As the hunt for a top four spot has drifted away from the realm of possibility and into the realm of wishful thinking, Liverpool's blueprint for juggling the Europa League knockout rounds with the dying embers of the Premier League season has been clear: rest key players where possible, manage minutes where it's not, and mix in a healthy dose of youth as the occasion dictates.
It's a recipe that may have been adjusted to include a bigger portion of youth since a spate of unfortunate injuries and league results conspired to leave the Europa League as the club's last viable avenue to the Champions League. Apart from a few noticeable blips - in particular a truly flat performance against Swansea City - it's a recipe that has served Liverpool well at this stage of the year.
Perhaps fearful of a post-Villarreal hangover, and to prevent a Swansea-esque flat performance at Anfield, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp needed to issue a pithy reminder to his squad about what he wanted to see on the pitch against Watford. He found the embodiment of that in his starting lineup. During his post-match press conference, Klopp revealed how he got the squad focused on the task at hand.
In the meeting today I said it would be cool if we could play ‘Joe Allen football’ – brilliant technique, hard-working, very lively, very energetic. He is a great player.
In good teams with more good players than you need, you have situations like this. But he takes the situation brilliantly, he is a wonderful boy and professional football player. That’s really good. Today without Joe would have been completely different.
Almost to a man, the starters answered the call. The younger players, as well as fringe players like Martin Skrtel and Christian Benteke, shrugged aside any limitations owing to experience, skill or playing time, and at least offered an energetic, alert, and above all, professional performance in the afternoon heat. It was not a performance to quicken the pulse, but it was a performance very much focused on getting the job done.
It was no accident that Klopp chose Joe Allen to symbolize what was needed on this day. Allen has epitomized these qualities when called upon in recent weeks, and it was fitting that his no-frills, do-what-needs-to-be-done display was singled out for man of the match honors. More electronic ink will be spilled over Allen's situation once the season is over, and it's difficult not to feel that his presence will be missed if his contract is not renewed.
In the interim, it likely won't be the last time that Liverpool's B-Team is asked to play "Joe Allen Football" (note to EA Sports: if you're looking to brand a soccer analog to "Madden Football," you could do worse than name your franchise after Joe Allen). And the younger players could do a lot worse than emulate the Welsh international as they continue their development with the senior team. On this day, and from Klopp's perspective, it was very much a case of mission accomplished.
We had to give them the opportunity and they took it. They took the chance. Ojo, everybody saw already what a wonderful player he is. Connor Randall only a few minutes. Cameron Brannagan, I told him when he came in ‘It’s not your position, sorry’. But after the game I had to say ‘Forget it, you can play this position too’. It was really good. Kevin Stewart worked so hard in a central position. We did everything, everything was better.
Everything was, indeed, better. Which is exactly what it needs to be at this stage of the season.