Having not beaten a bottom half side away all year, and failing to capitalise on failures around them all year, fans could be forgiven for having little faith in Liverpool’s ability to make up ground on the top four when they travelled to Leeds tonight.
Thankfully, they proved us all wrong, putting the Whites to the sword in a clinical performance that saw the new-look visitors score all of their big chances, as well as a couple of small ones, en route to another big win in a season somehow full of them.
Below then, we look at the winners and losers on the night, and how they got there.
Diogoal: It had been a year since Diogo Jota last scored for the Reds. Of course, the Portuguese forward had spent a lot of time injured in the interim, and had contributed 12 assists, but attackers live by their goals — in the eyes of many fans — and the former Wolves man must have been desperate to end his drought.
He did so tonight, emphatically — but not before setting up Mohamed Salah’s first of the night with a tastefully weighted pass after winning the ball in midfield and driving up the pitch — first with a strong effort from Curtis Jones’ delicious through ball, then shanking a 20-yard volley in off the post from a Jordan Henderson cross.
A Diogo Jota on song as the season reaches its pointy end? We’ll take it.
Curtis... Jones...?: After bursting onto the scene as a teenager with a spectacular curled winner in the Merseyside derby three years ago, Curtis Jones’ career has not progressed as many expected. While the team around him developed into one of the finest we’ve seen at Anfield, the young scouser often cut a confusing figure, seemingly playing a different game than everyone else, as he appeared increasingly desperate to recreate that wonderful moment. Playing time dried up and injuries contributed to his dropping down the pecking order.
Tonight, though, Jones was very, very good. Starting in the left-sided eight of a midfield three, the 22-year old often drifted all the way wide, overlapping past Diogo Jota, into the centre, and even across the pitch to contribute on the right. His assist for Jota’s first goal was a thing of beauty, curving the ball around the Leeds defense to set up a tap-in, and he also completed 4/4 dribbles and made 5/6 tackles, both more than anybody else on the pitch.
Amid the increasingly pandemonious clamour for Liverpool to add fresh blood to their aging midfield, a Curtis Jones resurgence could be — dare we say it — Like a New Signing.
Trent: The world’s most disrespected fullback is transitioning into more of an inverted role these days, having taken up the part in all of the Reds’ last three matches, and while it occasionally looks clunky — he often turns into pressers or is forced to use the outside of his foot for simple passes because he’s not used to having to account for the whole pitch in this phase of play — he did increase his assist tally for the season by 67% tonight.
We’ll take a closer look at exactly how the system has changed later, but for now, know that Trent looked good tonight, if not as transcendental as some would have you believe.
Illan Meslier: Made his first save in the 93rd minute, taking a Bobby Firmino bullet to the face. Terrible night for the Frenchman.
Much — oh god, just so much — is going to be written about Liverpool’s new build-up structure in the near future, so we’ll provide a quick cliff notes primer here.
- The Reds’ base play now takes on a very distinct 3-2 shape, as compared to the 4-1 preferred in the past. Trent steps into a double pivot alongside Fabinho, while Andy Robertson and Ibrahima Konaté take up wide defender positions either side of Virgil van Dijk.
- The wide forwards sit all the way to the touchline and come very deep to participate in build-up.
- The midfield eights sit slightly higher and more central. They will occasionally rotate with the wide forwards, but this typically happens as play transitions into the final third.
- The most prominent effect of this structure is that it allows for a lot of easy passing between the five players at the back, and a lot of possession. The Reds posted their second highest possession number of the season tonight, and were able to control the ball with ease when the game state was such that they didn’t need to push for a goal.
- Secondarily, width in the attacking phase is much more limited as there is no natural overlap without a player taking up a traditional fullback role. Of Liverpool’s 1034 touches, only 15 took place wide of Leeds’ 18-yard box.
- Quick attacks are difficult to generate, as there is no real vertical threat.
In truth, Liverpool’s first four goals tonight came from transitional moments, breaking on a team off balance after winning the ball in midfield areas through aggressive pressure, holding their traditional 4-3-3 shape. The new tweaks do appear to provide great control and ability to build slowly, but there are challenges as well, and before Cody Gakpo scored the opener in the 35th minute, the Reds had only generated three shots from their 75% possession.
Whatever comes next, it will be interesting to see how the team grows into what appears to be their new form.
What Happens Next
The Reds pick up the — probably unwinnable — hunt for top four once again, starting with a visit from Nottingham Forest on Saturday, a team that beat them 1-0 way back in August. Liverpool currently sit six points out of fifth place with a game in hand, and with Newcastle and Tottenham taking points off each other the next day, it might be interesting to see what the table looks like come Sunday evening.
Up the somehow still in it Reds!