In the end, those two late Roma goals shouldn’t matter. The certainly shouldn’t take away from what, for the preceding 70-plus minutes, was the kind of dominating performance few would have dreamed possible in a Champions League semi-final.
It was, in short, a masterful performance. Jürgen Klopp dialled back the press early and allowed Roma unexpected time on the ball. And gave the visitors confidence, drawing them forward, coaxing them out, ensuring they would defend as a back three.
A Roma shot from distance brushed Loris Karius’ fingertips and rattled the bar, a moment that could have punished Liverpool’s unexpectedly passive approach to start the match. But it was a low percentage chance—the sort, had it gone in, you couldn’t plan against.
Aside from that, it worked a charm. Roma were steadily drawn forward, their wingbacks high up the pitch and their defensive line pushed up to the half. When Liverpool threw the switch and engaged the heavy press after 20 minutes, they were easily undone.
Klopp’s gegenpress is a difficult and never entirely sustainable approach, and at times we have seen Liverpool attack out of the gate only to be stubbornly resisted by a strong defensive side and, after 20 or 30 minutes of attack, they will begin to fade.
It can lead to an ebb and flow, waves of Liverpool attack followed by extended spells during which, unable to sustain their frantic press and pace, they look vulnerable. Domestically, Jose Mourinho has more than once provided the blueprint to counter it.
On Tuesday, with Roma setting out a lineup that could have ended up either open and attacking or stubbornly defensive depending on if the wingbacks and midfielders committed forward or hung back to help the defence, Liverpool urged them forward.
Their press, in the early going at least, was muted. Oddly so given the occasion and a loud Anfield crowd. Aside from Aleksandar Kolarov’s long-shot off the woodwork, though, the only significant result of it was to get Roma’s midfield and wingbacks to commit forward.
What then followed was 25 minutes of frantic gegenpress against a side that had been encouraged to push ever higher up the pitch. Two goals, halftime, and another frantic 25 minutes as Liverpool’s players pushed themselves hard to open the second.
They managed three more goals for those second half exertions, using halftime as the necessary break to recover their legs. That they couldn’t in the end keep that kind of a pace up for the entirety of the second half is hardly a surprise.
That Roma found it in themselves to fight back when Liverpool’s press began to falter and legs began to tire says more about Roma’s resolve than any failure on Liverpool’s part, and they deserve some credit for managing it despite the circumstances.
It’s the kind of resolve they showed against Barcelona in the quarter-final, the kind of resolve that mean Liverpool need to take them seriously next week at the Stadio Olimpico. The job, despite the lopsided scoreline, isn’t done just yet.
It isn’t that far off it, though, and Liverpool are a side well set up for the second leg, even if Roma have shown they can score three at home as they did in overcoming Barca when their opponents sat back seeking to nurse their lead. Liverpool won’t do that.
Liverpool will attack. Or at least they will in spells and waves as is the way with a system so reliant on a draining heavy press. And if they pick their moments right, with their attack, they will almost certainly score a few away goals of their own.
Three at the back last night was always a massive gamble for Roma—playing three centre halves, a system better suited for facing a front two, against the speed and trickery of Liverpool’s front three always looked like it had the potential to end badly for them.
What shouldn’t be overlooked, though, is how Klopp encouraged Roma to play a game that would give his side pressing opportunities and space to break into when the time came, drawing them forward and then using the half as a chance to recover.
Those two late goals Roma scored are less than ideal for Liverpool and add some interest to the second leg, but the focus shouldn’t be on those two goals—it should be on what came before, which was a marvellous and quite special kind of performance.