After dominating end-to-end, again, and conceding the first shot on target, again, many fans were probably expecting this match to end in a draw, again. Thankfully, the hero Joël Matip rose highest on a late corner and headed home a bullet, with Eagle Eye tech confirming that the ball had indeed crossed the line before being headed clear by an Ajax defender.
Thus, Liverpool’s Champions League campaign is back on track following their dreadful defeat in Naples a week ago. They weren’t their very fluid best, but they did make a highly talented and widely well-regarded Ajax side look roughly like Southampton, so all things considered, it was a pretty good night at Anfield.
Below, we take a look at some winners and losers on the night, and attempt to disentangle narrative from fact.
Set Pieces are BACK: The Reds were the premier set-piece threat in European football last year, with free kicks and corners crucial both in establishing beneficial game states, and pulling out wins at the last minute.
Liverpool had ten shots from set-pieces tonight, with Matip’s winner being the final one. The Reds’ centre-backs took four shots each, both more than any other player on the pitch, pouncing on Kostas Tsimikas’ excellent deliveries time and time again. In a season less cursed than this one, it would have felt inevitable that a goal would eventually be the result, and, ultimately, it was.
Ajax’s team is fun and exciting and good on the ball, but they are also massively undersized compared to most, if not all, Premier League teams, so one can’t expect the Reds to look this dangerous on set-pieces in domestic competition, but if the upcoming down time can be used to work out some routines that can up their effectiveness to last season’s levels, that could be a thing that makes or breaks the season at the margins.
The Maestro is BACK: Thiago is just a wonderful player isn’t he. The composure on the ball and the intensity off it, paired with that tremendous passing range — he was 10 for 10 on long passes tonight — makes him completely unique on the Liverpool squad, and also takes some of the playmaking pressure of Trent Alexander-Arnold, forcing opponents to pick their poison if they wish to shut down the Reds’ ball progression.
His injury record means that he definitely won’t be on the pitch as much as the fans want and the team needs, but whenever he is, Liverpool are a better side, one of the best in the world, and we should make sure to enjoy every minute we get of it.
Adjustments: Having dominated Ajax throughout, the Reds actually lost some of their control when Darwin Núñez and Roberto Firmino replaced Diogo Jota and Harvey Elliott. Darwin providing a vertical threat against a visiting side that were occasionally surprisingly aggressive in their press made sense, as did adding another tall man in the box, but Firmino simply doesn’t do the things Elliott does, drifting into the centre earlier and much more often, leading to Liverpool’s right side rotation consistently being a man short, and thus unable to produce the sort of deliveries Núñez might feast on.
They worked it out in the end, but a change that was supposed to increase the Reds’ attacking threat mostly did the opposite for about 15 minutes after it was made. The challenge with having so many different and exciting pieces is making them fit together in the way that makes the most sense, and it’s clear Klopp hasn’t quite gotten there yet with his new crew.
Narrative Fiends: Much was made before the match of the likelihood some or many Liverpool fans would disrupt the minute’s silence in memory of Queen Elizabeth II tonight, with the media pre-emptively up in arms at the possibility. The Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance made a plea with fans to avoid such disruptions, and, a few loudmouth exceptions who were quickly shouted down notwithstanding, Anfield obliged.
Those noisy few will undoubtedly be the focus of the clickbait vultures, flag shaggers and opposition fans looking to troll, but it is worth noting that the vast, vast majority of fans in attendance did what they could to avoid feeding the narrative machine.
What Happens Next
Uh the Reds don’t play until October? With the Chelsea match postponed and an international break coming up, Liverpool won’t take the pitch again until they host a Graham Potter-less Brighton on October 1st, 18 days from now.
On the bright side, this probably means that not only will the Reds have more of their injured players back in full training, but some of their starters who have begun the season looking like they’ve played half a century of matches already will get to recover and regain the spring in their step.
On the other hand, we’re definitely playing games on consecutive days at some point this season.