On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in Amsterdam, Liverpool were able to keep a clean sheet and grind out a victory in a scrappy return to European action. Here are six conclusions that can be drawn from the match.
1) A Little Bit of Luck
Considering the poor spell of luck that the Reds have had in the past few games – a slim loss in a penalty shootout, a shellacking in Birmingham, referees forgetting that they are officiating football and not the UFC – not to mention random training injuries keeping our starting keeper from seeing the pitch – it was time to see some of the balls break the other way, and Liverpool got a bit of that luck on Wednesday.
The feeling that Liverpool might not be on the bad side of the coin flip started early on. Mohammed Kudus, was tipped for big things when signed from Norwegian outfit FC Nordsjælland this summer as a replacement for Donny van de Beek. The box-to-box midfielder has started the season well, even celebrating his first Eredivisie goal last weekend. Erik ten Hag had played him in an unfamiliar false nine role for this match, perhaps intending to utilize him as their first line of defense, similar to how Klopp utilizes Fabinho. Unfortunately for him, his Champions League debut ended abruptly as he went down with a meniscus injury in the first ten minutes. Despite subbing on regular Quincy Promes, Ajax struggled in Kudus’ absence – in his short amount of time there he has become their tempo-setter, and his presence was similarly missed in Ajax’s only defeat of the season, a 1-0 defeat at FC Groningen in which they lacked creativity.
The substitute would compound Ajax’s bad luck in the 33rd minute, when Promes, played in by a beautiful David Neres ball, could only manage to fire it straight at the onrushing Adrian. The Dutch team would immediately regret this missed chance. But two minutes later, Sadio Mane continued his irresistible form, creating a goal from nothing. With a sharp turn in the box, his scuffed cross was sliced into the net by Nicolas Taglifico, giving the Reds a lead which would ultimately earn them the three points.
Two-minutes before halftime, Fabinho delivered a decisive moment. When Dusan Tadic lifted a clever chip over Adrian, the converted centre back read the play perfectly, sprinting to the open goal and acrobatically clearing the ball off the line. Many spectators commented on how much this reminded them of Milner’s goal line heroics during the Bournemouth match last season.
These early moments would set the tone for the game, but Ajax could not shake their luck. Davy Klaasen struck the Liverpool post just after halftime, and though Ajax dominated possession and territory late in the match, Liverpool were able to weather the storm. The final nail in the coffin came moments before the final whistle blew. Adrian met a long cross with a punch, but was not able to get much power on the clearance. The ball dropped to Ekkelenkamp in the center of the area about 15 yards out, but with the net relatively open he inexplicably fired his half-volley wildly over.
2) Defense Played Well in Absence of Van Dijk & Alisson
It is hard to explain exactly what Virgil Van Dijk means to Liverpool. Not only has he enjoyed the longest run of consecutive league starts by an outfield player for Liverpool in the Premier League era (at 94 consecutive matches – wow!), but he has become a symbol of the transformation of the squad under Klopp. Combined with the injured Joel Matip’s absence and inconsistent recent displays by Joe Gomez, all eyes were on the defense for this match.
There were signs of nerves early on. Barely a minute had elapsed when Gomez found the ball in the left-side of the penalty area. He attempted to shield the ball back to his keeper, only to feel the Ajax attack at his back. Adrian managed to come out quickly enough to smash the ball up and out, colliding with the 23-year-old English international in the process.
It is the leadership vacuum left by the imperious Dutch defenseman that Liverpool will be most keen to fill, if not the roster spot. The clean-sheet display against a decent attack should boost their confidence, demonstrating that the new Gomez-Fabinho partnership can still shut out opponents without their talisman.
Many have questioned Liverpool’s decision not to recruit a fourth-choice center back to fill in for the departing Lovren this summer. Prior to this match, Klopp again defended his decision to rely on our current depth, and Fabinho’s versatility. For a second time this season, the Brazilian did quite well demonstrate his ability to imitate an experienced defender. At the final whistle, Fabinho ranked second for tackles, clearances and interceptions among his Liverpool teammates. However, it is yet to be seen if Liverpool’s season will struggle long-term, as Manchester City did last year after Aymeric Laporte’s injury.
3) Room for Improvement
This is not to say the defense was infallible. Gaps still exist, and Liverpool will have to adapt to the new conditions. Consistency comes from experience and familiarity. While Fabinho is an intelligent footballer – as demonstrated by his positioning and decision-making while in an unfamiliar role – he will grow to be more comfortable there as Klopp continues to use him this season.
“He was good, but even he can play better! This combination with Joe and Fabinho, I don’t think they’ve played together before, maybe once. They need to get used to each other, to the verbal demands in that position, what you have to say to help the midfielders.
“So it was a good performance, but there’s a lot to improve which is good. How high or low is the last line in each moment? Counter-pressing, how do we react there? And it was absolutely good for tonight.
“We are not dumb enough to think we didn’t need a little bit of luck tonight, we needed Fabinho to make a proper stretch to get the ball off the line, they also hit the post. The clean sheet was one thing, but we could have done better.”
Some of these improvements will come from tweaking the approach to games. Klopp rightfully chose to play a much more conservative defense, dropping off from attackers more than their usual ultra-high line offside trap. Ajax did try to exploit our defensive gaps, with our right side of Trent being caught too far forward a number of times, which is exposed even more by Salah staying forward in front of him. If Klopp does not change these RB tactics (or Trent doesn’t get back to defend quicker and more tightly), one of the midfielders is needed. The cover for the right side CB-RB gap is usually covered by the central/defensive positioning of Henderson or Fabinho, and Henderson’s absence was missed until his introduction at the half.
4) A Win For The Academy
That being said, this game was a huge win for the Liverpool Academy and its players. We handed two Champions League debuts to academy products Curtis Jones and Rhys Williams, and three more featured in the matchday squad. They may not be ready for a full 90 minutes, but it is impressive to see our academy begin to regularly pump out so many youngsters ready for first team football.
5) Attacking Depth
Another big winner tonight was Liverpool’s attacking depth. In the absence of yet another injury – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is one of Klopp’s go-to alternatives for attacking energy – the substitutes gave our regular starters a bit to be nervous about.
The choice to bring them on was influenced by the game becoming more open, and the Reds needing more defensive intensity. Liverpool took full advantage of UEFA allowing five subs in European competition with a hockey-style “line change” of their forwards at the hour mark. Said Klopp:
“The game became pretty wild, we had to defend really altogether and we defend in a 4-5-1 which means both wingers have to be really involved in defending. And then in the moment there were incredibly big spaces for the counter attack. And we thought it’d make sense to bring their fresh legs because all three who came on are in really good shape, fresh, in a tricky, difficult game on a difficult pitch. That helps a lot. And you saw, they all really helped a lot.”
Takumi Minamino was very effective going both ways and between the lines, giving his best Firmino impression. Diogo Jota looked very lively, challenging opponents with his speed and handling. Shaqiri did a solid job, but was not too involved as most of the attacks in the last half hour were counters funneled down through Jota. Unfortunately, those moments did not get finished this game, but they proved the threat to score and I expect goals to start coming. Now that the drop off in attacking options is not as drastic, we should expect Klopp to start flexing this depth. With what seems like an ever-increasing fixture list, we should see them play often, giving the front three some much-needed rest, and giving us some tactical flexibility in terms of formations and personnel, and dare I say even push some of the starters to improve their performances. Firmino’s ability – both on and off the ball – is constantly underrated by critics and supporters alike, but perhaps this will be the push needed to see him start scoring again.
6) Sigh of Relief
After a frustrating few days (weeks?), Liverpool fans will be breathing a little more easily after 1-0 win in Amsterdam, which was more exciting than the scoreline implies. Coming off a three-game winless streak – the longest for the Reds in over two years – Liverpool managed to put away the Dutch champions. It was not pretty, and it could have gone either way, but the bounces favored the Scousers this time around. If the Reds defeat FC Midtjylland at home next week – and they should – they will be cruising and confident in Group D.