Given how workmanlike their wins have been in recent weeks, most fans expected more of the same when Liverpool’s traveled to Italy for what was expected to be their trickiest match of the group stage. Instead, the Reds ran absolute riot, and below, we take a closer look at how it happened and who the main characters were on this delightful European night.
The Man of the Hour: We’ve talked him a lot this past week, but Diogo Jota is making it extremely difficult to talk about anybody else, if we’re being quite honest. After scoring in three consecutive games and notching two matchwinners in a week leading up to tonight’s fixture, the 23-year old went ahead and put on a clinic in Bergamo.
Playing as a central striker between Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, Jota was electric from the start, missing a big chance in the game’s opening minute, then scoring in the 15th minutes through an effortless chip with his left foot after seeing off Palomino’s shirt tugging challenge.
The second was no less impressive, as the Portuguese attacker brought down a long ball from Gomez with his left before smacking a half volley into the bottom corner with his opposite leg, while the third saw him race through on goal, dragging the ball past the goalkeeper and rolling it into the open net.
The media will no doubt be focusing on Jota battling Roberto Firmino for the starting spot, but the fact that will matter to Jürgen Klopp is that the Reds have procured another superstar, and that keeping the attack fresh and unpredictable throughout the season is now a genuine option.
Sharing the Load: The frontline in general and Diogo Jota in particular will certainly get the headlines because of their goals tonight, but it is worth noting that all five goals were assisted by different players, with Joe Gomez and Curtis Jones joining Salah, Mané and Trent Alexander-Arnold as creators. While Trent’s through ball for the opener was fairly typical for the fullback, Gomez’s long diagonal to pick out Jota was more reminiscent of the absent Virgil van Dijk.
Curtis Jones sprung Salah for the third directly from a defensive corner, before the Egyptian found Mané with a delicious pass into the left-hand channel. The Senegalese attacker then paid it forward by setting up Jota in the same space for his hat-trick.
For a side who have struggled to find creativity outside of its frontline and fullbacks, this sort of spreading the assists around is an extremely promising sign that they can produce shot assists from elsewhere in the team as well.
The Debutant: Despite seemingly still having his baby teeth and not quite filling out his kit yet, Rhys Williams had a tremendous Champions League debut for the Reds. The Academy product certainly isn’t van Dijk, but for a 19-year old whose only senior experience has been at the sixth tier of English football, this was a remarkable effort.
A win in the air against the formidable Duván Zapata, a pair of tackles and three clearances, — one from his own six-yard box — to go with 34/37 passes at a 92% success rate should build the youngster’s confidence for future appearances. The power ranking behind Joe Gomez and Joël Matip are uncertain at this point — Nat Phillips did not at all look out of place against West Ham at the weekend — but given the health issues of Liverpool’s current starters, it is almost certain that the backups will be needed on several occasions this season, and it is heartening to know that this won’t necessarily be synonymous with disaster.
Everybody Else: For all the noises about their struggling start to the season, the Reds are currently top of every table they’re part of, having won five in a row since the Merseyside derby draw, and seem — international disasters not permitting — on the verge of getting healthy. That should worry their rivals, none of whom have shown themselves capable of any sort of consistency just yet.
With Roberto Firmino starting on the bench for once, and the opposition playing a three-man defensive line, Liverpool showed a few different looks tonight. Jota alternated between dropping in and playing off the shoulder of the last man, while Mané and Salah adjusted accordingly, springing in behind when the Portuguese dropped in, and pulling wide when he pushed up, dragging the Atalanta defenders around mercilessly.
The former look often saw Andrew Robertson come inside Mané, operating as an underlapping fullback in a manner we rarely see, and while the Scot was not much of a factor on offense, putting in only two crosses and producing zero key passes, the adjustment did seem to help stall Atalanta’s transitions on the few occasions they did occur.
All in all, it was a tactical slam dunk from Klopp, while Atalanta did not appear to play their usual game, seemingly pulling back from their regular full-court press. The end result was a host side that attempted something they are neither built for nor comfortable with, and the opposition taking full advantage, with the guests putting up a massive seven clear cut chances from their 15 shots.
What Happens Next
The international break is less than a week away, but first, the Reds travel an hour east on Sunday to take on tenth-placed Manchester City in what has become a modern Premier League classic.