The Champions League is back, and Liverpool get the win they deserved, albeit in much more dramatic fashion than seemed strictly necessary after 40 minutes, taking their season record overall to four wins and one draw from five.
Below, we dig into the hows and whys of the game and the result and the conflict between the two, and discuss the intangible value of full stadiums and roaring crowds.
European Nights at Anfield: While Liverpool technically played Champions League football last season, there’s no getting away from the fact that this sport simply isn’t the same without the fans, and that fact is magnitudes more obvious at Anfield. It’s no coincidence that the Reds’ unbeaten home run ended — and ended in such spectacular fashion — during the pandemic in a stadium void of fans.
The Kop was in full voice tonight, as expected, shaking the foundations with a rambunctious rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, and, as Milan elected to have them at their back in the first half, did their utmost to draw Liverpool forward during the bombardment of the opening 20 minutes.
Fans are divided about the club’s prospect this season, but they undoubtedly have a better chance at silverware when their supporters are allowed to watch their heroes in person.
Heavy Metal Football: Speaking of those opening 20 minutes, Liverpool were irresistible, chasing and harrying their opponents at every opportunity, forcing errors and wild clearances, keeping 65% possession and taking 11 shots to Milan’s zero, including the own goal and Mohamed Salah’s missed penalty. The rossoneri looked utterly out of their depth to start the game and were fortunate to come out of the opening stanza just the one goal down.
It is rare we get to see Liverpool run the full court press this hard for this long nowadays, with the team having become much more of a control machine, alternating bursts of intensity with periods of patient possession, and while it looked — and was — unsustainable in the long run, it was tremendous fun, and a stark reminder that the Reds can be absolutely unplayable when they decide to be.
Game Management: There is, however, a reason Jürgen Klopp has turned his side from a back-and-forth transition engine to a match-winning game control monster; it’s simply far more sustainable. Tonight, as the half was winding down and Liverpool were catching their breath, in the phase of a game where they usually just see out the half, there seemed to be a disconnect. Some players were chasing and pressing while others were standing off, and cracks began to appear in many places at once.
Both of Milan’s goals came after the space between midfield and defense expanded and the visiting attackers were allowed to run at the backline, often with superior numbers. Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, and Trent Alexander-Arnold were the players who stood out on the tape as out of position, but the situations were created by a collective failing to be on the same page.
The biggest difference between Liverpool’s second place finish in 2019 and their dominant title win of 2020 was their ability to modulate their performance depending on the game state. To drop back and rest, both on and off the ball when they could, and to turn the pressing and transitions and shots all the way up to 11 when they needed. While tonight was a delightful reminder of their potency when they do go gung-ho, it also showed why they don’t do so for long periods at a time.
Credit to the Opposition
Given how flustered and outmatched they looked to start the game, Milan’s resurgence was quite impressive, and while they weren’t able to stand up to the renewed pressure for long in the second half, the certainly managed to turn the narrative of the night into a far kinder one for themselves than could have been — and for a time looked like it would be — the case.
Atlético Madrid are undoubtedly the other favourites to advance to the knockout stages, but AC Milan have a gifted side with standout talent in a few key positions, and could very well put legitimate pressure on the Group B favourites as the competition continues.
What Happens Next
This was the first match in a six-game stretch, where Liverpool will play every three days until they host Manchester City on October third. Their next challenge is a trip to London and a non-Hodgson coached Crystal Palace on Saturday, in a match that could potentially see the Reds go top of the Premier League table.