It wasn’t the enthusiastic thumping Liverpool handed out to Porto in last year’s round of 16, but Tuesday night’s 2-0 win was no less effective, and was in many ways a microcosm of exactly why this Reds side is different from the one that rode a wave of goals to the Champions League final last season, and why it is genuinely competing on two fronts in 2019.
Now join us as we examine some of the narratives, tactics, reactions, and questions Liverpool will be dealing with and the fans will be talking about in the aftermath.
Winners and Losers
Navy Keith. He may have taken longer to assert himself as a starter than many — this writer included — would have expected, but Naby Keïta is staking his claim of late. Following on from his first goal in red at Southampton on the weekend, the Guinean produced a thrilling two-way display tonight, generating two shots — opening the scoring with one of them — two shot assists, three dribbles, two interceptions, and a massive eight tackles. Jürgen Klopp likes his midfielders to contribute in both directions, and Keïta is finally showing what drew the German to him in the first place.
Joël Matip. The Cameroonian defender — like Mamadou Sakho before him — has garnered a reputation for being a klutz and, thus, a bit of a liability, despite this impression largely being down to his lanky frame and odd mechanics, rather than his actual defending — which has been good — his distribution — which has been excellent — or his error count — which stands at a total of two in three years.
Tuesday saw handsome, confident, mechanically sound Dejan Lovren return to the starting XI for the first time since January 3rd, and, as is often the case when faced with a muscly striker, the Croatian struggled. Many fans that have been clamoring for the chiseled Spartan to replace the lanky Drake lookalike will be rethinking their position after this performance.
Moussa Marega. Said muscly striker may have caused havoc with Lovren’s self-belief, and produced 60% of the visitors’ shots, but Marega will be disappointed to leave Anfield without notching a goal. With five attempts, the Malian would be expected to tuck at least one away, and though his best effort was denied by an excellent parry from Alisson, the 17-goal man will blame himself for not making the most out of his biggest chance, snatching at a first time volley rather than utilising the surprising amount of time he had in the Liverpool box after a cleared set piece found its way to him six yards out.
The 27-year old will undoubtedly be looking to rectify matters when his team hosts the Reds in the return leg
Mo Salah. After breaking his nine-game goal drought on Friday, many expected Mohamed Salah to kick on and perhaps go on a bit of a scoring run. Instead, it was another case of the Egyptian trying to do a little too much and ending up doing very little. Of his seven shots, Salah only managed to put a single one on target, and saw four efforts blocked. Paired with his five failed dribbles and zero shot assists, the numbers paint a picture of a striker that is trying a little too hard to get among the goals.
It didn’t help the Reds’ top scorer that the team struggled to involve Sadio Mané, with the Senegalese forward only getting 35 touches, leaving a lot of the creative onus on Liverpool’s right side, but overall, it was a less than ideal showing for Salah.
Two to tango, three to jump rope. The three-man central defense returned, once again, to Anfield, and while opposing teams have found greater success deploying five across the back against the Reds than was the case last year — when it would inevitably lead to a five-goal hammering — Porto had no such luck tonight. In the absence of Hector Herrera, Danilo Pereira found himself largely alone in the task of pressing the Liverpool ball carrier, and the Reds’ central midfielders would consistently be allowed plenty of time on the ball to pick their pass, exemplified by Jordan Henderson waltzing forward and picking out Trent Alexander-Arnold’s run for the second goal.
Kick or run. A wrinkle in Jürgen Klopp’s build-up this year has been a central midfielder dropping deep and wide — rather than the traditional option of splitting the centre-backs — when the Liverpool fullbacks move up the pitch. In Jordan Henderson and James Milner, the Reds have midfielders with excellent passing range, and picking the ball up in this are often allows them time to pick out a crossfield ball to switch the play in one move.
When Naby Keïta was deployed in this position early on in the season — for all intents and purposes as a facsimile of his aforementioned teammates — it was ineffective, and the Guinean’s main weakness — his limited long passing range — was made apparent. Tonight, Keïta would drift into the same space, but rather than attempt an early switch, would draw the press into him, skip past it, and then bend a ball towards the opposite flank as he entered the centre of the park. On one occasion, it nearly set Mohamed Salah up for a goal, and it was good to see the team adapt its plan to the specific strengths of the players on the pitch.
What Happens Next
There are a minimum of six, and a maximum of nine games left in the Reds’ season, and — depending on how the Champions League semis shake out, Sunday’s visit from Chelsea could very well end up being the most difficult one. Liverpool have struggled against the Blues in recent seasons, and only a win will be good enough to keep putting pressure on Manchester City. On a five-day rest, with the squad approaching full health, and with Chelsea traveling to Prague on Thursday for the Europea League, however, there is every chance Jürgen Klopp’s men can keep their run going.