Liverpool’s attack has been colourless in recent weeks, with the club largely benefitting from individual brilliance, but is that by design?
Following Mane’s setback, with captain Jordan Henderson also unavailable with a foot problem and Adam Lallana nursing a thigh issue at the time, Klopp revealed he would be changing tact to make his team “as strong, as compact and as ugly to play as possible.”
That template has served the Reds well on their travels to the bet365 Stadium, West Bromwich Albion and Vicarage Road, where seeing the game out has been most fundamental.
“We should think about how we can defend, not how dominant we can be,” Klopp added on how Liverpool would tackle their run-in.
“Maybe we can surprise one of the other teams with good organisation, good defending, good counter-attacks. Why not?”
The flaws in this gameplan has come at Anfield, where the Reds need to be authoritative and inventive. They absolutely should be thinking about how dominant they can be on their own turf, especially when the opposition are as uninterested in attacking as Southampton were on Sunday.
The visitors did not register a single shot at all in the first half and finished the game with four - each off target. The south-coast club unsurprisingly adopted the template they had thrice used to successful effect against Liverpool this season; being compact, deep and deterrent to record yet another clean sheet.
The Reds were allowed possession, but no space as they tried to disorganise the Saints. They were frustrated into trying to break the deadlock from distance, with four out of their five shots in the first half coming from outside the box. Twelve of their total 17 materialised this way, and the eight attempts Liverpool put on target were the most they’ve managed in a top-flight fixture without scoring this season.
Puel’s incredibly disciplined charges only ever looked susceptible when playing out from the back, putting them in danger of ceding the ball under the press of the home forwards.
But Liverpool, too slow and predictable with Klopp highlighting the unhelpfulness of a dry pitch, just didn’t do enough to unsettle Southampton. Their use of 65% possession was hardly ever threatening, with substitute Daniel Sturridge creating more chances in his 25-minute cameo than anyone else on the pitch.
It was an afternoon Divock Origi will want to erase entirely as he managed just seven passes before being replaced by the England international. Klopp’s command to his attackers is to “always be an option,” but the Belgian floated on the periphery.
Gini Wijnaldum, often impeccable since his summer switch from Newcastle, was practically invisible in the encounter. Neither full-back offered anywhere close to what was required of them in an attacking sense - a complaint not confined to the goalless draw.
Most of the action actually happened on the touchline at Anfield as an incensed Klopp argued with fourth official Anthony Taylor over some of the decisions taken by referee Robert Madley.
The man in the middle did, however, blow in Liverpool’s favour on 64 minutes. He awarded a penalty against Jack Stephens for handling in the area, before goalkeeper Fraser Forster, James Ward-Prowse, Maya Yoshida and Ryan Bertrand all tried to put James Milner off.
Having not missed a penalty in the league since November 2009 against Bolton for Aston Villa, the 31-year-old saw his right-footed effort towards the bottom-left corner saved by the Saints stopper, who had scuffed the spot prior to his kick.
“I really don’t like it, even after we only drew, to make now a story of it,” Klopp said of the incident.
“You saw what happened, so you don’t need my say on it. It’s not how I understand how you should handle a situation like this. On one hand people will say it was very smart because Milly missed, but on the other people will say it’s not how sportsmanship works.
“It is how it is. It took a long time, it’s not nice, but in the end two yellow cards for them [Ward-Prowse and Cedric Soares].
“But with this delay and the time play of Southampton - I don’t know how long Forster needed altogether for his kicks - four minutes [added time], I have to say that’s ambitious. But obviously I have nothing to do with it, I can’t decide and whatever we say, you always look then like bad losers or whatever.”
Klopp immediately threw on Sturridge and Lallana to affect the game, with the former looking dangerous. He was “not 100%” to start, and with the England duo’s sessions being managed, the Reds boss had to take a cautious stance with both.
Liverpool are undoubtedly a more creative force with the pair, but their problem at the moment is not being able to marry pragmatism with poetry. It doesn’t have to be one or the other and that is a major lesson they need to carry into next season: balancing expansiveness with the ability to be artful.
Two fixtures remain of the current one, however, with a trip to West Ham followed by the hosting of Middlesbrough.
“Before today we needed three wins and obviously now I would say two would not be bad,” the German stated. “It really makes sense that we are really concentrated on West Ham… We are still fighting and nobody has given up or something like this.”
Returning to Europe’s premier club competition is still in Liverpool’s hands courtesy of United’s defeat at the Emirates.
Jose Mourinho’s men are five points behind them with a game to spare, while Arsenal are seven away with two catch-up fixtures. Manchester City are currently in fourth spot and are one point short of Liverpool with a match in reserve.
The finishing line is in sight, but the Reds cannot solely rely on favours nor majestic goals to get them over it.
Liverpool started 2016-17 in an assertive way, shaping their own destiny, and as they look to secure Champions League football for only the second time in eight seasons, they have to take control again.