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A much-needed response – 5 talking points from Liverpool 2-1 Ajax

Liverpool were vastly improved on last week’s dismal defeat to Napoli and claimed a late victory thanks to Joel Matip‘s header to secure a 2-1 Anfield win over Ajax.

Liverpool 2-1 Ajax

Champions League Group Stage (2), Anfield
September 13, 2022

Goals: Salah 17′, Matip 89′; Kudus 27′

Pre-game shouldn’t have as much focus as the 90, but…

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, September 13, 2022: Liverpool players line-up for a team group photograph before the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 2 game between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Aside from a few murmurings, complaints or excited words over the teamsheet each week, there’s not usually too much chatter around Liverpool pre-game: we turn up, we win, we find something to moan about anyway. That’s how it has been for a few years now, but not this week.

For starters, there’s the Reds themselves: a poor overall start and a dismal last outing meant questions over our team and performance level for the first time in a long while.

Jurgen Klopp wanted a response, but not as much as every fan did, we can assure him of that – it was embarrassing in Naples and totally unacceptable from the players.

Meanwhile, around that discussion of improvement, changes to the team and who even deserved to play, was the wider-looming fact of a royal death and the postponements and planning which were going on around that.

Amid the totally unexpected (honestly, promise) half-reported suggestion that last week’s games were cancelled due to fears over Anfield booing a minute’s silence, the actual moment of respect was very well observed on the night.

Yet it all made for a circus of sorts around the build-up to the game, with most of football – not just Liverpool fans – fuming at more absurd decision-making by the FA, the Premier League and beyond.

A spine returns

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, September 13, 2022: Liverpool's Diogo Jota during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 2 game between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Yes, we mean a spine in both senses of the word.

First and foremost, the return of Thiago was as glorious and necessary as you’d expect, with his patented body swerves and excellent passing in the centre all on show in the first few minutes.

He’s a class above more often than not; the only problem is that he was a class above against his own team too, with few able to match his incision on the ball.

Second, Joel Matip was very good, on and off the ball. He made a sneaky foul or two when he had to, he intercepted and made headed clearances – but he also brought the ball of defence with great skill and poise, picking a good pass at the end of it.

And at the top end, Diogo Jota‘s return from injury was also a return to some form – he struggled badly at the end of last season from a technical perspective, but his running and energy was a welcome addition to the team after some horrid, flat showings in the front line recently.

Perhaps more than all those individuals down the centre of the side was the fact that we had a bit of bravery about our game: a willingness to press high, even up into the six-yard box again, and a desire to try and play our way through with quick link-ups and more players attacking the box.

It wasn’t perfect by a long stretch, but the players didn’t hide.

No choice at full-back but reason for optimism

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, September 13, 2022: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold shoots during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 2 game between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Had we a deeper squad, Trent might not have started this game. Had we a more fit squad, Kostas might not either.

As it is, they are the only two senior full-backs Jurgen has fit and available, with our right-back recently dreadful and our left-back, well, far from the worst in the squad but not exactly pushing his own case for inclusion with scintillating displays either.

We needed both to really be on it if we were going to trouble Ajax at one end and keep them out at the other and, other than one or two moments down each flank, that’s exactly what we got.

Tsimikas totally bossed Dusan Tadic in one-v-ones, powered down the flank and sent over some really good deliveries, particularly off set-plays. More on those later.

The only time he wasn’t in place to track back on Tadic after a turnover, it almost resulted in a goal: his cross found Blind, who headed just wide.

Similarly, Trent was really only beaten with a ball in behind him once on this occasion, and it ended in Kudus’ equaliser – which was an absolute howitzer, to be fair.

The rest of the game, Trent was very diligent in winning his one-v-one tackles, not diving in and leaving space in behind, while in possession he often proved the spark to send us into dangerous final-third areas.

Those weren’t always made the most of, but both full-backs definitely played their part in the upturn in performance level.

Set-pieces are a thing again

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, September 13, 2022: Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk sees his header saved during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 2 game between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Seems like Liverpool haven’t really been at the races in recent weeks in any type of game moment: defensive phases terrible, open play stodgy, set-pieces predictable.

Yes, we won the Newcastle game off one, but it was hardly because of great delivery or movement, rather we just managed to keep the ball alive for Carvalho to thump in.

Here it was different – Van Dijk and Matip must have won about a dozen aerials off corners and attacking free-kicks between them, with the Dutchman twice going close to scoring and his reinstated partner eventually doing so.

It made it all the more reassuring when in stoppage time Ajax resorted to whacking it long in search of a late chance; they hadn’t won a header all night and were not going to win one of those ones either.

Was Liverpool’s team about three feet taller on average? It felt that way.

A long time to work on remaining issues

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, September 13, 2022: Liverpool's Joël Matip (L) celebrates with team-mate Mohamed Salah after scoring the second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A matchday 2 game between Liverpool FC and AFC Ajax at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Well, did you enjoy the 90 minutes? Because that’s your lot for another 18 days.

Of course the late victory helps in that regard, but it was by no means a perfect showing. Klopp and his coaches still have quite a bit to sort.

What Sunday’s called-off game now means is that we should have ample time to really dig into what was going wrong earlier this season (that’s for the players) but also, crucially, how it was allowed to get to ‘the Napoli stage’ (that’s for the coaches).

One win doesn’t get us back on track, as wins over Cherries and Magpies proved already, but it’s something to build from.

Now we must rediscover our aura of fearlessness, of absolute assurance, and that only comes after an awful lot of “one game at a time”s.

International break at a good time? Maybe it’s never outright good, but it certainly could have been worse – Matip has made sure it wasn’t.

Seventeen days until the next one…

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