Another European night at Anfield, another win. Liverpool defeated Danish Champions FC Midtjylland 2-0 en route to the top of Group D. Here are six conclusions that can be drawn from the match.
1) Job Done
It was not pretty, but the job is done. With an injury list that seems to grow by the day, the “Mentality Monsters” ground out another ugly, scrappy win. Some may claim the game was boring, especially in the first half, but those with decent memories will recall a recent season in which Liverpool won the Premier League, grinding out NINE 2-1 wins in the league and FOUR more 1-0 wins. More than a third of our games last year were wins of the same ilk – not silky, free-flowing, high-scoring affairs, but matches where we were on the edge of our seat begging for a breakthrough – or at least some breathing room. The Reds won their 19th title by being able to turn it up when they had to, and coasting when they were given the chance. Let’s not forget that Liverpool are one of only two “Big Six” teams currently placed in the top nine in the Premier League…
So I can forgive the lads for their perceived drop in form – if there was any time for them to take their collective foot off the gas, it was against a team ranked #102 in UEFA club coefficients (for comparison, Liverpool is #10, in spite of having zero points for not appearing in European Competitions in 16/17). Perhaps those who are complaining need to be reminded that Liverpool still won two in two, and are at the top of Group D.
2) Much-Needed Rest for Key Starters (and Minutes for Fringe Players)
Part of the reason Liverpool struggled to put away Midtjylland is due to Klopp’s choice to rest many key starters. Last week against Ajax we saw Klopp’s intention to preserve the front three of Sadio, Bobby, and Mo for the Premier League, when he took all three of them off at the hour mark. This point was hammered home this week, as he started Diogo Jota, Divock Origi, Takumi Minamino, and Xherdan Shaqiri up top for the Reds. While Jota has been a regular in the Premier League since his transfer this summer (more on him below), the other three have found first team minutes slightly more scarce to come by.
Klopp also chose to rest Wijnaldum, sending him in at the half for Jordan Henderson, who was part of a surprisingly ineffective midfield in the first 45 minutes.
Despite my optimism last week regarding the depth of our attacking options, this game has given pause to that thinking. The combined lack of gametime was fairly evident, especially against Midtjylland’s organized defensive unit. Minamino was the target of a brilliant cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold in the 15th minute…. which he missed completely. And although Shaqiri played a crucial role in the opener – his beautifully-disguised pass to Trent allowed the young Scouser to set up Jota – he will need to be show his quality more consistently if he wants to feature regularly this term.
The bottom line, though, is that Liverpool have another win in a match where Milner and Shaqiri each played 90 minutes, and Taki and Origi each played 60. Considering the upcoming fixture list – three games in eight days before the international break, then ELEVEN (yes, 11) in just over five weeks after the break, we will need these fringe players to not only play, but to perform in order to take the pressure off the preferred XI.
3) A Wild 4-2-3-1 Formation Appears! (Again)
One explanation for the sub-par performance on the pitch may very well be the 4-2-3-1 formation, which Klopp reverted to for the beginning of the game. Though the German manager had largely perfected the formation during his stint at Dortmund, the switch from our usual 4-3-3 has tended to leave players confused as to where they are supposed to be.
The choice is obvious considering the selection challenge for midfield spots in the typical formation. In theory, two holding midfielders should better protect a defense – especially one where the gaps between the fullbacks and relatively inexperienced center backs have been exploited in past matches. But this double-pivot of Henderson and Milner in the DM roles left much to be desired. Liverpool are so used to playing with three midfielders (including one deeper than the others) that the balance was slightly off, and it was clear that Liverpool struggled in the middle of the park. Milner fouls aside, there was a lack of pressing intensity, and more importantly creativity going forward.
There was also some confusion as to where the forward players should be on the pitch. Was Origi playing on the right wing or left? Why did Klopp choose not to play him as the traditional striker down the middle? Even against Sheffield, Jota, Firmino, and Salah sometimes found themselves in the same spaces, leading the viewer to ponder if the team needs more training to perfect this formation before it can be genuinely effective.
4) Trent is Still Creator-in-Chief
The one truly bright spot of the match was the local lad at fullback, Trent Alexander-Arnold. Putting in a Man of the Match performance, his cross-field passes consistently switched up play and he linked up well with Shaqiri down the right side, including a brilliant give-and-go to set up the opener.
The right back has had a bit of a statistical “slump” (if you can call it that) this campaign: his key passes have fallen from 2.5 to merely 2, and successful crosses are down from 2.2 to 1.7 (both per 90 minutes). After averaging just under an assist every two games in his 50 starts prior to this season, he had managed only one assist through the first seven games this season. This data, though, is not a completely accurate representation of Trent’s form. At the weekend, he nearly scored against Sheffield with a cheeky free kick, and added a beautiful assist to Salah before it was chalked off (thanks VAR).
On Tuesday, his brilliance shone. Overall, he made 93 passes (only Joe Gomez registered more with 98), and enjoyed 116 touches, more than any other player on the pitch. More importantly, he was Liverpool’s most creative outlet, making more key passes (four) than any other Reds player. His gorgeously-weighted pass to Jota to open the scoring was a thing of beauty. To be fair, he could have had two more assists: 1) the afore-mentioned Minamino miss where Trent’s near inch-perfect ball skipped just past Taki, who we all thought was a bit faster, and 2) when he picked out a wide open Firmino in the 88th minute, only to have the Brazillian forward lean back and blast the ball over the crossbar from 12 yards. On top of these, it was another precisely-weighted slide-rule pass that saw Salah race clear in the 90th minute before being brought down for a penalty.
It was encouraging to see the young fullback regain some form after a sluggish start to the season. No doubt his ingenuity will be needed in the coming months. Let us not forget that since his Liverpool debut in October 2016, no Premier League defender has registered more assists across all competitions, with Trent recording 35 (Roberson also has 35).
5) Our Defense is a Soap Opera
While Trent and Robbo have been performing relatively well on the outside of defense, the middle of the back line has been an absolute mess this season. Our first-choice center back and defensive talisman is likely out for the season (hopefully not longer) with an obliterated knee. Our second- and third-choice CBs either cannot stay healthy (Matip) or their performances have thrown their form into question (Gomez). And to put the icing on the cake, the fourth-choice CB is playing out of his position. And just when we were starting to become comfortable with Fabinho at CB – his performances have been spectacular – he pulls up this week with a hamstring injury. The extent of this injury is not known at the time of this writing, but the situation it may leave us in is concerning.
Prior to the season there was much discussion about management’s choice not to recruit a fourth-choice center back. Klopp’s confidence in Fabinho and our academy is well-documented, but this perfect storm of issues has re-ignited the critics on the matter. If there was one area of the team that could not afford to lose another player long-term, it is at center back. Will Liverpool weather the storm, or will they mirror the struggles Manchester City went through last year after losing Aymeric Laporte? Should Klopp and Edwards have sprung for one of the many defenders with whom the club was linked over the summer? Even before the Fabinho injury, rumors are swirling that Liverpool will target someone during the winter transfer window in January.
That being said, academy product Rhys Williams came off the bench to feature in Europe for the second time in a week, and he looked like he belonged in the team. Considering the pedigree of the players around him, this is high praise. A year ago, the 19-year-old was starting for sixth-tier National League North team (and name of an animated movie villain) Kidderminster. Now he has played more matches in the Champions League than in the Premier League, and his performances have assuaged – even temporarily – the concerns of many supporters.
Here is hoping the saga that is our defense will have a boring few weeks before the international break, and allow the squad to recover and regroup.
6) Jota is on Fire
I am not going to focus on the stat that Jota scored the club’s 10,000th goal. That is both arbitrary and does not indicate how much of an impact the Portuguese attacker has made this season. He really is quite good. As he adjusts to the squad formation and tactics, he may occasionally appear to be in a slightly different rhythm from his teammates, but his contributions cannot be ignored. In six appearances, the 23-year-old has notched three goals (all at Anfield), and looks as if he has been training with the team for much longer than six weeks. He has looked adept at any position across the front line, including the more fluid, roaming role given to him last week. While the $49M fee may have seemed high to some skeptics, Jota has hit the ground running, and his output will no doubt silence his detractors. Most importantly, his contributions will prove vital moving forward, as the only option that has truly given supporters confidence as backup for Liverpool’s regular attacking trio.