Well that was about as entertaining an experience as it's possible to have on a cold Thursday night at Anfield in the Europa League. To say it was "big coat weather", would be an understatement and both Dan and I (the only Team TLW lads doing the Europa matches this season) duly obliged. Because it was fucking Baltic, regardless of the warm glow of pleasure emanating from a very comfortable 4-0 win that left us as group winners before the season moves up a gear as we head into a very busy December.
As expected, Klopp made a selection that looked easily good enough to win the match, while simultaneously resting some of the big guns. The presence of Virgil, Macca, Dom, Joel, Trent and Darwin on the bench spoke volumes, as did the fact that the first four of those names remained there all night. Klopp has quietly become arguably the best manager around for making use of his full squad, keeping everyone happy without letting standards or development dip (recent strange and humiliating defeat in France notwithstanding). It shouldn't be forgotten that we've already had quite a few significant injuries and suspensions this season, yet Jurgen has managed to negotiate pretty much every hurdle before us, regardless. Further tests await on that score - not least Alisson's absence for the next couple of weeks, minimum - but we must acknowledge that the days of a first eleven are pretty much gone now and we seem all the better for it as a club, despite still rapidly developing a new way of playing with many new personnel.
Despite the many changes, virtually from the instant the match kicked off, we were playing some really nice stuff: all fluid movement and crisp, intelligent passing. Obviously both the quality of opposition and the fact that we were at home have to be factored into assessments of the significance of the performance, but I can't be anything other than pleased to see a heavily rotated team play some really entertaining stuff. We seem to have almost instantly switched from being a turgid and predictable mess filled with players whose standards had fallen off a cliff just a matter of months ago to a side now brimming with young, hungry, intelligent technicians. In fact, I don't think we've had a technically better squad in all the (approaching 40) years I've been seriously watching Liverpool. As fans I think we take for granted a little the fact that - almost to a man - the entire squad plays sensational one and two touch, head up football that's imbued with intelligence and composure.
For examples last night, look no further than Harvey Elliott and Jarell Quansah. Harvey has to be the best midfield decision maker for his age I've ever seen. Not only that, his movement and use of the ball are as technically prodigious as they are tactically astute. For a player who has only known the best of the academy era of professional development, maybe those things should be a given (even ignoring the fact that he seems to be levels above all his peers). However, look at the unrelenting desire to maximise every element of his game evident in his clearly improved core strength this season. For inspiration, he's not had far to look and it seems obvious that Mo's mentorship of him is showing itself in a growing physical development that seeks to emulate that of the superstar captain for the night. Harvey was really fucking good last night in a manner that utterly belies his age - a description that can be equally applied to his teammate at left centre half.
I don't religiously follow the youth teams at Liverpool, but it's pretty unusual for me to be completely unaware of the names of the various young prospects making waves in our development sides. However, until pre-season this summer, I had never registered Jarell Quansah's name. It therefore feels slightly bizarre that he's made such a seamless, calm and confident transition to first team squad member so quickly. But that's exactly what he is. I've resisted eulogising him too much, despite his obvious technical, tactical, physical and mental strengths as he's yet to be fully tested at this level. No matter that he appears to have the touch, height, pace and strength to play centre half for Liverpool, until I've seen him come under real pressure from the kind of physical duel-happy forwards the Premier League is full of and escape unscathed, I will retain question marks about him. However, until that test is passed, I think it's also fair to consider that maybe the reason he's not come under pressure is as much to do with how he plays as with whom he's faced. Either way, it's getting harder to temper expectations. Nothing will deflect me from my view that we need another left footed defender, but that needn't be at Quansah's expense. In fact it mustn't be. We need to keep him very firmly on this apparently exponential development path he's on because who knows where his ceiling is?
In terms of the game itself, despite the front-foot bravery of LASK (or maybe because of it), we played fluent attacking football right from the off which was swiftly rewarded after just twelve minutes with the first goal. Luis Diaz collected the ball running across the edge of the penalty area from the left following a little half-stabbed clearance, and immediately played it out to the overlapping Joe Gomez who hit a lobbed half volley into the six yard box which Diaz ran through to dive and bury himself with a superb flick of his head that left the keeper stranded. This was followed a mere three minutes later with a trademark Cody Gakpo back post tap in from Mo. Salah received a pass from Endo out on the right touchline maybe ten yards inside the opposition half and immediately hit a first-time ball to Diaz on the edge of the D which cut out three opposition players. Unfortunately Diaz mis-controlled the ball, but then pounced as the centre half failed to clear convincingly under pressure from Gakpo, playing in Mo as he ran into the penalty area from the right. He was closed down and challenged as he played the ball in for Gakpo, but it wasn't enough to prevent the assist. You know, assists: they're those stats that Dave reckons are meaningless, even though only a handful of players in the game consistently deliver them in high numbers.
No, I'm not letting this one go, regardless of what the data geeks think about them as a stat; why the fuck would we dismiss a statistic that the players themselves are proud of or that some of our lads are setting all-time records for? What next? Tap ins no longer count as goals because they're so easy? There goes a certain a certain centre forward's "career" record. (Sorry John - I know that'll sting a little about your boy, but truth hurts). Anyway, enough about "Kenny" Usher's nonsense, back to the game.
Throughout the first half, LASK had a number of instances where they broke through our back line with skill, intelligent movement and purpose. However, virtually every single one was flagged as offside (regardless of the infuriating VAR policy-related late flagging from the linesman). It blows my mind a little how many of our fans are still not used to this because it is an absolutely fundamental part of how we play. You may well find it difficult to watch at times, but it's a well established tactic that, crucially, is brilliantly effective. So despite what commentators or various fans may believe, we didn't actually come under much pressure at all. I only know one team that is able to consistently exert pressure outside the laws of the game and it's not LASK. File this one under the same tab as "Alisson can't kick"; he clearly can as his frequent ability to control the ball with either foot and pass it long or short with total precision attests. Alisson's problem is not his ability to kick effectively; it's his over-confidence in doing so when under a high degree of pressure from opponents. Even then though, it very rarely costs us and so I'm more than happy to see it continue (even if I'll concede that it's nervy to watch at times). So as I said, offside "chances" are not changes; they're offsides.
That said, egged on by their consistently loud and supportive away fans, LASK kept plugging away when they could, including deep into the second half when already well beaten. However, they were unable to do anything about multiple further chances and goals for us, including a great effort from the recently revived Kostas who hit an absolute peach that was unlucky to hit the crossbar after he got over the ball well and struck it sweetly. Normal goal-scoring business was resumed soon into the second half though when Gakpo created his own opportunity to go one on one with the keeper and used a good burst of pace to edge the ball away milliseconds before being brought down for a penalty, duly dispatched by Mo to take him onto 199 goals for Liverpool.
Another game, another record for the main man. This was also his 16th consecutive game at Anfield with a scoring contribution (I won't mention the A word again) and he extended his European record for a player representing an English club to 44 goals. He's unbelievable - almost literally so. The guy has huge moments every single time he steps onto the pitch, regardless of the narrative around him - including from some of his own fans - that he doesn't dominate games. Chris said on the pod in the summer/early season that he'd give Mo another contract right now and I absolutely agree. We have one of the very best players in our entire history (certainly an all-time eleven player) who is adapting his game for new tactics and team mates in a changing body as he ages and yet he's still there game in, game out delivering. I see absolutely no let up in his hunger and it defies what we know of his ambitions as a player that he's simply biding his time for the Saudi call. That looks years away to me - if it ever comes (I reckon he'll want to retire at the very top with us).
The final goal came two minutes into injury time with Gakpo running onto an absolutely perfectly weighted fizzed ball from substitute Trent who'd run through the middle of midfield to do so. Cody cut onto his right and lashed it in beyond the keeper at the far post. 4-0, game over.
So, given the other result in the group last night, we have qualified top and don't need to give serious consideration to this competition again until March. Don't get me wrong though - I badly want to win this. And we absolutely should win it too, playing this way. I see no reason at all why Klopp can't complete his clean sweep of trophies with Liverpool in Dublin in the late spring of next year. However, it's not just the prospect of further silverware that I'm appreciating about this competition; I'm also delighted to see how positively its affected our development, both accelerating and honing our transition into a new way of playing with lots of new or changing players. I'd never have chosen this route forward last season, but now we're here, I think it's obvious that Champions League participation would have made it far harder to rotate and develop players in the way we have so far in this campaign.
Star Man is Cody who had arguably his best performance for us, with nods to Harvey, Joe G and the consistently classy Gravenberch too.
And so onto December which brings a step change in challenge for us, both in terms of the quality of opponent and the frequency of matches. However, as I've said repeatedly on the pod this season, could any of us seriously have expected such a rapid development in our football by this stage of the campaign? It seems that yet again Jurgen is defying received wisdom of what's possible in football and long may it continue. Given our strength at Anfield, I'm expecting a big December from us, regardless of the quality of opponent coming to try their luck. I remain focused on second as a realistic prediction of where we'll end the campaign. However, throw into the mix highly possible European and domestic cup wins and it's starting to feel like there's a really great end to a highly enjoyable campaign on the way.
Come on you Reds!!!
Team: Kelleher; Gomez, Konate (Alexander-Arnold), Quansah, Tsimikas (Chambers); Endo, Elliott, Gravenberch (Bradley); Salah (Nunez), Gakpo, Diaz (Jones):