Feature Image by 4999603 from Pixabay
Welcome to our very first throwback edition of Anatomy of a Win, a series where we take a look at a famous result and dissect how it happened. This episode is atypical from previous entries in this series for a number of reasons, as not only are we looking at a match from before the 2019-20 season, but we are looking at a match that ended in a draw. Despite it not being a clear win, it remains one of the most famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, moments in recent Premier League history. The six year anniversary of this famous match was yesterday, so I felt the timing of the event made it a perfect topic to cover.
Ok, Liverpool fans. This is your warning. You know what is coming next. If this memory is too bitter to relive, feel free to click off and read one of our other amazing entries. Maybe this is an easier pill to swallow now, since the Reds are most likely going to be crowned champions this season, ending that 30 year drought that was prolonged by the result at Selhurst Park six years ago. I would even argue, and start to argue at the end of this blog, that this match was one of the best things to ever happen to Liverpool. However you feel, you cannot say I did not warn you.
So everyone seemingly knows the story at this point. Liverpool are in a heated title race with Manchester City. A win would put them top by three points going into the final match of the season, but with Manchester City’s 9-goal lead in goal difference, Liverpool could do with scoring quite a few goals to make the title race especially interesting. Liverpool largely dominated the affair, but Palace defended resiliently in the first half. Joe Allen opened the scoring on 18 minutes off of a corner kick, but the lead would only be 1-0 for Brendan Rodgers’ side going into halftime. Liverpool added two more at the beginning of the second half. A deflected shot from Daniel Sturridge and a classy goal from Luis Suarez put the Reds comfortably ahead, and the Liverpool players continued to surge forward in order to create a high scoreline and put more pressure on City. There were more chances, with Liverpool being kept out largely by the defensive efforts of the Palace center backs and the heroics of goalkeeper Julian Speroni.
But in the 79th minute, a speculative shot from Palace midfielder Damien Delaney took a strong deflection off of a Liverpool defender and flew past Simon Mignolet, and the deficit was reduced to 3-1. That goal turned the match on its head, and it was Palace’s turn to pressure the Liverpool defense. Two minutes later, a Yannick Bolasie cutback pass found a near-unmarked Dwight Gayle on the penalty spot, who buried it past Mignolet. 3-2. The Palace pressure mounted, and Liverpool were hanging on to those three points for dear life. In the 88th minute, Glenn Murray chested the ball directly into the path of Gayle, who had a clear, unmarked look at the Liverpool goal, and he did not make a mistake. 3-3. The Liverpool players were stunned, the fans in the away end looked shellshocked, Brendan Rodgers’ face was as white as a ghost. From 3-0 up and in control, Liverpool threw away the three points, and with them went any remaining chance they had at the title.
Normally, we look at the entire match and break down what worked and what did not for both teams, but for this, we are just going to look at the final 10 minutes. What went wrong for Liverpool? Why did they just fall apart like that? What went right for Liverpool in the first 80 minutes is pretty self-explanatory. The dynamism of their front three, paired with the sheer world class form that Luis Suarez found himself in that season, created multiple different problems that the Palace defense could not handle. Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva were able to control the midfield, which provided them with a constant platform from which to attack. The amount of attention that Suarez regularly, and rightfully, attracted from defenses gave Sturridge, Sterling, and, later, Coutinho the spaces to attack and opportunities to take chances.
Now let us go through all of the major events in that last ten minutes and talk about what happened and why it did happen.
Damien Delaney’s goal was largely incredible luck, or misfortune from Liverpool’s perspective. Could Liverpool have pressured the ball in midfield more? Maybe, but they still were defensively solid and in control during that move. Could Liverpool have put more pressure on Delaney before he shot? Maybe, but despite Delaney having some time on the ball, Glenn Johnson was still in a good enough position to close off the shot. It was Johnson’s slight turn upon the ball striking him that caused the deflection that Mignolet had no chance in saving. Could Johnson had done a better job at deflecting the ball away from the goal? Again, maybe, but it is hard to find one specific thing Liverpool’s defense did wrong that led to the goal. It was just quite unfortunate for them.
It was abundantly clear to all watching that Liverpool panicked following Delaney’s goal. Their decision making was more rash, and, apart from a few chances, Liverpool hardly got forward and attacked. Suarez, Sturridge, and Coutinho were isolated in the final third, and Palace’s midfield was able to grab control of the match from the flustered Liverpool midfield. Counter-attacking from a corner, Yannick Bolasie was able to easily use his pace to get past Johnson. The Englishman was able to recover well, but Bolasie still was able to find the space to play a pass to Gayle, who was unmarked right in the middle of the box. Jon Flanagan, the closest Liverpool defender, seemed to recognize where Gayle was but did nothing to mark him or stop the cross in from Bolasie. The finish from Gayle was by no means easy, but the lackadaisical defending from the Liverpool back line, a common theme of that season, made the goal much easier for Bolasie and Gayle to execute.
Before we get to the third goal, there is another event to discuss, something that gets buried beneath the story of Palace’s comeback. On the Liverpool corner right before Palace’s second goal, Palace midfielder Joe Ledley appears to bring Steven Gerrard down in the box. The Liverpool captain’s appeals for a penalty went unanswered by the referee Mark Clattenburg and by the linesman, who seemed to have a clear enough view of the event. Had the penalty been awarded, and the elite penalty taker Gerrard converted from the spot, it is likely that Palace’s momentum would have been stymied and Liverpool would have gone on to win the match, and possibly the league title. Now, was it a penalty? I have seen contact in the penalty area legislated in different ways, with some officials being more stringent than others. It is hard to blame Clattenburg, whose view of the situation was blocked, but the view of the linesman was more or less clear. Had VAR been in existence in 2014, I imagine this would have been given. Personally, I would give the penalty. Ledley clearly impedes, wraps up, and seemingly almost rugby tackles Gerrard. In any other area of the pitch, that would be a clear foul. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the penalty was not given, and Gayle would score moments later.
Following the second goal, Liverpool completely lost control. Palace dominated possession in the final eight minutes, and Liverpool hardly got a touch of the ball apart from hasty and panicked clearances. The calming presence that Steven Gerrard usually exudes did not provide any help in Liverpool’s midfield, and the Reds captain was not able to make his presence felt apart from a few defensive blocks in the final ten minutes. All 20 outfield players were more or less camped in Liverpool’s half. Relentless Palace attacks, usually revolving around Bolasie’s pace and trickery on the ball, were held at bay by the Reds’ defense, but they were unable to relieve the pressure on their goal. Scott Dann’s long pass was knocked down by Murray into the path of Gayle, who would score the third and most damning of the goals. Martin Skrtel stepped up to challenge Murray, but timed it poorly. Skrtel was never going to beat Murray to the ball or challenge the 50/50, and him stepping up created space behind him, which Gayle moved to occupy. Murray did a very good job knocking the ball directly into Gayle’s path, allowing him to get the ball in stride with time to place his shot. Mamadou Sakho could not step to Gayle, as he had to mark Tom Ince’s darting run into the box, and Johnson was too far away to cover the Palace striker in time. Because of Skrtel’s mistake, Gayle had the time and space necessary to score the back-breaking goal. The error-prone defense that had plagued Liverpool all season finally came back to haunt them.
We all know what happened after. Liverpool went top of the league temporarily, but City used their game in hand to establish a two point lead over the Reds. City would beat West Ham 2-0 on the final day of the season to seal their title and prolong the Liverpudlian title drought. Liverpool’s defeat in South London, dubbed “Crystanbul” ironically named after Liverpool’s famous comeback in the 2005 Champions League Final in Istanbul, was the final nail in the coffin of their title dream. The next season, Luis Suarez was sold to Barcelona, while Liverpool would whimper to a 6th place finish. Steven Gerrard would leave the club after 17 years upon expiration of his contract. The very next season, Raheem Sterling was sold to City, and Brendan Rodgers would be sacked following a 1-1 draw against Everton which left the Reds in 10th. Jürgen Klopp would be hired to replace him, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I would make the argument that Crystanbul, while it was a horrible memory for Liverpool fans for years, was a defining moment in the modern history of Liverpool Football Club. That night in South London kicked off the series of events that led to the champions-elect Liverpool team we see today. The situation that resulted following the 2013-14 season gave the Liverpool board a chance to rethink their transfer strategy, and the departures of Suarez and Sterling gave them the funds to actualize their rethought ideas. Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Divock Origi, Emre Can, Roberto Firmino, Joe Gomez, and James Milner would all arrive on Merseyside in the two seasons following Crystanbul, and all would play a part in the club’s ascent under Klopp. The departure of Gerrard gave Klopp the opportunity to pass on the captaincy, and an increased role in the team, to a young but bright and hard-working midfielder named Jordan Henderson. Two years after Crystanbul, they suffered heartbreak in the Europa League final, but their performance stood as a testament to the amount of progress Klopp made in a short space of time. This could all be covered in a much longer blog, but I think this is an important legacy of this match that is not often discussed, and it is why I believe this is one of the most important moments in recent Premier League history.
That is how Palace completed their improbable comeback and ended Liverpool’s season. It was kicked off by a bit of luck, but the dominating control of the Palace midfield, paired with the dynamic attacking flair of Bolasie and the directness of Gayle, created too many problems for an already weak Liverpool back line. Liverpool’s lack of composure compounded their issues, and all of those combined for one of the most iconic matches in the Premier League this decade.