Liverpool took to the pitch at Anfield this afternoon desperate make amends for their recent string of worsening performances that had drawn any lingering dreams of a late push for the Champions League to a swift halt. With that feat now seeming impossible Liverpool had to set their sights on a different fate, looking at how they could use continue to use their performances to affect the table.
And boy did they influence proceedings.
But this wasn’t about slowing United’s title charge. Though that’s a welcome side-effect – an additional positive to be gained from an already fantastic day – there were much more important matters at stake. Instead, it was simply about the effects victory would have on Liverpool Football Club: to raise morale, to re-establish some optimism, and most practically, to reclaim sixth place. It was a rallying cry, a call to arms, a statement of intent… call it what you will. It was perfect.
The added incentive playing against Manchester United gives to the Liverpool supporters – especially at home – meant that there was no shortage of motivation for the team. No matter what, the Anfield faithful knew that the team would go out and give it their all, and coupled with United’s crippled defence, plagued by a combination of injuries and suspensions, it only heightened Liverpool’s drive. They smelled blood.
And it didn’t take long before the reds could sense United’s fear, gaining the upper hand in the match almost immediately. Liverpool’s play was dangerous and incisive, and it seemed only a matter of time before the home side would manage to break through.
In the end, Dirk Kuyt notched up perhaps the most simple of hat-tricks Anfield is ever likely to see, especially against high level opposition. But, as easy as Kuyt’s two tap-ins and gifted header were, Liverpool’s opening goal required something truly special.
Luis Suarez, on a rare occasion that a different player actually manages to overshadow the scorer of all three goals, treated Anfield to a sensational display of close control as he ghosted through United’s defence along the touchline, wriggling past three separate players before rolling the ball, with a little good fortune, straight along the goal line and into the path of the waiting Kuyt. It was a surreal moment as Kuyt celebrated scoring it, but in a sense nobody could take it away from Suarez, who did everything bar apply the finishing touch to a magical moment of individual inspiration.
But in another sense this sums up King Kenny’s approach; one founded on the philosophy of slick, incisive passing and, above all, teamwork. It may have been Suarez’ magnificent moment but it took a teammate to make it count for anything, and as the two players celebrated with each other it all came together in a moment of clarity and unity.
On a day that asked for a majestic performance, Liverpool, as a team, provided just that.
And make no mistake, despite the absences in United’s backline, it was the strength of Liverpool’s performance – not the weakness of United’s – that decided the game. Liverpool played superbly, and personally I see no reason why the result would have been any different had the opposition been at full strength.
In fact, for me, this was Liverpool’s most striking all-round performance of the season – as well as under Dalglish in his second reign at the helm of the club – and proves that, even if they still have yet to reach the right level of consistency, there is already vast progress being made by Dalglish. Indeed, the most impressive aspect of today’s performance was not the fact that the reds pushed to a three goal advantage against the league leaders, nor was it Suarez’ sublime individual skills, which he kept up until he was withdrawn in the final minutes.
Simply, it was the way in which the team perfectly embodied Dalglish’s philosophy: Liverpool’s passing and movement for large parts of the game was second-to-none (except perhaps Barcelona, but that’s a different story altogether) and as they grew in confidence with the lead some of the fluid motions became more and more unpredictable and elaborate. If the players can maintain that level of confidence and open games with this fresh, inventive passing in mind, they may not be far away from reaching a level where they inspire fear into their opponents right from the first whistle.
Certainly, it cannot be argued that as the players continue to develop with each other and with Dalglish’s methods, things can only improve. Already they are starting to look a potent attacking force, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Dalglish’s instruction goes. What’s more, this is still all without Andy Carroll, whose cameo at the end of the game was more about getting some minutes under his belt rather than influencing the game – though in that brief spell alone he showed desire and promised a new dimension to Liverpool’s already imposing new frontline.
It was nice to see Fabio Aurelio back in the starting line-up and the way he slotted into the defence in the first twenty minutes highlighted the importance of having a player naturally suited to that position; not to mention the fact that Glen Johnson looked more fluid and comfortable over on the right. Unfortunately, Aurelio also illustrated his lack of dependability, picking up yet another unlucky injury midway through the first half. The reshuffling of the defence was cause for concern but the men comprising Liverpool’s rearranged backline did well, and deserve credit for keeping a clean sheet – at least until the final minute of the game.
But it was more of a short-term solution than providing Dalglish with a real answer. In the long-term, replacements to increase stability at the back are essential.
Of course, the context of the buoyancy that Liverpool approached this game with cannot be overlooked. If the reds turned out performances like this week in, week out, they would likely be top of the table and looking at a long unbeaten run. Unfortunately, they don’t – and football’s not quite so simple. It’s a criticism often levelled at the squad that they raise their game against the ‘big’ clubs and then let their level of performance slip against lower opposition – all too often resulting in surprise victories and shock defeats. One needs look no further than the victory over Chelsea last month, which was followed by the disappointing draw to Wigan. Last week the reds put on an impotent display against West Ham and fell to an embarrassing defeat, only to pick themselves up for the game against United and deliver the goods.
It certainly wouldn’t come as a shock, then, if Liverpool’s next Premier League game – away to Sunderland in two weeks’ time – saw them slip to another disappointment. In many ways this is a far more important match than today’s, not to mention a more telling test of Liverpool’s improvement. The match is a six-pointer as the reds look to create a gap between themselves and those chasing sixth place – so its importance cannot be understated – but without the motivation of playing against a team like Chelsea or United, the players must prove what they’re made of and illustrate Liverpool’s steady improvement.
Interestingly, though, by that time Liverpool will know their fate in the latest round of the Europa League, as they play both legs of the tie against Braga before resuming action in the Premier League. The reds were far from convincing in the previous round and without the need to balance the squad around league games one would hope to see Dalglish go for it in this tie rather than look for a more reserved and defensive away performance. The importance of the Europa League as a competition may be derided by fans used to participating in the Champions League, but a trophy is a trophy and despite being Europe’s second tier competition winning it still holds some prestige, so the reds should look to go as far as possible in the tournament.
The games against Braga and Sunderland may look somewhat easy on paper, but with the knowledge of Liverpool’s all-too-familiar slipups after excellent performances, we can take nothing for granted. The next few weeks will tell us a lot about the condition of this improving Liverpool side, and even if it’s not expected, one would hope that the answers we find prove positive. After all, it’s time the reds followed a big win with a little more consistency.