By Rory Morrow – Deputy & Sports Editor
Amidst the Manchester United post-mortem, it is also worth sitting back, gawp-eyed and applauding Liverpool’s rediscovered vigour and relentless winning mentality across all competitions this season. In fourteen games, Liverpool have scored two or more goals in thirteen. In their last two games, they have scored ten and conceded none. Norwich by contrast have shipped seven, scoring zero.
Following an injury, crowd-less and rhythm-disrupted title defence last season, since May it is clear this Liverpool side have been steadily building back to their imperious best. For all the furore surrounding their frankly diabolic Anfield capitulation over last winter, their last league loss came all the way back in March at Fulham’s hands. Two, and realistically, their only title rivals have already lost in the league this season. They are in imperious form. Across this season and May’s fine finish, there are a variety of factors to dissect within this.
Firstly, Mohamed Salah. The £34Million paid to Roma in the summer of 2017 is arguably one of the best bargains in the last decade. Mind-boggling brilliant, persistent in the face of repeated full back fouling and cool under pressure, the Egyptian is without doubt worthy of his sudden rank in the maddening “best worldwide player” debate. Salah’s second minute penalty, coolly converted in the 2019 Champions League final, no less, set Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp on course to ending a painfully long trophy absence. During the earlier years of Klopp’s reign when the defence was still as reliable as a drunk donkey, Salah frequently acted the saviour. This term, Salah is currently on an eight-match league scoring streak. He was instrumental in orchestrating Liverpool’s complete cruise control at a stunned Old Trafford on Sunday. His hat trick goal, a simplistic beauty. When picked out by Jordan Henderson’s leaf-blown dainty pass, all it took was a sudden acceleration from Salah. Two calm, clinical touches later, the ball nestled as it so often does with Salah, in the back of the net. Not content with scoring successive goal of the season contenders against Manchester City and Watford, Salah also had the ruthless edge to see off Atletico Madrid in Spain. His world class consistency is remarkable making him invaluable both to Klopp and any fantasy football manager. Sunday’s tally also earned him the breath-taking accolade of overtaking Didier Drogba to become the highest goal scoring African player in Premier League history. That a crown fully merited through graft and Chelsea rejection but most of all Salah’s smiley, humble and immensely likeable persona that gives the impression he actually, you know, enjoys his job of playing football.
He has also benefited from a rejuvenated front three. Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane appear fully realigned back with their high-pressing and defence heckling hijinks. Firmino, is particularly, is murmured among fans to have perked up in goal scoring currency, his recent hat trick at Vicarage Road taking him to six goals in all competitions already. Yet in that gloriously cohesive title winning team of two seasons ago, Mane and Salah were the main scorers. Firmino’s role was to hassle, harass, hustle, hurry and generally be a non-stop nuisance to defences. This the Brazilian relished often assisting the assist to goals. Firmino, whilst his scoring stats are underwhelming remains a high-class centre forward just of a unique vintage. To judge him purely on goals is like assessing a puppy as a potential, practical pet based on the sole factor of it being cute. Whilst the front three tagline has worn off, undoubtedly they are pushed hard by the thrilling and versatile (plus injury-free) Diogo Jota. And despite otherwise occupying the roles of deadwood, this article is written shortly after apparent deadwood Takumi Minamino and part-time cult hero Divock Origi each scored in an EFL Cup last 16 win at Preston.
Cohesion has been a buzzword of contrast between Manchester United and Liverpool following Sunday’s shellacking. Liverpool’s return to a sensible, systemic defence allied with the return of most of their senior centre backs (and adequate cover purchased in Ibrahima Konate). Virgil van Dijk has gradually eased back in and bar a slapdash show at Brentford, Liverpool’s defensive resilience has returned. Joel Matip has grown in status, almost helping van Dijk ooze back into the feel of competitive, high-end football. Wait, wasn’t that supposed to be the other way around? Neco Williams, Kostas Tsimikas and Conor Bradley have all also emerged as shockingly decent deputies to the sublimities of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Tsimikas, especially in his forward surges and pinpoint crossing was such a carbon copy of peak refined Robertson in the 2-0 win against Burnley one had to blink twice, almost startled to see the Scot uninvolved. And whilst Liverpool will face brighter clowns than those hired by United to “defend”, it was refreshingly exhilarating nonetheless, to see Alexander-Arnold’s purposeful scuffling go rewarded with a sweeping Salah strike.
Most crucially of all, the defensive return to near immortality has strengthened the midfield. Fabinho is liberated once more to patrol the pitch like an authoritative bouncer, his positional nous to snuff out danger fully restored. Jordan Henderson has been similarly freed and has maintained Euro2020 momentum into this season. The skipper operating with a decisive confidence, no doubt enjoying his phenomenal assist as he strutted through the hastily emptying theatre whose audience included Sir Alex Ferguson, once afraid to sign Henderson over running style concerns. James Milner’s class continues, his springy zip against Watford a sign of energy used smartly. Curtis Jones and Thiago Alcantara continue developing well, Jones an embodiment of Liverpool’s optimism in youth whilst Naby Keita has resurrected what at times seemed a pipedream of an Anfield career. Harvey Elliott’s unfortunate injury was cruel on a youngster who after a successful loan at Blackburn, had been a startingly mature presence and still personifying the rock n roll Klopp style.
These are all fantastic signs of encouragement yet Liverpool regardless face a mighty test in storming the league barricades of European Champions Chelsea and winners supreme City. However, with Champions league nights back at a full house Anfield and three games away from the EF Cup final, Liverpool’s eggs are in multiple baskets. Most are betting that at least one set will hatch.