Off and Running
Liverpool defeated Norwich 3-0 in the Premier League Opener! It was a performance that confirmed that there is plenty of reason for optimism for Reds fans, but at the same time raised plenty of questions about the shortcoming of the team that must be addressed for Liverpool to remain an elite club.
It was well understood weeks before opening day that half a dozen or so players might be short of 90-minute fitness and it turned out to be the case. As expected the midfield was disproportionately affected, but for all the issues that it would cause it would also provide Jurgen Klopp an opportunity to examine his various secondary options.
Subsequently, the Manager opted to start Milner at the midfield base with Oxlade-Chamberlain right and Keita left. The fact that he chose Milner over Keita to shield the back four when Liverpool’s Vice-Captain is clearly more adept playing further forward is a strong statement of his lack of confidence in Keita’s ability to run the midfield.
Keita, for his part, slotted into a not dissimilar role formerly played by Gini Wijnaldum: holding and re-directing possession with tight control in small spaces. In this he did a reasonable job but didn’t seem to afford much protection to the defenders behind him, being switched later on to the right side after the departure of the industrious but unimaginative Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Milner is still an effective player in the high and wide midfield spots but his advancing years have made him look a little shaky in the more recessed position as he struggles to close down space, at least when he’s playing the full game. The introduction of Fabinho on the hour put the tick-tock back in the Liverpool midfield clock while Ribena man was liberated into his more natural wider role.
Keita was replaced by Elliott and the youngster immediately served notice that he has developed more quickness and vision. The substitution livened up the Liverpool attack as the recently returned loanee effectively read overlapping plays with Salah and Alexander-Arnold. Whether this means he can challenge for a starting spot remains to be seen. He’ll have to demonstrate the ability to trackback, cover, and close but he clearly has a bright football mind with the talent to match.
When everyone is fit and healthy in the Liverpool midfield we expect the first choice to be Fabinho-Henderson-Thiago so there is lots of competition for any vacated minutes. Curtis Jones was withheld from this one due to a concussion last weekend but it’s going to be tough for him to get a look in from what we saw at Carrow Road. Klopp still trusts Milner despite his limitations and he will often be a first option off the bench.
Klopp’s primary front three options – 4 players – look largely set. Salah turned in a top performance while Mane looked threatening. Jota, still a little short of fitness looked deadly in the first half before fading and being replaced on the hour by Firmino who clearly looked ready to go. Jota excels more running onto balls played through the defense and poaching in the box while Firmino brings runs from deeper positions and more sophisticated off-ball movement. Plus they can play together in place of Mane or Salah! Klopp’s only problem is that all four demand starting minutes by performance and he has to keep the rotation right between them.
In the back four Alexander-Arnold and Matip looked 100%! Virgil Van Dijk, fresh off a 10-month lay-off, looked just a little rusty but should improve with game time. Klopp has the relative luxury of several healthy defenders so can rotate when necessary as he works on who Van Dijk’s best partner will eventually be, while occasionally resting him in the early weeks if needed.
Andy Robertson’s absence meant that Kostas Tsimikas made his Premier League starting debut. The Greek understudy brings plenty to the Liverpool attack and is a more rounded forward force than Robertson. But the Scotsman has more pace and, as we discovered, more endurance.
Tsimikas badly switched off a couple of times on the defensive end (earning a public rebuke from Milner) and was failing to recover defensively in the last 20 minutes. Klopp will be highly mindful of these vulnerabilities as well as his overall lack of closing. The defender knows his assignments but doesn’t yet play his opponents tightly enough.
All in all, it was a positive first outing for Liverpool considering they were missing four projected starters. There is competition for spots almost everywhere and the side looked quite ruthless once Fabinho got into the game. The Manager has little to worry about in having the players to fill the roles but will have a task on his hands developing the players underneath the First XI and ensuring adequate game time for them.