Romp. Canter. Masterclass. These words could all be used to describe the nature of Saturday’s victory over Brighton, with Liverpool putting on a show that made the 544 round trip worth it. There is something unusual about writing a recap with little to complain about in terms of performance, but given the issues that have dogged other Liverpool performances this season; I’ll happily experience this unusual feeling.
Until recently the stats read that Liverpool had conceded the most away goals in the league, enhanced by our complete opposite record at home. However, since that away humbling at Wembley we have conceded only two goals away from home in the Premier League. Something has happened since that game, with our new found defensive resolve unquestionable. Most impressive about this is that the personnel involved have chopped and changed throughout, with yesterday’s lineup the most experimental by a distance.
Some would argue that Brighton are not the team to base your defensive progress upon. Low scorers in the league with 14 goals in 15 games, Liverpool will face sterner tests than Glenn Murray. That said, nobody can doubt that the Seagulls are holding their own in the league, with their own defensive abilities leaving them in a comfortable 11th place. It was up to Liverpool to become only the second team since Manchester City to win at the AMEX stadium. We certainly did that.
Liverpool made another 6 changes from the side that started the 3-0 win at Stoke on Wednesday. Robertson started his first Premier League match since 16 September while Salah, who netted two after coming on as a substitute in midweek, returned to the starting line-up. Alexander-Arnold, Milner, Coutinho and Henderson also returned. Gomez, Matip, Moreno, Oxlade Chamberlain, Mané and Solanke dropped out due to a combination of illness, injury and rotation.
Klopp continued with his policy of rotating during the busy period, the inclusions of Robertson and Coutinho were particularly exciting. Liverpool fans were excited to see what a motivated Robertson could do on his first Premier League start since September, and were excited to see what the Little Magician could do (especially after a good rest).
Eagle-eyed fans noted the inclusion of one centre back. My immediate thought was that Can would slot in and it was a flat back four. Yet Klopp surprised us all by playing a back three with Wijnaldum as the third in that formation. It worked, but it’s important to point out the recruitment deficiencies that allowed it to happen in the first place. Klopp better be thankful Wijnaldum isn’t a complainer.
Two contentious issues collided when playing Can at centre back, the first I have already mentioned in terms of the neglectful lack of cover at centre back. The second issue was that of Can’s contractual situation. I wanted Emre to play well, but if he did prove himself pricelessly versatile would it make the club look foolish for not bowing to his contractual demands? It shouldn’t be a relevant issue, but it is.
I said before the game that depending on the result we’d be either lauding Klopp as a visionary for his bold selection or cursing him for being so careless. Luckily it was the former but with the caveat that is should not be a regular occurrence. Klopp expected that we’d be sufficiently on the front foot so as to avoid scrutiny of the makeshift defence, and that is exactly what happened.
Brighton made two changes from the goalless home draw with Crystal Palace on Tuesday, with left-back Gaetan Bong included after a knee injury while Izzy Brown made his third Premier League start for the Seagulls.
Our first chance came after 4 minutes, where Firmino should’ve scored from a corner. On 5 minutes Alexander-Arnold crossed another beauty toward Firmino’s head, with Liverpool causing problems aerially. This is what Alexander-Arnold gives you, consistent offensive threat. That is not to disparage Gomez, who is an excellent player – he is just more naturally defensive. The fact that we have two young defenders who have to work on the opposite areas of their game offers a nice symmetry.
In the first 15 minutes there were a couple of instances where Robertson cut an unconfident figure as he failed to cross two balls, both running out of play. He steadily improved as the game went on, though it’s fair to say he did nothing to dislodge Moreno as the first choice left-back. My view on Robertson is that fans just want to see him in the squad every week; they don’t believe he warrants being first choice (yet). Robertson’s quietly effective run-out against Brighton should mean a regular place on the bench over the Christmas period.
On 16 minutes Murray missed a glorious chance when Pascal Groß was in a better position to score.
As the first half progressed, it was all Liverpool, yet a lack of clear-cut chances materialised as Brighton’s back line proved their reputation. Liverpool had over 70 % possession but there was little penetration – fans may have been starting to fear whether this would be Burnley all over again (where Liverpool created the record for having the most possession in a game without winning).
Fear not, the first goal came from Emre Can scores on 30 minutes, a thumping bullet header from a corner. It was an impressive finish, the type that made him look like a colossus and someone we’d be loathe to lose (especially for nothing).
The second goal came a minute later, putting the Reds in a dominant position. I said in a previous recap that I love how goals are scored, and this goal really appealed to that love. The counter attack began with a Firmino touch to Salah, who surged through, released Coutinho, who squared to Firmino who slammed it home. Brighton’s lack of concentration was brutally punished, all without Mané on the pitch, all without Salah actually scoring himself.
We had a commanding lead going into the break, but despite Brighton only having two touches in our box in the opening half they were certain to emerge for the second half a different team.
They may well have done, but my stream broke so I missed the part of the game where the score rapidly went from 2-0 to 3-1 by 51 minutes. To recap I watched it back. In summary, their goal was never a penalty and our goal was the epitome of counter-attacking football. It was swashbuckling. Firmino now has 11 in all competitions this season, and offers so much more than just goals. Any detractors of Bobby can do one.
Someone remarked that the referee had a bet on both teams to score which is why he awarded the penalty. Tongue in cheek though the comment was, it wasn’t awarded for any infraction on the pitch. Luckily it didn’t matter in terms of the points, but it was annoying to miss out on a clean sheet against a team who looked unlikely to breach our goal otherwise.
There were a couple of hairy moments where Wijnaldum played passes back to Mignolet which he evidently wasn’t expecting; yet they were dealt with. When playing someone so out of position hairy moments are the best case scenario, thankfully they didn’t lead to anything more.
In the early stages of the second half Brighton had nearly 2/3 of the possession but did little with it save for that one Murray chance which Mignolet saved well. The Seagulls were starting to tire, evidenced by Bruno scything down Robertson on the edge of the penalty area, the resultant free kick from Coutinho coming to nothing. Much to the dismay of Brighton fans, he was just finding his range.
Mo Salah had his one shot on goal on 64 minutes, shooting directly at Ryan who smothered it. He didn’t need to score, that was the beauty of yesterday. Mo Salah could not score yesterday but still be able to boast that he has scored the same number of goals as the entire Brighton side this season.
In this period Liverpool should have had a penalty for a handball from Dunk and were narrowly flagged offside with Coutinho hitting the bar. The result didn’t feel in doubt, but certainly some gloss was desired (particularly by the irrepressible Coutinho).
Brighton had a big chance on 83 minutes to make the game 2-3. Izquierdo was about to pull the trigger decisively, but a fantastic Alexander-Arnold block prevented the chance being more. That intervention would have pleased Klopp more than anything Trent offered offensively, and allowed the scoreline to more fairly reflect how the game had panned out.
Then came the gloss. Liverpool were awarded a free kick, the Brighton wall assembled, jumped, and had the ball slid under them savagely as they did so. The goal was cheeky; inspired by the advice of Milner and everything we will miss about Coutinho if and when he leaves. That goal put a smile on the Brazilian’s face, with some recent poor performances consigned to memory.
Coutinho was phenomenal yesterday; he possessed a degree of class that the Brighton players just could not cope with. As of 4-1 38 goals have been scored between Coutinho, Mané, Firmino and Salah so far this season. Why go to Barcelona when the forward line you’re in is rightly one of the most feared in Europe?
Coutinho wasn’t done. He steamed through on 89 minutes, having a shot that deflected heavily off Dunk and went into the net. The goal went down as an OG, but with the score at 5-1 nobody really cared. The Brighton players looked bereft, like they had been put through the ringer. All this was accomplished with Mané on the bench throughout, much to the presumed delight of the Spartak Moscow players who will have to face him midweek.
It was also nice to see Salah be quieter, but still an integral part of everything good we did – it dispels the faint murmurings that he was a one-trick pony, a goal-scorer only. Coutinho was obviously man of the match, but honourable mentions go to Firmino for his brace and to the entire defence for making what looked calamitous pre-match look borderline acceptable post-match. Klopp was ecstatic and rightly so.
However, I have one reservation. That lineup worked against Brighton, but with Matip out until New Year will we see it again? I hope not, as against stronger opposition it would fail and the previous success against Brighton would be forgotten. Klavan, Lovren and Gomez (please play him at centre-back Jürgen), will have to tide us over until January.
For now, we focus on sealing Champions League qualification. Brighton were disposed of with notable ease, and we’re back home on Wednesday where our form would suggest a victory is likely. Up the Reds!