It looked like it was going to be another one of those nights and then very suddenly turned into one of Those Nights™, as Liverpool floundered for half and hour, adjusted for another, and then ran rampant to close out the game, firming their grip on knockout stage qualification and eliminating Rangers from European competition in one fell swoop.
Below, we dig into who were the winners and who were the losers in this most unexpected of drubbings.
Bobby Dazzler: “He’s washed!” they’ve said, some for two years, some since he was signed by the laptop gurus back in 2015, but Bobby Hot Sauce has been Liverpool’s best — and most decisive — attacker this season, with eight goals and four assists in 11 appearances, averaging a goal involvement every 54(!) minutes he’s been on the pitch.
He had three tonight, displaying the full breadth of his attributes. A headed equaliser from a corner, muscling his way in front of Tavernier at the near post, a classic poacher’s effort for the go-ahead goal, fading to the back post to tap home Joe Gomez’s impeccable low cross, and a saucy, unselfish first-time rabona lay-off to Darwin Núñez, who slotted home his first Champions League goal of the campaign. A sublime set of contributions.
Roberto Firmino is undoubtedly on the down slope of his career, but even now, at 31, he can be a difference maker for this team.
Impact Subs: Mohamed Salah is a superstar, and has been for the Reds since the day he signed back in 2017. This season, his contributions have tilted more towards the creative end of the spectrum, setting up goals for others rather than racking them up himself — for the first time in his career, he averages as many key passes as he does shots per game — and some have taken this to mean he’s not playing well.
Tonight’s performance will have shut quite a few mouths, then, as the Egyptian scored the fastest ever hat-trick in the Champions League, notching three goals in six minutes and 12 seconds, as he put the game out of Rangers’ reach and into the history books. An instinctive toe poke after a driving run, a patient near-post drive after luring Allan McGregor across the goal, and a vintage far-post curler were the methods chosen, and it felt like a Best of-compilation dropping at just the right time.
Diogo Jota, of course, should not go unheeded, as he notched the fastest ever hat-trick of assists in the Champions League, and became the first Liverpool player since 1995 to assist a hat-trick for a team-mate, after setting up three goals within his first five pass attempts on the night. Not bad for a guy who can’t pass!
The Portuguese missed the start of the season with an injury suffered in the summer, but since making his way back into the team has been impactful, both in terms of top line output and a radiating sense of composure when he takes the pitch. Fingers crossed, he can be a regular contributor again from now on.
Scottish Cardio: After a hot start in which they put their guests under constant pressure, won two out of every three duels, and took a deserved lead after a goal that embodied everything about their approach, Rangers just... stopped. The Gers won seven of the ten tackles they attempted in the first half an hour, but only managed to win one in seven attempts in the next 30 minutes.
Similarly, the hosts won the shot battle 6-3 in the first half, but were outshot 1-17(!) in the second. There weren’t huge chances in formation or playstyle for the two teams either, the Scots simply weren’t able to maintain their impressive vigour, and the margin of quality between the teams were such that any loss of intensity would be the difference between a heroic home win and the club’s biggest ever loss in European competition.
Naturally, the third goal knocked any hope of a comeback out of them, and by the end the exhaustion was as much emotional as it was physical, but going into a match with gameplan that isn’t physically sustainable for more than half an hour just doesn’t seem like a great idea.
The System: Listen, massive scoreline notwithstanding, this wasn’t that good of a performance from the Reds — they racked up seven scores from an expected goals tally of 2.3 — and we shouldn’t let the result completely overshadow that.
The new formation — a 4-2-2-2, with, in this case, two very narrow inside forwards — was supposed to bring more defensive solidity, and while Rangers didn’t manage any huge chances, they created lots of dangerous opportunities, simply by winning duels and second balls in a midfield that seemed all but abandonded by the Reds. Jordan Henderson and Fabinho played like a pair of midfielders that are used to having a third on next to them, and were often spread much too far apart to be tellingly involved whenever the ball was lost, handing their opponents acres of space to drive into.
With no Trent Alexander-Arnold or Thiago starting, Liverpool also struggled to move the ball up the pitch to their playmakers, and thus had tremendous trouble establishing any meaningful possession or subsequent counterpressing situations. The wide areas, so often where the decisive moments have tended to take place for the Reds were broadly vacated, with only one fullback pushing high up the pitch, the wide midfielders drawing into the middle and the central midfielders too far away from the wide men whenever possession did take place on the wings.
A solution to Liverpool’s troubles has not necessarily been found, is the point, and hopefully, the coaching staff is well aware of this heading into the weekend’s big challenge.
What Happens Next
It’s Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday. It would feel more significant if the Reds weren’t currently sat in tenth place, 13 points behind the sportswashers, but it’s a huge one regardless.
The two have faced off four times in the past year, with Liverpool winning twice and drawing twice, so hopefully that trend holds, and perhaps a result here can be the sort of thing that functions as a catalyst for a side that has struggled for form in the first quarter of the season.