Liverpool’s trip to Vicarage Road on Saturday was not by any means an unmitigated disaster, but to only pick up a point was a huge disappointment for the whole club. To concede in the last minute made the point gained feel more akin to a defeat.
The Reds actually started quite well, passing with purpose very early on, but then one corner kick changed the course of the game. That decent start has been long forgotten because of what succeeded it.
Nearly a third of the goals Liverpool have conceded under Jurgen Klopp have come from dead-ball situations, which is clearly far too many. The game at Watford proved why.
Dejan Lovren made a good block from Roberto Pereyra’s shot, but the ball went out for a corner. When Jose Holebas crossed in, every single Liverpool player stood and watched, completely motionless, as Stefano Okaka, an absolute beast of a man towering over everyone, was allowed a free run and header from six yards out.
Simon Mignolet had no chance of keeping the ball out as Liverpool’s zonal system was exposed once again.
Abdoulaye Doucoure’s goal just after the brilliant Sadio Mane equaliser was not from a set-piece but was also disappointing. It was unfortunate that it fell to the Frenchman but Liverpool’s defence could have been more resolute.
By the time stoppage time came at the end of the second period, it looked like Liverpool had done enough to escape, but it was not to be.
All the work that Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino did between them, winning and converting the penalty, and then chipping the onrushing Heurelho Gomes and bundling the ball over the line, to put their side in front was undone.
All Watford had to do was force a corner, and the outcome was inevitable. You could feel it coming.
Gini Wijnaldum should have done better when clearing the ball, and although Miguel Britos should have been called offside by the assistant referee, Liverpool had shot themselves in the foot once more, failing to clear their lines when given the opportunity.
This is not a one-off, either, but a constant, persistent issue. Ever since Jurgen Klopp arrived, and even before that, Liverpool have been incapable of defending from a corner.
There have been times in recent seasons where Liverpool supporters have lived in fear of conceding a set-piece, loudly groaning whenever the ball went behind off one of their players, knowing full well what was to come.
This season has gotten off on the same foot.
There is no doubt about it: set-pieces, not the assistant referee, cost Liverpool all three points. It is not the first time, and unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last.
Having had all summer to rectify the problem, the frustration continues. It is not like it comes as a surprise that defending dead-ball situations is the Red’s Achilles heel.
It is not a debate over zonal marking or man-to-man methods, either – both can work, but only if the players on the pitch do their jobs. On Saturday, like so many times before, Liverpool’s players did not.
Roberto Firmino was closest to the ball, making him look most statuesque, but every other man back defending was exactly the same. That is not a case of zonal marking being inept, but the players involved in the system – they were reactive, not proactive, and far too slow and weak.
Defending set-pieces is by no means the only issue – Liverpool’s defending in general sometimes leaves a little to be desired – but cutting out sloppy, avoidable goals would make a big difference. In a campaign where all of the top six look incredibly well-matched, it could be the difference between Champions League or Europa League next season.
At the end of the season, it could be so close at the top that Liverpool look back ruefully at the opening day when they threw away points with calamitous defending, knowing had they been more switched on, they could have finished fourth instead of fifth. Time will tell, but that would be incredibly frustrating.
The result at Watford is the prime, and most recent, example. Had Liverpool properly defended the two set-piece goals as they should have done with relative ease, they would have won the match comfortably.
Instead of sitting here worrying about the standard of the team, discussions would revolve around how Liverpool had done well to fight back, how impressive Salah was in the second half, or how good a finish it was from Mane on Liverpool’s first goal, not to mention the intricate passing required to open up the space.
The mood is completely different to how everyone expected it to be at this early stage, and proper defending from corners would have seen a completely different story.
With European games and more difficult league fixtures to come, set-pieces need to be addressed, and quickly. It is an urgent issue and one that could shape the way the season pans out for Liverpool.
Failure to make a substantial improvement in the area would be disastrous.
Matt Addison writes a column each week for @AnfieldPress, covering all of the major talking points in the world of Liverpool FC throughout the season. Follow him on Twitter at @MattAddison97.