Thirty-five minutes into Liverpool’s 4-3 Champions League victory at Anfield versus RB Salzburg and the home crowd were dreaming of a rout. Sadio Mane, Andy Robertson, and Mo Salah had their names on the score sheet.
Despite glimmers of skill and moments that worried the Anfield faithful, Salzburg was unable to cope with the home-side’s quality.
But, just four minutes after Salah put the Reds up 3-0, a poor giveaway by captain Jordan Henderson was compounded when the normally solid Fabinho and Joe Gomez (who was filling in for an injured Joel Matip at center back) were poor transitioning back to defense and Virgil van Dijk gave the fans the rarest of experiences—allowing an attacker to completely break his ankles—ultimately leading to Salzburg’s first goal.
The whistle blew for half time, Liverpool was up 3-1 and even though things looked a little shaky, that maybe RSB could find a way back into it, I was confident that Klopp and company would iron out some of the wrinkles.
My own thoughts, things that I quickly jotted down during half time, keyed on the need to clean up the errant passes and general sloppiness. Even though Liverpool had been far superior in that first thirty-five minutes, there were several moments of madness, where the quality fans have come to expect from the squad was nowhere to be found.
Hendo’s giveaway that led to the goal was just one of many. Salah had a few as well, one in the first half where he played the ball straight to the opposing player sitting right at the halfway line. The ensuing counter was snuffed out, but the fact remained, Liverpool were getting complacent.
Jesse Marsch, Salzburg’s American manager, had switched to a diamond midfield and that caused the European Champions some problems. If I’m honest, I didn’t see much of that and since the game is hidden behind a firewall I’m unwilling to pay to get around (Thanks BR Sports), I’ll have to take Andy Hunter’s word for it.
Daniel Austin, over at Liverpool.com, also said that diamond formation in midfield isolated Fabinho defensively, which makes bringing on James Milner in the 62nd all the more logical.
The real question marks came in defense, though. Giving up three goals at home isn’t necessarily the hallmarks of a top tier side. To be fair though, they don’t do it often, and the last time they did was back in January v Crystal Palace. Liverpool walked away with maximum points there, too. But I digress.
Defensive frailties looked more like unfamiliarity with each other than actual pressure from RBS. Although, the pressure helped exacerbate it and Salzburg certainly took advantage. Gomez, on for Matip, hasn’t played much in central defense this season and when he has come on its been as a wing-back replacing Trent Alexander-Arnold. Gomez’s positioning in the build-up to several of the goals by Salzburg was questionable, often finding himself too far forward (on the first and second goals) and not aware of Erling Haaland lurking behind him on the third.
This isn’t to take away from RB Salzburg, though. They came into Anfield and gave a good accounting of themselves. They look a side to be reckoned with, but like any side with a little bit of quality they can take advantage of even the smallest of mistakes by a side that’s far superior. Some results over in Spain bear this out.
It’s a long season and these sorts of games are inevitable, just so long as they don’t happen too frequently. According to Gareth Roberts over at The Anfield Wrap, there’s a sense of unrealistic entitlement, as if Liverpool’s players aren’t fallible. They are. And they’ll make more mistakes this season.
But it was rare, and really nervy if I’m honest, to see Henderson, Fabinho, Gomez, Van Dijk, and Gini all have really poor performances. It’s natural for fans to feel a bit anxious at the display.
A possibility, though, is that Klopp was confident that Fabs and the other two midfielders could work through the poor performance and Marsch’s tactical adjustment. Normally, I’d bet they could as well.
Roberts’ co-host Lizzi Doyle made it clear that fans need to understand the difference between frustration and anger. We have a right to be frustrated, but being outright angry is something different altogether. Put things into perspective, the squad had 97 points and the Champions League title last year.
Maybe they went into cruise control after scoring three goals in thirty five minutes. Maybe they got a bit complacent, dialing back the intensity a bit. Maybe the disparity in intensity, with Salzburg picking up the tempo a bit, taking the game to Liverpool, prepping for a relaxing 2nd 45 minutes, that shifted the game ever so slightly. And once Salzburg’s second hit the back of the net it gave them all the confidence they needed to push for and ultimately get a 3rd.
Whatever it is it gave fans a bit of a shock.
All of this said, though there are some silver linings. Most importantly, Liverpool found a way to win. Two or three seasons ago, there would have been real anxiety that the team wouldn’t have been able to finish the game off. That they’d not be able to find a way to stem the blood loss after giving up a three-goal lead.
This group is different though. They have a much better mentality than teams from the past decade. They got a bit too cocky too early, let off the gas, got punched in the mouth a few times, then figured out a way to regain control of the match.
That’s a good thing and makes last night’s nervy European match less panic worthy.
On to Saturday.