An early kick-off three days after a massive European night, facing a Newcastle side revitalised by blood money and the players that allows you to buy. Fans and pundits alike had this match down as the biggest potential banana peel left on Liverpool’s short but busy fixture list, expecting the Reds to crack under the pressure.
Instead, they cruised to a one-goal win, a scoreline that does nothing to illustrate the chasm in quality between the two sides and the level of comfort with which the Reds dominated every aspect of the match.
Below, we look at some winners, losers and narratives from the game that saw Liverpool go top of the table again.
The Replacements: Following on from the crucial home win advantage acquired against Villareal on Tuesday, and with games coming every three days until the very end of the season, Jürgen Klopp rotated his side heavily today, swapping five players and giving starts to Joe Gomez, Joël Matip, Naby Keïta, James Milner and Diogo Jota.
Certainly, the replacement/starter status of some of these players is up for debate — that is the consequence of having amassed a squad packed to the gills with starting-level talent — but the ability to mix and match personell depending on fitness, training performance and opposition is massive luxury for the manager, and it was telling once again.
Keïta scored the winning goal, of course, calmly walking past the goalkeeper and slotting home after 20 minutes, and was otherwise impactful on either side of the ball, but Milner’s contribution should not be overlooked either, and the veteran’s inch-perfect tackle in the build-up to the goal was critical in making it.
Joe Gomez was a massive presence as well, and while he has clearly been working on his delivery this season — his second-half cutback to Sadio Mané deserved to be placed inside the post — his main contribution today was on the defensive end, where his combination of athletic attributes and game intelligence saw him largely neutralise both Allan Saint-Maximin and Joëlinton in the air and on the ground. Three tackles, three interceptions and two aerial duels won is great output for the player who, given the talent ahead of him at the position currently, is more likely to see minutes in the fullback role.
That Dangerous High Line: Nine offsides for Newcastle today. The back line has simply become phenomenal at managing their positioning relative to the press and the opposition, and are catching opponents at an unprecedented rate. Pundits will whine about it because what else are you gonna do when a team is this good, but sensible fans know that the placement of the defensive line is a decisive factor in the Reds’ aggressive pressing strategy, and that it works incredibly well, even if we sometimes have to wait for a linesman’s flag or VAR to confirm what we already knew.
Control: When your lead is only a single goal, there will always be some nervousness in the fan base, no less so when you play out from the back under pressure with as little urgency as the Reds did today, but in all honesty, this was a masterful control performance from Liverpool, who held their hosts to four shots in total, none from close than 20 yards, while generating 24 shots of their own.
If not for some profligate finishing — all four of Mané, Diaz, Jota and Salah missed a big chance over the course of the match, the scoreline should have been wider, and could have been spectacular.
Generating offense while denying your opponent the same is incredibly difficult, and the Reds have now scored nine goals in their last four games while conceding zero, and giving up less than a full expected goal total. They are simply incredible at controlling the shape of a match, regardless of opposition, and being able to do so with their two best playmakers missing is testament both to the confidence of the players, and the quality of coaching they receive on a day to day basis.
Goal Difference: In all likelihood, the title won’t come down to this factor, as Liverpool would have to draw once and Manchester City lose in order for it to do so, but all the same, it would be nice to keep the goal difference gap as wide as possible.
The Reds’ created five big chances today, and should have scored more than one of them. The most important thing is the win, of course, but when the margins for error are this small, every little bit counts, and some sharp finishing in the run-in could be crucial as Liverpool look to become historic and win four trophies in one season.
What Happens Next
Manchester City take on Leeds in the late game tonight, with the pressure explicitly on them to keep pace with the incredible Reds, and fans will no doubt be keeping an eye on that scoreline.
For the players, though, it’s business as usual, with a trip to Villareal for the Champions League semi-final return leg on Tuesday, in a match they only need to lose by less than two goals in order to advance to a third European Cup final in five years.