These things come with caveats.
Four goals and a clean sheet are never to be sniffed at, particularly in Europe, but you have to look at the opposition.
Vladan Milojevic’s Red Star Belgrade set a high bar with a point against Napoli in the opening game of Group C, but it proved to be something of a false dawn. Following a drubbing in Paris and ill-disciplined performance at a 100% Red Anfield, it’s easy to see why they were a Pot 4 team.
But, Liverpool had to beat them all the same and these things are never easy. Ask Tottenham.
Credit where it’s due. For the first twenty minutes, Red Star made a game of it with an emphasis on pressing the ball high up the pitch. It took a lovely recovery tackle and an incisive ball from Xherdan Shaqiri to turn the tide. Once Liverpool’s excellent midfield triumvirate exerted some level of control the drama of the evening ended. The only intrigue came when news filtered through from Paris. All in all a good night for Liverpool, who sit top of the group.
Much will be made of the return of the main strikers with all three of them bagging the goals and while there’s been considerable coverage on the backline of late, tonight should be about the midfield. Shaqiri, Fabinho and Wijnaldum.
Despite the unbeaten run and league position, the Reds haven’t quite got the midfield right this season. The opening game against West Ham probably saw the best performance with debutant Naby Keita pushing forward while Gini and Milner looked after the shop at the back, but since then, with the possible exception of the Crystal Palace performance, it hasn’t clicked. The gap between them and the forwards has been too distant, as evidenced in the City game where we played out a creditable draw, but barely mustered an attack of note.
Anfield has also awaited Fabinho. We’ve seen Naby Keita come in and show what he can do to some extent, though there has to be more to come, the Brazilian has been relegated to a handful of substitute appearances—his latest being a cameo against Huddersfield where the quality of his play outshone his awful pink boots. With Jordan Henderson given the night off with a hamstring issue, the former Monaco player was handed a start tonight. He ended it a strong contender for Man of the Match.
What immediately stood out was his strength under pressure. While he had to calm a frantic game on Saturday at the John Smith’s Stadium, tonight he was tasked with blunting an aggressive Serbian outfit who had no issue with making things physical in the middle of the pitch. Not only did he win the majority of his aerial battles, he unerringly found a Liverpool shirt with simple passes. Win it, control it and give it to Shaqiri. A simple tactic. Liverpool’s 2-0 halftime score was the result.
Shaqiri has been used predominantly in the forward three of late but took to his deeper role like he’d played there for decades. Setting up the first two goals—the second with a sumptuous flick to the onrushing Salah—he ran the show in the pockets in front of the Serbian back four. He also set up the Egyptian in Yorkshire at the weekend with a slide rule pass so maybe his manager will use him a little more over the coming weeks and festive period.
As for Gini Wijnaldum, if you were to take an early player of the season poll, he would only have van Dijk and Gomez near him. He’s been a revelation and his energy have helped Liverpool out of a few problems already this campaign. It took mere minutes to see how needed he is at Huddersfield when he came on for Jordan Henderson at halftime. Liverpool’s chaotic performance calmed down as the Dutchman created space with his strength and guile.
It will be encouraging for the manager to see what many would assume to be a second string midfield (Milner and Keita are favourites to start when everyone is fit) turn in such an accomplished account. It may even persuade him to shove a few bodies around. He still has to give Adam Lallana time on the pitch as he is understandably way off the pace as well as solve the problem about when and how to use his captain—Liverpool fans’ most divisive player.
Klopp will also be aware that Red Star were poor tonight, but that’s not to say that they will be the same in front of their own fans at the Rajko Mitic Stadium in the early kick-off on 6th November. Liverpool have struggled with Red Star in the past and Napoli—mere seconds from beating one of the favourites for the competition on their own ground—failed to score over there.
Interesting times, but one to which Liverpool can now view with confidence and, just possibly, a new midfield.