This season has all been about winning for Liverpool, but Wednesday night saw echoes of last season emerge as the Reds won with style against Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League.
Liverpool took twenty minutes to get themselves going, surprised perhaps by the extent of the early Red Star press, but once Roberto Firmino put Liverpool ahead, they never looked back, dominating their Serbian opponents.
With Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli battling each other in France, Liverpool had to get their Champions League campaign back on track after a late loss in Naples. Their 4-0 victory over Red Star certainly refuelled the Reds’ momentum in Europe and, with PSG and Napoli drawing, placed them back at the top of Group C.
Liverpool are now a point and two points clear of Napoli and PSG respectively, but the job of qualification remains far from complete. Red Star may be the weak link of the group but securing three points in the hostile Belgrade atmosphere will not be straightforward.
Napoli have already dropped points in a draw away to Red Star, and Liverpool cannot follow the same fate if they want to be in a strong position ahead of the return fixtures against the French giants and Carlo Ancelotti’s side, who play each other again in a fortnight in Italy.
Defence strong again against Red Star
Aware of the importance of Wednesday’s match, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp pulled no punches with his starting eleven. Even with the absences of Jordan Henderson and Naby Keïta, Liverpool looked strong all over the pitch.
The back five that has transformed Liverpool’s defence in the past year were restored, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and particularly Andy Robertson contributing well further forward, while Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez were their usual ‘Rolls-Royce’ selves.
Yet the depth in Liverpool’s squad is clear as Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip have come into the backline throughout the season and the clean sheets have not stopped. Lovren may feature again at the weekend against Cardiff City with Gomez moved to right-back to counter the aerial strength of Neil Warnock’s side.
Attack also back on track
Encouragingly, all of Liverpool’s ‘Big Three’ in attack found the back of the net against Red Star for the first time this season. Mohamed Salah’s goal drought is now officially over, with three goals in his last two matches and fifty goals in sixty-five matches overall in a Liverpool shirt.
No one at Anfield has reached fifty goals in fewer games than the Egyptian, who has six goals this season without having yet reached anything like his best level. Nevertheless, he is slowly but surely rediscovering last season’s form and opponents will fear the day when Salah is operating again at his peak.
Just as important were Firmino and Sadio Mané both ending their mini goal droughts, even with Mané missing a penalty. Nevertheless, the link-up play between the trio looked at its best since the opening day victory against West Ham United – positive signs that Liverpool will soon click fully into gear and match their relentless winning of this season with the near-unstoppable momentum of last season.
Liverpool’s new midfield?
However, what was new and hugely promising against Red Star was the structure of Liverpool’s midfield. Fabinho finally made his first start in a Liverpool shirt and his performance proved the Brazil international was worth the wait for Liverpool fans.
Klopp, as with Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain last year, knows how to bed in new signings rather than throwing players into the deep end when they are still adjusting to the style of the side or playing in a new country and league.
Fabinho may have been Klopp’s first signing of the summer, but the 25-year-old required a long adjustment period from Monaco and Ligue 1 to Klopp’s methods at Anfield.
If Wednesday night was anything to go by, then Fabinho will become a crucial cog in Liverpool’s midfield as the season goes on, justifying Liverpool’s £40m-plus outlay on the Brazilian.
Third season genius from Gini
Yet Fabinho was undoubtedly aided all the way by the brilliant Gini Wijnaldum, who has overtaken James Milner as Liverpool’s most consistent performer in midfield.
The Dutchman has responded to the competition from Keïta and Fabinho by elevating his displays and dominating the midfield in a way he did all too rarely in his first two years in a Liverpool shirt.
Wijnaldum still has attacking qualities with the Dutch national team that he could bring to Klopp’s Liverpool side, but his ability to break up play, squeeze out of tight situations, carry the ball forwards and provide limitless energy to the middle of the park have made him almost indispensable to Liverpool’s midfield three.
Shaqiri standing Out
Finally, Xherdan Shaqiri excelled again as he helped supply Liverpool’s attack, especially Salah, from a slightly deeper midfield position, akin to impressive performances against Southampton and Huddersfield.
Any previous fears about Shaqiri’s attitude and work-rate should be completely dismissed as the Swiss international is fully committed to the Liverpool cause, even if his starting place is far from guaranteed.
Yet Klopp looks to have figured out when best to utilise Shaqiri’s creativity, with Liverpool playing more of a 4-2-3-1 formation instead of 4-3-3 when Shaqiri is in the side.
Against elite opponents, Liverpool’s midfield could become exposed, but if Shaqiri can continue to work on his tactical awareness in midfield, then he could provide that link and thrust between midfield and attack that has been missing since Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury in April.
Perhaps the introduction of Fabinho – who performed tackle after tackle and launched numerous attacks from a number six role, similar to Steven Gerrard in 2014 – and the presence of Wijnaldum could offer enough of a defensive nucleus to provide Shaqiri with a license to operate further forward.
They should certainly get the chance to build on the debut performance against Red Star, perhaps even against Cardiff on Saturday. Indeed Henderson, Keïta and Milner could soon be struggling to find their way back into Liverpool’s midfield.
If Klopp can find a consistent balance between this new midfield trio, then together they could provide all the qualities the Reds need for their assault on the Premier League title.