Back in August, it might have seemed unimaginable for Brentford to top their 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United, but they came close here against Liverpool. They had the ball in the net four times in the first half, at least, as Liverpool lost their heads and suffered a defeat that is as damaging as it is embarrassing. Perhaps the harshest truth that Jurgen Klopp must face is that his team looked like the version of Manchester United those on Merseyside have enjoyed mocking in recent years: weak defensively and lacking leadership across the pitch.
Even without Ivan Toney, Brentford bullied Liverpool, producing the full experience of what you expect from Thomas Frank’s side in this corner of west London. The damage was done in the first half thanks to Yoane Wissa, and it was sealed late on as Bryan Mbeumo barged Ibrahima Konate aside to add Brentford’s third. Without Toney, Brentford were not dialled down but rather powered up by the deployment of Mbeumo and Wissa as split strikers. Mbeumo was a constant menace with his inswinging delivery, while Wissa more than replicated Toney’s hustle and bustle. He doubled Brentford’s lead before half-time, after he had seen two other goals disallowed in a frantic period of play.
All of which is a damning indictment of Liverpool’s alarming regression. This was a display that mirrored the defensive vulnerability and fragility of some of their worst displays in the early days of Klopp. But a team who were on for the quadruple last season, the mentality monsters, crumbled. They were a shambles when asked to face up to Brentford’s direct assaults, as poor at times as the Manchester United side thrashed here at the start of the season. That might be the worst insult of all, and the reality is bleaker still, given how Erik ten Hag’s side have turned it around and now sit four points above them in fourth with a game in hand.
But Brentford’s remarkable Premier League journey continues. With another top-six scalp under their belts, Frank’s side have now beaten both Liverpool and Manchester City this season, two of Europe’s outstanding sides from last campaign. Brentford are rarely accommodating hosts and Liverpool should have known what was coming. They emerged from Kew Bridge last season with a bloody nose following a 3-3 thriller and Liverpool again failed to deal with the bombardment that was inevitably going to come their way. Brentford exposed the issues in Klopp’s side that had been rather covered over by the World Cup break and four-game winning run in the Premier League.
That has now come to an abrupt end, and the task Liverpool have to catch up to the Champions League positions is all the more harder now. The heart of the problems were in defence, with Virgil van Dijk taken off at half time and Konate struggling on his first appearance since the last eight minutes in the World Cup final. It was his touch that beat Alisson as Brentford took the lead midway through the first half, as Mbeumo’s inswinging corner brushed off Ben Mee’s hand and deflected in off the France international’s thigh.
Liverpool had just been rescued by Alisson when Wissa found the space behind Van Dijk to play in Mbeumo, but they did not heed the warning as Brentford sparked chaos in Liverpool’s box. It would not be the last time, either. Shortly after taking the lead, another Mbeumo corner from the right was flicked on at the near post and scrambled in by Wissa. The striker was offside but Mbeumo had Liverpool worried with his inswinging corners to the front post.
Mbeumo then hung one back, finding Wissa. His shot deflected in off Mee, who was offside this time. It was another let off for Liverpool, after Alisson had led the furious remonstrations towards the assistant referee. Given that fury, Liverpool’s response was astonishing. From the free kick, Harvey Elliott lost possession. Mbeumo rolled it back to Vitaly Janelt. Trent Alexander-Arnold was caught outnumbered at the back post. Wissa climbed at the back post and beat Alisson with a downward header. In the delirium, this one counted.
Liverpool’s heads were spinning and Klopp was ruthless with his changes at the break. Van Dijk, Elliott and Kostas Tsimikas, who missed a clear opportunity to equalise when Liverpool were 1-0 down, were brought off in a triple change. Within two minutes, Darwin Nunez had the ball in the net thanks to a composed, volley finish past David Raya, only it was Liverpool’s turn to have a goal disallowed. Nunez, as he is often prone to do, had strayed offside before latching onto Thiago’s lofted pass behind the Brentford defence.
It was more misery for Nunez, who might have given Liverpool the lead after eight minutes were it not for some excellent defending from Mee on the line. Mohamed Salah brought the ball down and his precise pass to find Nunez was as lovely as his initial touch. The striker’s took the ball around Raya, only for Mee to slide in on the line to divert it wide. It was Nunez’s 18th shot since the World Cup without scoring. Some of those have been poor finishes, but there have been other examples of bad luck, of a player who can’t get a break. This was another such example.
Yet, after half-time, Klopp did find the response he was looking for. Alexander-Arnold produced an excellent cross with his left foot to set up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s header within five minutes of the restart. It was Alexander-Arnold's first Premier League assist of the season while Oxlade-Chamberlain had his first goal in 12 months. If Cody Gakpo had been registered to make his Liverpool debut, perhaps Oxlade-Chamberlain would not have played.
But Liverpool were lacking attacking inspiration and spark that they are suddenly desperate for Gakpo to provide. Salah was quiet apart from his early class. Nunez dragged a shot wide from the right angle, and this one was bad rather than unlucky. Thiago had a shot blocked as Liverpool dominated possession but failed to break Brentford down, Frank’s side were resilient again at defending their own box, this time holding onto the two-goal lead they squandered against Tottenham on Boxing Day.
The pressure from Liverpool was persistent but not unrelenting. Konate headed wide, with Salah arriving at the back post, but after soaking up so much, it was Brentford who scored on the counter-attack. Mbeumo raced to collect a ball behind the Liverpool back-line, got on top of Konate, and finished under Alisson. Liverpool, not for the first time tonight, were well beaten.