Atalanta 0-5 Liverpool: Six Observations

[Bergamo, Italy] Liverpool take a stranglehold of Group D with a third straight clean sheet.

Credit @emilianosansolini / Instagram

1) Liverpool Complete Best Start to a Champions League Campaign

Since the beginning of the modern format for the Champions League, Liverpool have never started a group stage with three wins:

Year Results through first three matches Final position in Group
01/02 D-D-W 1st
02/03 L-D-W 3rd
04/05 W-L-D 2nd
05/06 W-D-W 1st
06/07 D-W-W 1st
07/08 D-L-L 2nd
08/09 W-W-D 1st
09/10 W-L-L 3rd
14/15 W-L-L 3rd
17/18 D-D-W 1st
18/19 W-L-W 2nd
19/20 L-W-W 1st
20/21 W-W-W ?

This means that all we have to do is win one of our final three matches to secure qualifications for the knockout rounds (and likely first place in the group).  It should be noted that our “toughest” matches, away to Atalanta and Ajax, have already been played.

Group D standings after matchweek 3

2) The Front Three Were Unstoppable

I was completely wrong about Klopp maintaining faith in Firmino.  My heart hopes this is merely a rotation of the forwards, giving Bobby some rest and mixing up the chemistry of the front line.  But my head does not care, because…

Holy shit.  Those finishes by Jota – they were absolutely sublime.  A delightful dink, a miraculous chop-cut with a low strike, and rounding the keeper on another breakaway.  I was cautiously optimistic with his signing in the summer, but his $49M price tag is quickly seeming a bargain.  He now has six goals in four games in the last ten days for the Reds.

In between Jota’s second and third goals, the “other” Liverpool forwards netted two quick-fire goals at the start of the second half, as Mohamed Salah took full advantage of an exposed backline to run clear and curl home (defending corner kicks has basically become an attack for us).  Mane clipped in the fourth after a beautiful through ball from Salah.

Klopp was ecstatic at their performance, claiming “I don’t think anyone could’ve defended against Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Diogo Jota.”

Jota’s inclusion in the squad against Atalanta gave a noticeable boost of pace from Bobby, increasing their ability to find spaces in behind.   The front trio were supposed to be untouchable even a few weeks ago. The fluidity of the Liverpool attack against Atalanta was astonishing. Each of our forwards spent time through the middle, and each one hugged the flank.  Ridiculous pace and a coolness of finish are just two of the things this new trio has in common.

All that’s left to see is if Firmino is chosen over (or alongside) Jota in this weekend’s game against Manchester City.  The young Portuguese forward is giving Klopp a selection headache most managers would welcome.

3) Atalanta’s Attacking Setup Played Into Liverpool’s Strategy

Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta have become known for their high-flying offense, scoring 98 goals in Serie A last season.  That is good if you can score more goals than your opponent.  Against Liverpool, they came up short.

As we entered the second half, I could not help but wonder why their defense was set up in such a high line, with their goalkeeper so far back.  Liverpool’s high defense line is covered by Alisson’s aggressive rushes out and position further up the pitch in possession.  Marco Sportiello, whether instructed to or not, sat so very deep in his area that he granted acres of space for the Liverpool attackers to run into.  That, plus a general lack of speed and organization at the back, left the Italian club exposed at the back.  Klopp’s men ruthlessly exploited the gaps to run up a remarkable score line.

Take for example Atalanta’s corner kick at the beginning of the second half.  Defender Hans Hateboer is not the quickest, so it was a clear tactical blunder to have him be the last man to guard against a potential one-vs-one battle against Salah.  When a poor corner by Papu Gomez was collected by Jones and played through for Salah, the Egyptian easily outraced Hateboer and slotted home.  Salah could have added another goal from a similar situation later in the game, but was denied by an excellent save by the Italian netminder.

This was not limited to set pieces:  even in open play, Atalanta’s setup was questionable. The three-man backline were basically matched man-for-man against the Liverpool front three. Similar to Hateboer, none of Atalanta’s starters of Toloi, Palomino, nor Djimsiti are known for their speed.  Pitting those three in a battle against the Liverpool attackers was always going to be a dangerous proposition, especially with the surprise injection of Jota’s pace.  And as one might have predicted, the Italians were not able to deal with Jota’s movement all night, as he made run after tantalizing run from the middle.  Liverpool repeatedly played passes along the sides of the wide center backs, and had plenty of success.

4)  A Great Defensive Performance (by Midfielders and Forwards Too!)

The third consecutive clean sheet in the Champions League is nothing at which to scoff.  It is quite a feat, especially considering the injury issues with the heart of Liverpool’s defense.  However, these performances are not just attributable to the defense, but to the players in front of them.

Had the Reds fielded a different six players in front of the defense, it is not hard to imagine the difficulty they would have had a clean sheet in the Atalanta game. The three midfielders – as is so often the case – were the keys in this performance. They used the ball intelligently, shut down all of the passing angles (against a team who are incredible at finding those angles), and they allowed the creative players to flourish.  They dominated possession and were extremely hungry on the press, effectively shielding the defense from Atalanta having many time or opportunities.

It is quite possible that the effect of Virgil Van Dijk’s absence may have been grossly overstated. Let me be clear – it is not that Virgil is not one of Liverpool’s best players – he certainly is.  However, the performance of the forwards and especially midfield do not get enough credit in helping the defense keep these clean sheets. Of course, a few world-class saves from Allison did not hurt, and it is great to see his focus even after long periods without his involvement in games.  That being said, it is a testament to all of those on the pitch that we have yet to allow a goal in this year’s campaign.

5)  Youth Team Players Out-performing Expectations

Young players who saw action for the Reds in Bergamo:  Jota (23 years old); Jones (19); Gomez (23); R. Williams (19); Alexander-Arnold (22); N. Williams (19).

Fun fact: This was only the second time in Champions League history that Liverpool have started with two teenagers (Rhys Williams and Curtis Jones).  The previous time was against Galatasaray in December 2006 (Danny Guthrie and Lee Peltier).

The progression of our youth players is evident this year – not to mention impressive.

Rhys Williams? Nat Phillips? Curtis Jones?  Regardless of who Klopp selects, it does not seem to matter much.  It is a testament to the German gaffer, who makes every player feel trusted and valued.  The familial connection shared by the players and staff of Liverpool is largely (in my opinion) responsible for the team performing greater than the sum of its already incredible parts.  This attitude/mindset is especially important for the youngsters.

It says a lot about how much Klopp rates Curtis Jones that the young midfielder has now started in two away games in the Champions League – against Ajax and Atalanta.  After a couple of so-so performances in the League, Jones was much improved in this game. The Scouser grew more dominant as the game progressed, carrying the ball forward with swagger, passing crisply, and linking up well with Salah.

I almost forgot that this was Rhys Williams’ first Champions League start.  His performance was another giant stride in his development. He was hardly fazed against a Duvan Zapata – not the easiest opponent to play against – and dutifully won the duels he needed to.

It should be made clear that the youth players all still have lots of development to do, but talent pool looks deeper than many thought at the beginning of the season.  This performance in particular is bound to do the youngsters’ confidence and progression a world of good.

6)  Perfect Setup For the Manchester City Match at the Weekend

Speaking of squad depth, it was encouraging seeing the likes of Matip, Tsimikas and Keita on the bench – especially with the latter two coming into the game. With Fabino and Thiago both looking likely to be available after the international break, the supposed injury crisis is looking like less and less of an issue.

What better time to get a boost of confidence than before a massive Premier League clash against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday?  While it may not have been obvious from the team selection, the Reds surely would have had one eye on that league fixture, given its potential impact for this year’s title defense attack.

And with the output of five sumptuous goals before the hour mark, it gave Klopp the opportunity to make changes with that game in mind.  Both full-backs, Hendo, Wijnaldum and star signing Jota were all substituted.  This was not just about the resting of players, though – it also allowed a few others to log some crucial minutes before this weekend’s match.

As mentioned above, Jota’s dazzling display now gives Klopp a headache in terms of Roberto Firmino’s position in the squad. With Liverpool definitely not wanting to sacrifice their pressing against Manchester City this weekend, it is likely that Klopp will bring Firmino back into the starting XI for that game.  Does Bobby slot in as a #10 in a 4-2-3-1, with Hendo and Thiago as the holding midfielders?  That is what I am hoping for, but I am sure Klopp has his own plans…


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