Despite finally reaching the promised land of the Champions League, Liverpool were one of the least active Premier League clubs in this summer’s transfer window. Jurgen Klopp strengthened a squad embarking on new challenges in Europe with just four fresh faces – only Southampton and Arsenal made fewer signings.
That quartet have met vastly different fates. Mohamed Salah has been one of the best signings of the summer, while Andrew Robertson remains marginalised and missing. For a tenth Premier League game out of 14, he was absent once more from Liverpool’s match-day squad against Stoke.
The success of the other two is almost impossible to judge at this juncture, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dominic Solanke would be only too willing to admit their starts on Merseyside have been inauspicious. Yet at the Britannia Stadium on Wednesday, both made tentative forward steps.
If nothing else, the pair have mastered the art of timing. “Everyone is going to have to chip in and play their part and whoever gets left out is always disappointed,” said Oxlade-Chamberlain on the morning of the game. “But the good thing about this manager and being in this team is you always know you could be needed in the next game and your chance is always going to come.”
Solanke was similarly diplomatic: “You’ve just got to keep working hard. Obviously at a big club like Liverpool there’s always going to be great players and sometimes to get past them is hard but you’ve just got to keep working and play your part for the team.”
With a combined 444 minutes and two Premier League starts between them ahead of the final game of November, few would begrudge this young, promising English pair a sense of disgruntlement. After all, they moved to Anfield under the pretence that Klopp was a manager who gives local kids a chance. The promise that the grass would be greener had not been fulfilled.
But there is much to be said about the settling-in period required to train and learn under a new manager with new methods. Oxlade-Chamberlain has effectively moved schools after a footballing education taught on Arsene Wenger’s curriculum, while Solanke has made the transition from Chelsea youth team to Liverpool first team, albeit on the fringes.
The 20- and 24-year-old have had to keep the faith after making such brave decisions, and a packed festive fixture list is providing the early Christmas presents. Both started against Stoke, both played key roles in Sadio Mane’s crucial first-half opener, and both were substituted uncharacteristically early after promising displays.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was the only player not to misplace a single pass in the first half, and completed more interceptions (2) than dribbles (1). This is a player embracing different responsibilities, learning and developing with each game.
Solanke put in a fine centre-forward performance, creating two chances, assisting Mane’s goal and helping manoeuvre a gilt-edged opportunity of his own. That Lee Grant was equal to a poor finish after a wonderful build-up will be disappointing, but will also provide something to work on, room for improvement.
The credit must go to Klopp. The German undoubtedly struggled with rotation earlier in the season, constantly chopping and changing a defence that subsequently suffered for a lack of rhythm and continuity, while failing to alter a midfield that was stodgy and uninspiring.
Each of his six changes were justified and sensible here. Jordan Henderson was given a handful of minutes from the bench, while Philippe Coutinho was rested completely. Salah appeared for the final half-hour, but still managed to expel any fears involving cold midweek evenings in the Staffordshire area.
There was no little luck involved for the visitors – Simon Mignolet should have been sent off in the first half, and Stoke contrived to miss the most presentable of chances. But this was the sort of performance and result Klopp relishes: a chaotic victory to help his side recover momentum.
That it was achieved with helping hands from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Solanke will be cause for optimism. The pair would have scripted rather more prosperous starts to Liverpool life if handed pen and paper, but recent signs have been quietly positive. Their bravery in leaving London is being slowly rewarded, and a change of scenery has offered a breath of fresh Merseyside air.