“All four in the best moment is an unbelievable threat,” said Jurgen Klopp in September, and at that juncture, he had only seen Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino toiling manfully against Spartak Moscow with Mane barely fit. “I really don’t think this game is the game to judge this combination,” said the German. He was right.
Unfortunately for Liverpool, another game to judge this combination would not come along again until Saturday, when the quartet lined up together for only the second time this season and destroyed Southampton. They scored three goals but had 21 shots, with 16 of those attributed to a quartet who only actually played 68, 73, 79 and 90 minutes. They triumphantly left the pitch one by one, much to the relief of Saints defenders who were left befuddled and bedraggled.
Write down Liverpool’s formation from that Anfield shellacking in rudimentary fashion and a best guess is a 4-3-3 but the average positions show ‘central midfielder’ Coutinho barely a couple of yards behind ‘striker’ Firmino, who is level with Sadio Mane and behind double goalscorer Salah. This is a front four and Klopp is right; they pose an ‘unbelievable threat’. What you cannot see from a rudimentary diagram is the variation or speed of their movement both on and off the ball to create space for themselves and confusion for the opposition.
With remarkable prescience, Klopp praised Salah and his ‘moment’ but said: “If you see Roberto working unbelievably hard, he’s not scoring in the moment. Sadio doesn’t score in the moment. But they work and they will have their moments and then we will talk about them.”
By Tuesday, we were talking about them. Or at least we were at half-time when Firmino had two goals and an assist and Mane had his own strike and the uncredited ‘assist’ for Firmino’s second after the Sevilla keeper spilled his shot. Salah had gallantly stepped or rather galloped aside, while Coutinho was reduced to very effective set-piece duty. Unbeaten for almost exactly a year, Sevilla had dominated the ball but been ruthlessly dismantled by a Liverpool side so dangerous that they no longer need to hang all their hats on the counter-press.
Later on Tuesday we were no longer talking about the danger posed by Firmino and Mane but instead about Liverpool’s capacity for self-destruction, the weakness of their central midfield and the difficulty of defending a lead when Firmino is being asked to hold onto the ball without a teammate within 20 yards. But as tempting as it is to focus on the negatives – of which there are many – this is still a night that offers a tranche of positives. If it helps, you might want to pretend it was Liverpool who came back from three goals down to draw 3-3.
Against a side with a ludicrous home record, Liverpool were minutes from victory. And they were minutes from victory because they have an astonishingly good attack. For the first time in nine years they will reach the knock-out stages of the Champions League and will top their group if they beat Spartak Moscow at Anfield; their fate is in their hands and they would have snatched that scenario after picking up just two points from their opening two games.
For now, attention will undoubtedly focus on the Istanbul-style collapse but in reality, that collapse has only cost them pride, momentum and the chance to rest players for that clash with Spartak Moscow. There will be many across Europe who look at that 3-3 result, glance at the current Champions League tables and note that Liverpool’s goal tally is only likely to be matched or bettered by Real Madrid and PSG.
This Liverpool side may be far from perfect but when this Fab Four harmonises, no manager in the competition can be confident of stopping the music.