Analysis: Perfect afternoon at Anfield as records tumble for Salah and Liverpool stroll into the top-four

Analysis: Perfect afternoon at Anfield as records tumble for Salah and Liverpool stroll into the top-four

Liverpool confirmed their place in next season's Champions League, with Mo Salah among the goalscorers as he grabbed a record-breaking 32nd in the league.

matt-addison
Matt Addison

What could have been a nervy afternoon for the Anfield faithful on the final day of the Premier League season was in fact a stroll in the park for Jurgen Klopp's players as they beat Brighton by four goals to nil.

With Chelsea hammered 3-0 at Newcastle United, whatever the score was in Liverpool's game would have been enough to see them finish fourth, but they were not to know that, and made it certain themselves thanks to goals from Mo Salah, Dejan Lovren, Dominic Solanke and Andy Robertson.

Last season, fourth meant Liverpool had to go into a play-off for the Champions League, but this season it is sufficient to see them move straight into the group stage thanks to a change in the rules from UEFA.

Salah confirmed his position as the Premier League’s top scorer for this season with an incredible 32 goals, the most anyone has ever managed in a single campaign, while for the other scorers it was a day of firsts.

Lovren scored his first Anfield goal for Liverpool in the Premier League (and a first goal since the iconic one against Borussia Dortmund), Solanke got his first ever in senior football having been made to wait, and Robertson got his first for the club since signing from Hull City last summer.

The Reds were comfortable throughout and put in a dominant performance. What was billed as being a potentially tricky game turned into a breeze in the rare Merseyside sunshine: at half-time, Liverpool had had 16 shots and Brighton only the one; by full-time, it was 22 to two.

Another record that was put in place was Liverpool remaining unbeaten at home in the league all season, with a previously-called ‘leaky backline’ conceding only ten times in that period.

Relegated side West Bromwich Albion, who won at 3-2 Anfield in the FA Cup under Alan Pardew, are the only team in any competition to emerge from Anfield victorious this season. Before that, Crystal Palace won 2-1 in April 2017.

Egyptian King

When Salah finished to open the scoring, he not only confirmed himself as the winner of the Golden Boot, which was presented to him at the end of the game by Kenny Dalglish amid chants of “Are you watching, Harry Kane?” from the home supporters, but put himself first in an illustrious line of Premier League greats that he has now eclipsed.

The previous goalscoring record was held by Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Shearer. Others such as Thierry Henry, Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba had already been surpassed on this remarkable season for the Egyptian.

That there had been talk of a ‘drought’ prior to the game – for Salah had not scored in the previous two league games – says everything about the level of expectation that he carries.

Forget the inevitable questions that will follow over whether he can replicate the same form next season; Salah has just put himself at the forefront of some of the greatest players to play the game in this country.

There is no reason, either, why he cannot go on to surpass his own high standards in future. Particularly towards the beginning of the campaign, he was missing chances on a regular basis. Put those away, and he really could be spoken about in the same breath as Lionel Messi, if he isn’t at that level already.

With one more game to go, Salah has 44 for the season. Perhaps the most important of the lot could be yet to come.

Firmino deeper

The positioning of Roberto Firmino, so often Liverpool's focal point in attack this season, was interesting in this game, as he was allowed to roam free.

He began the game almost alongside Solanke, who was pinned up front as the main number nine from the start for this match, but the more the game went on, the more Firmino drifted.

This is a position more naturally suited to him, and one he played at Hoffenheim, and could provide a hint of something that might be seen a little more frequently next season as it seemed to work. Pre-season will provide a few more clues as to whether that might be the case or not.

The multi-faceted Brazilian was able to be even more creative than normal in his slightly adjusted role, but still retained a goal threat with five shots in the match, and it could be that he plays that role more often in future, being the link between the midfield and the attack.

Solanke breaks duck

The look of relief and joy etched over Solanke’s face when he smashed home a shot reminiscent of Gini Wijnaldum’s opener on the final day of last season against Middlesbrough into the top corner was shared by most inside Anfield including his manager, Klopp.

This is a moment the 20-year-old has had to patiently wait for – this was his 20th game since arriving last summer and he had not been able to score up to this point.

His previous appearances yielded hard work, endeavour and moments of quality, but this was his most complete performance in a Liverpool shirt to date, and he capped it off with a goal to show for his efforts.

The first is always the most difficult, and for a player who has looked short of confidence at times when thrust into the limelight, this could be the moment that he looks back on as a turning point.

His movement and link-up play was top-class and he looked entirely comfortable throughout for the first time, confidently playing passes in one touch and turning on the ball with ease.

If he cannot manage to cement himself as Liverpool's second-choice central striker in time for next season, there will be a long queue of clubs willing to take him on loan in the summer.

Robertson’s reward

Another player who deservedly got onto the score sheet was left-back Robertson, who half-volleyed past Lewis Dunk on the goal line at the Anfield Road End.

Brighton’s defender did his utmost to block the shot, but it was sufficiently directed to end up in the back of Mat Ryan’s net.

Robertson was out of the team for a large portion of this season until he came in for Alberto Moreno when the Spaniard was injured. Since then, he has been faultless, culminating in this special moment for him to savour. It was easy to see what it meant to him.

Troubled little by Solly March, Robertson was able to canter forward at will, and he needs no second invitation. He crossed into the box dangerously on occasion and was often the spare man to be used in attack as he enjoyed an afternoon of freedom and limited responsibility.

Unlike Moreno, in the rare moments that he is required to be defensively switched on, he can produce an efficient and well-timed tackle to alleviate any pressure, and then bounds forward with the energy and enthusiasm of a dog chasing a stick.

Left-back had long been a problem position for Liverpool before this season; in Robertson, they have the perfect answer.

Lallana an option

Adam Lallana has had a tough time this season due to injury, playing only 227 minutes in the league all year, but when he can make it onto the field, his class immediately shows.

Avoid another injury between now and the World Cup and he will rightly be in Gareth Southgate’s England squad regardless of the torrid campaign he has endured with little joy.

Brought into the game with only 20 minutes remaining and Brighton already well beaten, it was difficult to judge his fitness ahead of the Champions League final, but that he did not start in the absence of James Milner is perhaps telling. For Klopp to change the system rather than just bring him in suggests he is not yet ready for a full, intense game despite looking good in training.

Milner has been crucial recently and should be back for the final in Kiev, but was left out of today’s game as a precaution, so Lallana has little chance of making the starting eleven against Real Madrid, but should he prove his fitness and remain injury-free from now until May 26, he could be a key substitute on the night.

With other players such as Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missing, Lallana’s return could have come at a crucial time. He showed his typical neat footwork and creativity on Sunday against an opponent far inferior to the Spanish giants, but he will almost certainly be needed in the final.

Lallana returning to action was just one of many positives for Liverpool to take on the day that they finished fourth in the Premier League, in what was the perfect preparation for the Champions League final to come at the end of the month, and a day when records were broken all over the field.

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