While many had waited on bated breath for Liverpool to collapse in the absence of Virgil van Dijk, Jurgen Klopp‘s ever-evolving side continue to harness the power of the collective.
A 5-0 victory in Bergamo, on an evening that was meant to be a far more testing one than it proved to be, was Klopp’s Liverpool at its very best. Their finest Champions League away performance since the Bayern Munich/Porto double on the way to winning the competition in 2018/19.
That all of this unfolded without the services of Van Dijk and Thiago in particular speaks of not only an incredibly adaptable and talented squad but one that can place its trust in youth and the outliers of the collective to come in and do a job of high quality, whenever called upon.
Rhys Williams didn’t put a foot wrong once again, the master of a very competent display alongside Joe Gomez, in which the lesser experienced component of the central defensive partnership never once looked glaringly the junior one.
Williams and Gomez operated in tandem of one another in a manner that belied the fact that they’d never started a game together before. Gomez has played an understated role in the absence of not only Van Dijk, but also Joel Matip.
Neither Williams nor Nat Phillips could have put in the assured performances they have in the last two games without a calming presence alongside them. Gomez deserves great credit for his part in this. A player whose form had been in reasonable question just a couple of weeks ago.
With Alisson striking the image of a cat playfully dealing with a ball of wool, they made a secure triumvirate on Tuesday evening. Troubled only rarely, although upon one occasion most explosively by a gifted Atalanta attack, this performance was a sharp contrast to the prickly one Liverpool had to navigate last week against Midtjylland.
Throw in the best full-backs in the world and the sneaking inkling emerges that you know what, if we remain calm and focussed, we might just be able to blag our way through the crisis that is the prolonged absence of Van Dijk, and the hopefully relatively short-term loss of Fabinho.
Whereas last week I felt we didn’t help ourselves in our approach to the highly organised Danish club, this week our approach was pretty much perfect.
There was a sense of growing up a little bit for Curtis Jones in this one, who put in the strongest performance of our midfield three. Prior to this, he hadn’t let anybody down in his displays but he had floated around the periphery of the games he had been involved in rather than making a major imprint.
Against Atalanta, this was Jones seizing the leading midfield role and blossoming within it. You don’t overshadow Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum easily, both of whom played well. Klopp clearly has no fears now in fielding Jones in games of magnitude.
During any impressive collective performance, there is always an inspired thread that runs through the team around which the other players revolve, from where they interject to the proceedings in the role of best-supporting actors. Break the thread; break your opponents.
There is endurance yet flexibility to this thread when it comes to Liverpool and the cast of facilitators alternate from game-to-game. In Bergamo, Alisson, the Gomez and Williams partnership, Jones and Diogo Jota formed that thread.
Alisson aside, the rest of this thread represents the evolving Liverpool. Suddenly, this is a Liverpool that can pull out a result like they did on Tuesday without the biggest stars being Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Bobby Firmino, or the story being all about our remarkable goalkeeper or the best central defender on the face of the planet.
Jota was sensational against Atalanta. As impressive a hat-trick and overall performance as you are likely to see. The most amazing thing was that he shined brightly on a night when Mane and Salah also excelled. It wasn’t a case of Jota picking up the baton while the other two laboured on an off night.
Within this, the Firmino situation intensifies yet there doesn’t have to be a hero and a villain. They can all be heroes. Firmino will rise again at some point.
Klopp’s champions are a team that is cultivating increasing options. A magnificent set of players won the Premier League title and the Champions League before that, and all the way through it a thought would pop into my consciousness now and again.
Imagine adding a couple of homegrown elements to this; imagine a Carragher and a Gerrard coming into this now, imagine a Fowler or a McManaman making themselves known at this point, think of an Owen being parachuted into this.
I am not saying that Jones and Williams will hit those type of personal heights, although it would be spectacular if they could, but Jones was always going to see increased involvement this season, while a figure like Williams could prove to be a wonderful rebate on the loss of Van Dijk.
At worse, for Williams, we will have a young central defender of immeasurably greater maturity than he was set to be at this point in his development.
I said on Monday that this week would be a bigger challenge than last week’s was and halfway through it we have responded emphatically. On Sunday, however, comes the biggest test of the season.
Whatever the result, the aftermath will be frustrating because of the international break. Win, and we won’t be able to immediately make use of the bounce it delivers; lose and we won’t be able to move on to the next game quickly enough in our need to get it out of our system.
Our detractors will have waited with bated breath for us to capitulate in the slipstream of losing Van Dijk and with no automatic sign of that happening, it will have been soul-destroying for those rivals who might have been sensing blood in the water.
Within this, Sunday shouldn’t be a mission to be feared. Pull off a result at Eastlands and the psychological blow to the rest of the Premier League will be loud and clear.
As for the Champions League, we don’t usually make the second half of the group stage a sedate experience but we’re now threatening to.