Anfield, Liverpool – All of last season built up to this, Liverpool’s 4th place finish in the Premier League culminated in the 2nd leg of their Champions League Playoff versus Hoffenheim on Wednesday night. Jurgen Klopp’s men came into the encounter carrying a 2-1 lead from Germany and had the tie wrapped up within thirty minutes of the kick-off. It was heavy metal football at its finest, even the most passive of supporters would have had a tough time resisting the urge to get up off their seats. In what turned out to be the sweetest of appetizers for what’s to come in terms of European nights at Anfield, there were plenty who impressed. Here are the five talking points from Liverpool’s 4-2 victory over Hoffenheim.
1 – Season of Squad Rotation
Alright let’s just get the most boring one out of the way. When Saturday’s line-up for the visit of Crystal Palace was confirmed many were left scratching their heads. Five changes were made to the team that started the match prior and it was difficult to tell just why that was. The fact that most of the players replaced were ones who had started the season at a below par standard left many to ponder if Klopp was really dropping them. Andrew Robertson, Ragnar Klavan, and Joe Gomez all came in and put in solid performances; earning their side the first clean sheet of the season. Thus supporters had absolutely no idea what team the manager would select for Wednesday’s crucial tie. Lo and behold, all five players who were taken out of the side on Saturday were right back into the starting line-up. Making it clear that Klopp will be treating squad rotation as a necessity now with the extra European games. The signing of Robertson has given the Reds cover for left back and an extra body for the midfield in Milner. Trent, Gomez, and Clyne will all provide more than adequate cover at right back throughout the season. And Firmino has three capable strikers behind him in the pecking order. Leaving the squad only one winger and centre half short of being able to comfortably rotate players throughout the campaign.
2 – Defence Still Dodgy
Alright so we got the boring one out of the way, now let’s do the same with the negative one. It was a great night absolutely no doubt about that but there are definitely still improvements to be made. Dejan Lovren for instance did very little to silence his critics, giving the ball away cheaply for Hoffenheim’s opening goal. The Croat was not alone in his faults however. Trent is a wonderful talent with tremendous quality on the ball but he still has plenty to learn on the defensive side of things. Time and time again he was getting caught out by Serge Gnabry, the German was certainly fancying himself one-on-one with the Englishman. A bit of a rough night in that sense for the youngster but he was still great, expect his defending to improve massively as he matures. Interestingly however, Klopp seemed surprisingly eager to discuss potential transfers after the match, hinting that their now secured place in the Champions League could aid in acquiring new players. I did not expect to say this but don’t be surprised if a defensive addition is made before the window shuts.
3 – Firmino Was Unplayable
And onto the exciting parts of Wednesday night’s spectacle. Roberto Firmino was simply a joy to behold from the beginning of the match right until the end. His sharpness, intelligence, vision, and sheer brilliance were showcased for everyone to see, much to the dismay of the Hoffenheim defence. The Brazilian was able to send Mané in on goal twice in the opening 10 minutes of the game, the second of which led to the opening goal. He was the chief creator for the goal that followed as well, twisting and turning in the box before serving the ball up on a platter for Wijnaldum whose shot rebounded into the path of Salah. Three minutes later Firmino played an integral role in one of the best goals you’ll see all season. Playing a cushioned first time ball to Wijnaldum in his own half before sprinting all the way to the opposition’s box in time to loft a gorgeous ball into the path of Emre Can. In addition, he still managed to grab himself a goal in the second half to wrap up a scintillating performance, maybe his best yet since joining the club.
4 – Midfield Was Excellent
One of the lines that’s been repeated countless times already this season (mostly by me) has been that “Liverpool’s midfield lacks creativity and fluidity without Coutinho and Lallana.” That was most certainly if not put to rest, at least put into a daze after Wednesday’s performance. Henderson looked back to his lung busting self, covering the defence when needed and making a nuisance of himself in the press; all while being his typical composed self on the ball. Wijnaldum had far and away his best performance of the season so far. Finding ways to make himself an option in the attack and making good use of the ball when he was given it. His ball to Mané for the third goal was just magical. Emre Can was not to be outdone by his partners however, the German bagged a first-half brace and was a dominating presence in the midfield throughout. Hoffenheim simply couldn’t deal with his physical presence, when Can uses that to his advantage he can be devastating. A similar performance from him and his aforementioned midfield partners this weekend will cause Arsenal all sorts of problems, confidence should be high as ever heading into that clash.
5 – Coutinho Who?
There’s no escaping this story, over the past few weeks the club has hardly been mentioned in the media without the Brazilian’s name closely following. It’s difficult to ask for a much better response from a team that is supposed to be missing their best player. Barcelona’s controversial tactic of leaking the news of a new bid on the eve of a Liverpool match proved to be futile. The club are no closer to budging and the team wasn’t affected at all. The squad really needed this as well, forget the media, the pundits, and all the spectators, this was crucial for themselves. Klopp seems a master at making his players believe they’re brilliant but this Coutinho saga would inevitably have caused some doubt within the group. There certainly had to be players questioning whether their quality (or lack thereof) could have been a reason in the talisman wanting a move away. However, performing like that, on a stage like that will have been immense for inner belief throughout the team. Whether Coutinho ends up playing another game for the club or not, the players know they can be magical without him and that is massive.