The good, the bad & the defensive showing – Debating Ajax 0-1 Liverpool

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A stubborn defensive performance was the most pleasing aspect in Liverpool’s 1-0 win away to Ajax.

The Reds travelled to Amsterdam for their Champions League curtain-raiser on Wednesday night, looking to get back on track after three games without a win in all competitions.

The Premier League champions did exactly that, overcoming adverse weather conditions, a poor pitch and a dangerous Ajax side.

Nicolas Tagliafico’s first-half own goal proved to be the difference between the two teams, with chances coming at both ends during the night.

Liverpool dug deep and got the job done and Jurgen Klopp will be delighted with three points to begin with in Group D.

After the game, Henry Jackson (@HenryJackson87) was joined by Ben Twelves (@bm12s) and Owen Collins (@OGBCollins) to discuss the various positives on show, the odd negative and Liverpool’s defensive expertise.

 

The good…

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS - Wednesday, October 21, 2020: Liverpool's Sadio Mané (#10) celebrates after forcing an own goal from Ajax during the opening UEFA Champions League Group D match between AFC Ajax and Liverpool FC at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. (Pic by Gerrit van Keulen/Orange Pictures via Propaganda)

BEN: It’s stating the obvious but the result really was excellent and a much-needed boost. To win away and do so keeping a clean sheet in our first game without Virgil van Dijk (and Alisson) was a fantastic effort.

Fabinho was the standout. What a performance. The clearance off the line was a match-winning stop and showed his natural defensive instinct, which provides reassurance on his ability to deputise going forward.

It was good to see Joe Gomez continue his improved form too – if he can get back to his best levels, alongside Fabinho in this form, we will remain a force.

The mentality on show from the whole team was reassuring. Things have not been going for us, which could have dented confidence and focus, but the way everyone dug in to get us back to winning ways was pleasing.

Oh, and it was nice to finally get a bit of luck with the own-goal!

OWEN: Unlike our last clash with Ajax, this hardly felt like a match people will remember in fifty years’ time, but even so, there were more than a few positives in what was an incredibly satisfying display – not least a clean sheet, which is a marked improvement on the five goals we conceded last time we came to Amsterdam.

Obviously, it was Van Dijk’s absence that occupied the column inches before the game, but many feared how we’d fare without Thiago too, and although we missed him, one of the biggest positives of the game for me was that we didn’t miss him that much.

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS - Wednesday, October 21, 2020: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum during the opening UEFA Champions League Group D match between AFC Ajax and Liverpool FC at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. (Pic by Gerrit van Keulen/Orange Pictures via Propaganda)

Our midfield wasn’t as protective over the makeshift defence as it could, or should have been, but for much of the first half I thought we controlled the tempo of the game well, passing without panic and generally dictating the play. Gini Wijnaldum had a typically Gini Wijnaldum-game, doing a lot of work under the radar but reminding doubters of the strength in depth we possess in midfield.

For anyone worried we might not cope without Thiago, just remember – we did, all of last season, and we won the league.

Andy Robertson also needs highlighting, as he had a brilliant game down the left, and was a constant threat that Ajax didn’t really know what to do with.

A shout-out too to Jones and Rhys Williams, making their European debuts with composure and class, but I particularly wanted to praise James Milner. His ever-present status has slipped over the last year, and his legs aren’t what they were a season or two ago, but last night was a reminder of his enduring influence.

HENRY: I echo what Ben and Owen say, to be honest.

After a rough few days for Liverpool supporters, for various reasons, it was a really encouraging, gutsy win that outlined why this team is about far more than one player.

Fabinho was Man of the Match by miles and his relationship with Gomez looked good, which is so important moving forward.

Robertson also deserves a lot of praise. I think he has possibly been Liverpool’s most consistent player so far this season and his energy levels are freakish.

All in all, a really good night at the office.

 

The bad…

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS - Wednesday, October 21, 2020: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp reacts during the opening UEFA Champions League Group D match between AFC Ajax and Liverpool FC at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. (Pic by Gerrit van Keulen/Orange Pictures via Propaganda)

BEN: The starting midfield didn’t work – that is perhaps expected, given it was a thrown-together unit. We were way too open in that area in the first half and offered precious little on the ball.

James Milner struggled most for me – he was way off the pace. Curtis Jones was quiet and struggled defensively and it was no surprise to see him replaced as we protected the lead. It’s all part of his development process, though, and he will be better for it.

It feels harsh to single him out after helping with the clean sheet with two important saves, but Adrian does remain a big problem. There are just far too many mistakes, lapses and nervy moments. Alisson‘s return really cannot come quickly enough.

One other small gripe, I felt Liverpool should have been much more clinical in killing the game off, with several promising openings wasted in the latter stages a source of frustration.

OWEN: I mentioned the clean sheet earlier, and I don’t want to be unduly harsh on Adrian, but like Ben, I would be lying if I said my heart wasn’t in my mouth on more than one occasion.

For every instance of a controlled collection or confident catch, there was an equal and opposite sense that it was all about to go wrong – a poor attempt at a punch late on, or being a shade too easily lobbed by Dusan Tadic.

The biggest worry for me was actually at the opposite end of the pitch, though, where our strikers fluffed more than a few decent chances.

Salah looked hungry, chasing down every ball, but on the occasions where he actually got there the end product just wasn’t coming together. Mane, too, was far from his clinical self, and was lucky that his heavily-scuffed shot still found its way into the net.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - Sunday, October 4, 2020: Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (L) and Roberto Firmino during the pre-match warm-up before the FA Premier League match between Aston Villa FC and Liverpool FC at Villa Park. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. Aston Villa won 7-2. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Firmino’s dry spell goes on, and again I thought he was looking pretty poor. A heavy first touch here, an under-hit pass there – he isn’t showing signs of escaping this cloudy spell of form yet, which is a worry.

That being said, it was a bold move to bring all three off at once, and there was a definite drop in intensity while the new trio found their feet, although by the full-time whistle Diogo Jota and Takumi Minamino were both unfortunate not to have increased the lead.

HENRY: I completely agree with the guys about the Reds’ wasteful nature in front of goal – this is something that needs to stop, especially with the defence being weakened so greatly for obvious reasons.

Salah and Mane were good on the whole – Firmino less so – but they are arguably not as ruthless as they can be at times, almost appearing too laid-back in front of goal. Jota and Minamino could have been more clinical, too.

I also agree that Milner was poor, and does look like a player who is now a fair way past his best. That being said, he was good late in the game, using his experience in expert fashion.

Like Owen, I don’t want to be needlessly harsh on Adrian, but he again spread nervousness at times, and simply isn’t good enough. The return of Alisson will be massive.

On another day, he drops that ball in stoppage time, Ajax equalise and Liverpool fans are left seething for another few days.

 

And the defensive showing…

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS - Wednesday, October 21, 2020: Liverpool's Joe Gomez (L) and Ajax's David Neres during the opening UEFA Champions League Group D match between AFC Ajax and Liverpool FC at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. (Pic by Gerrit van Keulen/Orange Pictures via Propaganda)

BEN: Van Dijk is irreplaceable but the new-look defensive unit did a really good job – keeping a clean sheet will provide a big confidence boost.

It was clear we defended deeper and relied more on breakaways with the front-three to score – it will be interesting to see if that approach stays long-term or it was used to stabilise as we regroup without Van Dijk. I would guess it’s the former.

One thing that particularly impressed was how well Liverpool defended the box. Ajax seemed to chuck in a lot of crosses, but Fabinho and Gomez were warrior-like in the way they won and cleared pretty much everything, and most pleasing was their aerial dominance, considering this was one of the main concerns of being without Van Dijk.

A shout for Jordan Henderson’s part in our defensive efforts, too. His introduction tightened up midfield and allowed us to see the game out effortlessly.

OWEN: This was the most satisfying aspect of the night, undoubtedly, and one that dispelled the frankly daft notion that Liverpool might be a one-man team.

Generally, it was a top-drawer showing from our defence, although I must confess to being a little worried at how out-of-form Trent Alexander-Arnold is starting to look. He’s been a little too easy to beat for a couple of games now, but hopefully that’s a passing blip.

Gomez, who hasn’t had an easy few weeks, stepped up admirably, but there’s really only one man who deserves the plaudits here and that was Fabinho.

My mate text me midway through the first half and told me the Brazilian is going to be our Player of the Year, and to be honest on the strength of this showing I can believe it.

Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp, left, embraces his players Fabinho, left and goalkeeper Adrian, center as they celebrate their victory following the group D Champions League soccer match between Ajax and Liverpool at the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Liverpool won the match 1-0. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

From perfectly-timed tackles to that magnificent goal-line clearance, he looked every bit a natural centre-back. If you’d never watched Liverpool before, you would never have guessed he hadn’t been playing there his whole career.

Like Van Dijk, he marshals his teammates brilliantly and provides the same level serenity and assurance. The drawback is having to temporarily forego that serenity and assurance at the base of midfield, of course, but for now I’m buoyed enough to say that we’ve still got one of the best defenders in the Premier League, and he’s not even a defender.

HENRY: It felt like this defensive performance was needed SO much. There has been so much doubt about Liverpool’s chances without Van Dijk, but this showed that they can get by without him.

There are going to be some bad days at the back – I think we all know that deep down – but Fabinho and Gomez are both very good players and Matip is also a strong option, when fit.

As Ben says, it was clear that the much-talked-about high line was nowhere to be seen in comparison to recent weeks and months, which makes total sense. There was bravery on show and a greater level of focus, too.

Perhaps I’m being overly-romantic, but it looked like they were playing for Van Dijk, and also showing that they are more than capable of thriving in his absence.

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