Liverpool’s first home match of the 2017/18 season ended in victory against Crystal Palace but it wasn’t a perfect performance by the Reds.
A tight, uninspiring first half was perhaps to be expected after Palace were battered on the opening day and Liverpool themselves made plenty of changes.
It took until the final quarter of the match for the Reds to find a breakthrough, Sadio Mane poking home from close range after Dominic Solanke did well to win possession, and a first clean sheet of the season ensured three points stayed at Anfield.
Here are five of the biggest talking points from the game at Anfield.
Klopp rotates with 5 changes
For much of the summer, there was talk over whether Klopp would alter his approach of last season, where he largely stuck to the same lineup regardless of opponent or competition.
This season he fielded the same XI against both Watford and Hoffenheim, but made five changes to the lineup for Palace’s visit.
Daniel Sturridge, Joe Gomez and James Milner all represent good depth options for the Reds, while Andrew Robertson has been presumably signed as a first-team option. Only Ragnar Klavan, coming into the centre of defence, could really be deemed a genuine backup option at this stage—but even the backups must play a role during the entire season.
While the Reds can’t afford to see the Premier League as a secondary competition, Wednesday’s second leg against Hoffenheim has far-reaching consequences so it was right for Klopp to make changes.
Personnel and which players stepped out, of course, can be debated, but the switches themselves—something the boss was criticised for not doing at times last season—is a sign of change, growth and acknowledgement that this year will be different.
Then again, supporters may point to the likes of Klavan or Jon Flanagan being called upon, or only one midfield option being available as sub, as proof that depth is still woefully lacking.
Midfield lacks creativity
So, about those personnel changes. Emre Can was the midfielder chosen to be rested, which (as with any player) is fine in principle, but it left the Reds badly short on imaginative passing in midfield.
With Philippe Coutinho still sidelined by injury/unavailability, Can is the player in the centre of the park who offers Liverpool the most ability to break lines: sudden surges through challenges, ambitious passing and a willingness to get into the box off the ball.
Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum might do each part of that, but not as regularly, not as forcefully, not as reliably.
In truth, other than sideways recycling and helping to aggressively challenge and quickly win back the ball, the midfield was nowhere near dynamic enough off the ball, nor technically helpful on it.
The trio produced just one key pass between them in the whole match. Robertson had three, Gomez had two.
Add in that Roberto Firmino was pushed to the channels to leave Sturridge as the striker, and it meant a lot of the game intelligence Liverpool rely on in build-up play was sadly lacking.
Robertson’s impressive debut
Crossing on the run from the left flank? An unheard of event last season at Anfield, but Andrew Robertson hasn’t taken long to show what he can bring to the side.
He was quick to surge forward, overlap and deliver low balls toward the six-yard box in the first half, while short corners also allowed crossing opportunities from deep.
Both Sadio Mane and Joel Matip‘s first-half chances came from his deliveries and he was solid in the challenge defensively, too, though not called upon to do too much at that end.
After the break he wildly lashed one shot off target, had another tipped over the bar late on and continued to provide an outlet down the flank.
It was an overall extremely impressive debut for the left-back and it bodes well for the season ahead that the Reds have someone to compete in both halves of the pitch in that particular problem position.
Wijnaldum goes AWOL – again
Rewind to the very end of last season and it was Gini Wijnaldum who scored the all-important opening goal on the final day of the season to guarantee Liverpool’s fourth-place finish.
At the start of 17/18, however, he has been disappointingly quiet, uninvolved and not at all central to build-up play, in each of the three games.
Endeavour and work rate aren’t lacking from any player, but when the rest of midfield is made up of players whose primary traits are generally their athleticism and stamina, more is needed from Wijnaldum himself.
The Dutchman’s place in the side is one of those most at risk when everybody is fit—or if new signings arrive before September—and for his own sake as much as anything else, he needs to rediscover top form fast.
Importance of three points
Manchester United have made a fast start to the league season, Chelsea and Manchester City are intent on spending enormously and Tottenham remain quietly effective, on and off the pitch.
If the Reds have top-four ambitions, and indeed hopes far beyond that, they can’t afford to fall behind the leading pack so early on in the season. A point on the road is fine in isolation, but to repeat the trick at home would have been worrying.
Quite aside from the Premier League race, morale and self-confidence for the team are vitally important ahead of a huge week, even this early in the season.
The second leg against Hoffenheim has long-lasting and far-reaching consequences, something the Reds simply cannot fail in, while the upcoming league games are against Arsenal and Manchester City.
Going into those fixtures only on two points, while the opposition sit on four or six, would only add to the pressure the Reds play under—but Mane’s goal ensured it’ll be far closer than that when the Reds lock horns with their rivals.