For a manager often accused of being somewhat “one-dimensional” and tactically stubborn, Jürgen Klopp threw an absolute curveball at Brighton with his starting lineup, which featured two midfielders- Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can- as part of a three-man defence, with Dejan Lovren in the middle. On the one hand, it exposed just how thin on the ground Liverpool are in terms of defensive options, but also how innovative Klopp can be, demonstrating enormous faith in his players to operate in such an unorthodox system- especially away from home.
While Klopp’s default 4-3-3 system was magnificent when everything clicked last season, it was far less effective when any one of the key components were missing. Liverpool became predictable and struggled to break low-block opposition down- but he has clearly adapted and that is now the fifth consecutive win against “lesser opposition” by at least a three-goal margin in recent weeks, with Huddersfield, West Ham, Southampton, Stoke and Brighton all put to the sword.
This Brighton side have been anything but cannon fodder since their promotion, however, with Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City the only side to have won at the Amex all season. As recently as mid-week, Manchester United scraped a 1-0 win at Old Trafford courtesy of a freak deflected cross. This had all the potential to be a really tricky encounter.
Yet Liverpool made a complete mockery of those slating the lineup before a ball had been kicked in what was, under the circumstances, one of the finest performances of the season so far. With far greater strength in depth than Klopp has had at any point in his tenure until now, Liverpool were able to make six changes- including a rarest of starts for Andy Robertson, while not experiencing any kind of drop-off in quality.
Five goals were plundered without the league’s top scorer, Mo Salah, even getting on the scoresheet, while Sadio Mané was afforded an afternoon off as he rested his legs on the sidelines. In almost every respect- other than the absurdity of the referee’s decision to award Brighton a penalty for nothing at all- this was near enough the ideal afternoon for Klopp and his team.
The unusual shape clearly dumbfounded the hosts- as happened with Klopp’s surprise 4-2-2-2 used against West Ham several weeks ago. It allowed the wing backs to bomb forward, while the front line had the freedom to cause havoc with Jordan Henderson and James Milner controlling proceedings in the middle. While the need to buy at least another centre-back remains crystal clear, on this occasion the ball-playing abilities of Can and Wijnaldum enabled Liverpool to build attacks from the back, while there was little in the way of ‘typical’ defending to do as Liverpool dominated possession high up the pitch for large periods.
Importantly, there appears to be no sense of panic or rush if the score is still 0-0 after half an hour or even 45 minutes. Liverpool are rarely starting games lightning fast this season, but ease their way in and gradually move through the gears in a calm and professional manner.
Continuing the new-found habit of goal-scoring prowess from corners, Can head-butted Liverpool in front with a typical centre-half’s bullet on the half-hour mark from Coutinho’s out-swinging delivery. The kind of goal Sami Hyypia, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel delivered with some regularity, but that Lovren and Joel Matip are seldom able to produce despite frequent opportunities to do so.
The cheapest of ways to gain a lead, Liverpool doubled it in just over a minute with a passage of play which neatly encapsulated everything Klopp’s style of football is about. A crisp pass from Lovren to Roberto Firmino, who nips in front of his marker to flick the ball on to Salah, whose first touch and burst of pace takes out the entire Brighton midfield. Salah judges the pass out wide to Philippe Coutinho perfectly and the Brazilian’s low, left-footed cross is laser-guided to Firmino who arrives at the back post to dispatch it with aplomb for his 10th of the season. A lethal, sumptuous counter-attack which highlighted the sheer gulf in class between the two sides.
The third goal, coming straight from a superb Simon Mignolet save from point-blank range, was yet another demonstration of the devastating potency of this Liverpool attack- even without Mané on the pitch. Coutinho this time flicking the ball into Salah’s path, the Egyptian struck terror into the heart of Brighton’s back line, surging forward with menace before sliding a delightful ball into Firmino who again finished with the assurance of a bonafide number nine into the top corner, first time.
Despite the referee’s best efforts to create a proper contest, awarding the daftest penalties you are ever likely to see, Liverpool were this time able to ride a brief wave of Brighton pressure and continue to assert their superiority, despite the hosts having been given a glimmer of hope.
Coutinho added the fourth in audacious style, rolling a 25-yard free kick under the wall past a helpless Matt Ryan for his 6th goal of the season- the kind of strike very few players in the world would even consider, let alone execute. It was a special performance from the Brazilian who had Brighton chasing shadows for 90 minutes, playing with all the guile and quality of a genuine world-class midfielder. His dribbling, touch and vision were on another level to anyone else on the pitch- other than his compatriot, Firmino, who continues to go under the radar despite enjoying a quietly terrific season so far.
An own-goal was awarded for the fifth, although it was all down to Coutinho’s brilliance once again, this time with a driving run from deep and a clipped cross, deflected into the back of the net to cap off a virtuoso display- just the latest reminder of why Liverpool were absolutely right to dig their heels in to keep hold of Coutinho in the summer (and why they must do so once again in January).
The goals are now flowing freely for Liverpool, regardless of the personnel and tactical shape. Yet what is perhaps just as pleasing is the fact that Liverpool aren’t conceding many goals- that’s just the third Liverpool have conceded in the past six league games, and it should never have been given as a penalty anyway. It’s all the more impressive given the absence of Matip and Joe Gomez, too. Wijnaldum looked uncomfortable at times, but coped admirably with a completely unfamiliar role- remember this is a player who was signed from Newcastle having played predominantly as a number ten. To step in at left-sided centre-back like this deserves great credit and shows the extent to which Klopp trusts his ability.
Elsewhere, Robertson looked slightly rusty at times- which was to be expected given his lack of game time- but grew into the game and did his reputation no harm at all with an unspectacular but solid performance at left wing-back. On the other side, Trent Alexander-Arnold had a few hairy moments at the back, but made a sublime block to deny José Izquierdo a certain goal at a key moment in the second-half. He appears to be going from strength to strength- his trajectory only upwards.
That makes it 16 points from a possible 18 since losing to Spurs at Wembley, with Liverpool having now broken into the top four ahead of both Spurs and Arsenal for the time being. There are plenty more favourable fixtures soon to come and Liverpool must continue to rack up the points as they have been doing so efficiently as of late.
A season which appeared to be rapidly approaching crisis point is now one full of opportunity, with Liverpool having built up some serious momentum at a very useful time. While the winter period was ultimately what saw Liverpool fall away last season, Klopp has meticulously planned and juggled his squad to ensure this time, Liverpool surge into the New Year as a force to be reckoned with.