It wasn’t perfect but it was exhilarating. It wasn’t comprehensive but it was magic. This Liverpool side looks likes it’s gearing up to thrill and strike fear into the hearts of both the opposition and/or the Anfield faithful this season. And so, with Matchday 1 now firmly in the books, the time would seem ripe to draw sweeping conclusions from squad’s 4-3 triumph over Arsenal at the weekend.
1. Sadio Mané > Mario Götze
Some times you just have to thank fate that things shake out the way they do. There wasn’t a Liverpool fan out there who didn’t get that familiar sinking feeling of star player rejection after the one-time German wunderkind, so lusted after, publicly rebuffed the club’s advances at the start of the offseason.
Hopes plummeted further when a move for yet another Southampton player materialized, as Sadio Mané was quickly brought into the fold as a replacement. “He’s alright,” we all grumbled like a kid who didn’t get what they wanted on Christmas morning, but if we were being truthful, many saw it as further signs of an underwhelming lack of ambition in the era of €100m buyback clause signings.
Boy, were we wrong. We’re overreacting here, so it is entirely appropriate to state that the Senegalese wide man’s performance against Arsenal proved that he is not just the talent we needed, but the exact style of player required to bring that essential degree of complexity to the attack. Apart from his relentless pressing (he lead the team in tackles against Arsenal), his intelligent interplay with Lallana and the Brazilians or even his formidable goal threat, it is his electric pace out wide and preference for making darting runs in behind the defenders that adds that vital dimension to a squad that appeared one-sided at times last season.
No longer will defenses be able to simply crowd the edge of the box and starve the creative types in the Liverpool side of the space to play intricate passes. Now they will also need to account for a speed demon on the touchline in possession of the pace and the quality to punish lapses in the balancing of defensive priorities.
Forget the baby-faced German, we might have the Puzzle Piece Signing of the Season on our hands.
2. Coutinho prefers it in the middle
As Jamie Carragher made sure to remind viewers half a dozen times over the course of the Sky Sports match broadcast, the front three of Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Mané that so tormented the Gunner defense played played incredibly narrow and close to each other to devastating effect. This has typically been the way Jürgen Klopp sides play where he expects tight interchange between the forwards while employing leggy full backs to provide virtually all of the width.
Such a setup suits Coutinho in particular exceptionally well. Despite the occasional brilliant goal last season, the Brazilian often times drifted in and out of games, seemingly isolated on the left wing. Subsequently and surprisingly, much of the attacking energy and threat ended up coming down the right side from players such as a rejuvenated Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and even James Milner.
Like the number he wears on his back, however, O Mágico is arguably at his best pulling the strings in the middle of the park as both a goal and playmaking threat.
Despite this, he has been curiously shunted to the flanks in recent seasons. The arrival of Firmino last summer further cemented his fellow countryman’s role on the wing, as we were all told that the former Hoffenheim man absolutely needed to occupy the space behind the striker. Despite Coutinho’s individual emergence as a player, many felt that we weren’t getting the most out of him where he was.
However, after a full offseason spent fully imbibing the Klopp’s philosophy, this combination of individual strengths and manager playing style is starting to show signs of aligning.
Don’t worry, this correspondent has already prematurely patted himself on the back (for the prescription, even if not the prediction).
3. Klopp might need to work with the personnel at his disposal
The German tactician is noted for his usage of the 4-2-3-1 formation from his time at Dortmund, preferring a double pivot at the base of midfield composed of a perfect mix of playmaking and defensive mettle to support both attack and defence. However, as it stands, this Liverpool squad doesn’t seem set up to operate in the formation that has brought Klopp so much success in the past.
The night and day difference between the first and second halves against Arsenal were enough to tell the tale. The first period, which Klopp started in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Henderson playing the ill-suited role shielding the back four in the inverted central midfield of a 4-2-3-1, led to a stilted performance, as the home side passed the Liverpool captain by in the center of the park and the midfield struggled to convert possession to attack.
It is notable therefore that that the barnstorming performance of the second half can be attributed to equal parts fiery halftime speeches and a formation change to what proved to be the much more fluid 4-3-3. Players expressed themselves, the team moved on a string and the midfield regularly joined the attack with gusto. The sheer number of Liverpool players in or around the box at the point at which each of the goals were scored—save of course for Coutinho’s brilliant free kick—made the likelihood of a player in black sticking it in the back of the net nigh near inevitabile.
Of course, with first choice midfielder Emre Can not starting due to his exertions in the UEFA Euro tournament, Klopp was missing the best candidate in the squad to properly operate his preferred shape. So on the one hand, no one is saying that the 4-2-3-1 need be ditched after one middling outing—but on the other hand we’re saying exactly that. Why stop with the rash judgements now?
There are plenty more talking points and wild conclusions to draw from this match: Georginio Wijnaldum’s excellent third man running from midfield, Alberto Moreno’s future, Coutinho for Ballon d’Or (?), but we’ll save the rest for the remaining the 37 weeks.