This was a thudding reality check for anyone who thought Liverpool, having dusted themselves down over the early winter break, would stroll back into the top four. If they continue defending this badly they will lose ground rapidly rather than gain it: a bright, typically resolute Brentford deserved to beat them but this was equally a defeat self-inflicted by a horror show from their back line. Jürgen Klopp may also be concerned that, with virtually the entire second half to turn things around after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gave them a lifeline, their attacking efforts fizzled out meekly.
Brentford extended their unbeaten run to six games and added this scalp to that of Manchester City. They have drawn with Tottenham and won at West Ham in the same spell, and anyone regarding them as underdogs nowadays is living in the past. If you are not smart, punchy, compact and robust in the duels Thomas Frank’s players will find you out. Every error Liverpool made was exposed to the maximum and the home side’s feat was even more impressive given they might have been expected to struggle in the injury-enforced absence of their talisman, Ivan Toney.
Instead their front two, Yoane Wissa and Bryan Mbeumo, tormented Liverpool through speed and movement. Tenacity did the trick, too. Brentford had barely attacked in the second half, committing intensely to repelling their guests’ huff and puff, when Christian Nørgaard’s long pass offered Mbeumo a race against the embattled Ibrahima Konaté. The centre-back, a substitute in the World Cup final 15 days previously, seemed to have reached the ball first but stumbled and found his opponent had kept going. Mbeumo finished coolly and, with six minutes of regulation time left, the game was up.
It was not Konaté’s worst ricket of the night and what a decision Klopp had to make when, at half-time, he opted to replace Virgil van Dijk with Joël Matip and keep his partner on. Both had been rotten but Van Dijk had looked well off the pace against Wissa and particularly Mbeumo, who left him for dead in an attack that ultimately brought the opener. Alisson spared his blushes with a block on that occasion but the subsequent corner set a tone for everything that followed.
Mbeumo’s delivery, swung in from the right, went above the head of Mathias Jørgensen and struck the shin of an unsighted Konaté, who was rooted as Ben Mee challenged him. The ball squirmed inside Alisson’s near post and it was the softest of ways for Liverpool, who had begun the match relatively well, to go behind. The entire sequence was an object lesson in how not to perform in both boxes: the counter from which Van Dijk was embarrassed came about after Darwin Núñez had failed to retain possession in the Brentford area.
Liverpool did not take heed. Brentford’s next two corners both brought disallowed goals for Wissa, the decisions correct but the defending ramshackle both times. Liverpool were awarded a free-kick for offside after the second but found themselves back under attack immediately, Mbeumo skipping down the right and offering Mathias Jensen a chance to cross. Jensen, who was outstanding throughout, found Wissa’s head and Alisson could not scoop clear in time. But Wissa had barely needed to jump; he had been allowed to pick his spot, with Konaté nowhere in sight and Trent Alexander-Arnold arriving too late to bail his colleague out.
The reality for Klopp, who spoke vaguely of a muscular niggle for Van Dijk afterwards, was that Liverpool had buckled under every sign of pressure. His complaints, carefully veiled in compliments, about Brentford’s use of dark arts at set pieces were unconvincing. So were his players in attempting to overhaul the deficit, although they fired briefly when Oxlade-Chamberlain nodded Alexander-Arnold’s delivery past David Raya in the 50th minute. Three changes at the interval had given them impetus but, beyond an effort dragged horribly wide by Núñez and a header off target by Konaté, they created little as the minutes ticked down.
How things might have differed if Núñez, sent clear by beautiful play from Mohamed Salah during a strong start from Liverpool, had scored after taking the ball around Raya. In mitigation for what followed, the angle was tight and on his weaker left side; he should still have made sure, though, rather than allow a sliding Mee to block heroically and Liverpool continue to reckon with his adaptation to the league’s demands for relentless consistency.
They must also deal with the fact Salah, who saw a shot deflected wide before Mbeumo’s clincher but was peripheral for long periods, has been forced to the fringes more often than they would like. Liverpool’s attack rarely looked smooth, although Raya saved smartly from Kostas Tsimikas before Wissa’s intervention. Brentford showed them what a finely tuned machine looks like at either end.