1) ‘This is absolutely not normal,’ was one of the conclusions drawn when these two sides last met. Leicester were second and unbeaten at home by Boxing Day of 2019, with one of the best defensive records in the Premier League. Liverpool summarily dismantled them in a 4-0 win that effectively sealed the title before the year was out.
Sunday was not quite as emphatic a statement. Leicester at least had a few opportunities this time and avoided one of those ten-minute collapses Liverpool tend to induce in an opponent. But this was perhaps as impressive, if not more so, than that victory 11 months ago. They hosted a team that had already made themselves at home as visitors to Elland Road, the Etihad and the Emirates. Jurgen Klopp was without two first-choice midfielders, including his captain, as well as his talismanic right-back, two best defenders and most effective goalscorer. Liverpool dominated one of the closest supposed challengers to their throne in a breathtaking display of control and authority. That Aston Villa defeat was even more of an absolute aberration than first thought.
2) There were two particular passages of play that underlined the gulf in quality. The build-up to Diogo Jota’s goal featured 30 passes with Leicester chasing shadows and every Liverpool outfielder having at least one touch. The second half started with a similar sequence, the hosts stringing together 16 passes to create another shooting opportunity for Jota. The opposition’s only touch from kick-off to the effort going over had been Wesley Fofana winning a header that Georginio Wijnaldum instantly recovered and recycled.
It must be knackering to face, both physically and mentally. The levels of concentration and skill required to suppress it should not be understated. This once chaotic Liverpool team has evolved into a patient predator that will wait for its moment to strike instead of ever forcing the issue. Five years of masterful coaching and phenomenal recruitment has come to this.
30 – Diogo Jota's goal for Liverpool came after a sequence of 30 passes; since Opta have this data available from 2006-07, this is the most in the build-up to any @premierleague goal by the Reds. Silky. pic.twitter.com/SQXNDLRYEG
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 22, 2020
3) That is perhaps the greatest trick this Liverpool team has pulled: luring every team into thinking managers simply need time and understanding to build something special and realise their grand vision. The example of Klopp and how Liverpool tolerated years of trophyless frustration under his guidance before finally taking their brilliant true form is so often given in defence of coaches – sometimes by them – as proof that all they need is a similar level of trust and belief to create a foundation for such success.
It is a false equivalence. Even ignoring the fact Klopp and Liverpool have never taken a single step back from season to season since his appointment, he and they are the obvious exception to the rule. It is the modern version of pretending a manager should be given as long as he wants because Manchester United once kept the faith with Sir Alex Ferguson and he returned that loyalty with a sport-defining dynasty. Klopp is not as good as the Scot was, but his is every bit as unattainable and unrealistic a blueprint to follow.
4) Brendan Rodgers can console himself with the fact that Leicester were improved from their submissive display last December. They forged far more chances and really ought to have equalised through Harvey Barnes in the first half. James Justin was a fine outlet on the left and almost scored. Jamie Vardy was an utter nuisance throughout.
It sounds incredibly patronising but for five minutes or so in the second half they were excellent, having three unanswered shots around the hour mark, cutting off every passing lane, pressing as a unit and penning Liverpool back. Rodgers tried to capitalise on their period of superiority by bringing on Cengiz Under and Dennis Praet, changing from a back five to match up in midfield and showing more attacking intention. It was a justified decision designed to solidify the change in momentum, a call any good manager would have made.
Liverpool simply absorbed everything and returned it with interest in a final quarter of an hour that featured them hitting the woodwork twice, scoring a third goal and preserving their clean sheet. It summed up the futility of facing them in this mood quite neatly.
5) It is difficult to pinpoint one standout performance from the hosts. A welcome byproduct of Virgil van Dijk’s unfortunate injury was to remove a perceived reliance on any one player. Every teammate has stepped up in his and the other absences since, be they direct replacements or established starters already in the team.
The reaction to the incident that sidelined Van Dijk was overblown. So much so that David Coote was removed from officiating duty for this very match as Liverpool remain perturbed by his handling of the Merseyside derby. But it has reinforced their team unity and strengthened a siege mentality that might well have gone understandably stale after the holy grail was finally found after a 30-year search in the summer. They look every bit as focused as last season. It might perversely be the best thing that could have happened to them.
6) After all, it’s not as if losing Van Dijk has weakened their defence. A first Premier League clean sheet since he was ruled out means Liverpool have conceded two goals from open play in their last seven matches with a variety of different central defensive combinations. That decision not to reinvest in January already seems justified.
Joel Matip was solid. Fabinho alongside him was absolutely faultless. Alisson has a remarkable ability to make crucial saves after having huge amounts of time with little or nothing to do. One of the best counter-attacking teams in the country was thwarted by supreme individuals fitting diligently into an impressive system. Who else remembers when the high line was discussed in hushed, disapproving tones for fear of ridicule?
7) So much of Liverpool’s success is down to the tactical intelligence and malleability of their players. Fabinho, the defensive midfielder excelling at centre-half, had obvious traits that were easily transferable to a slight positional change. But Wijnaldum’s seamless transition from potent attacking threat for his country to tireless midfield workhorse for his club is ludicrous. It requires immense acuity.
James Milner might be the best of all. For just over 50 minutes he was fantastic at right-back, a fine Trent Alexander-Arnold impression ensuring Liverpool lost none of that attacking dimension. The removal of Naby Keita for Neco Williams facilitated the captain’s subsequent move into central midfield. His first action there was to instantly release Sadio Mane beyond Fofana, who forced a fine save from Kasper Schmeichel and a clearance off the line from Christian Fuchs.
Klopp is brilliant. But these players deserve so much credit for their understanding of what is asked of them. Not even mid-game positional shifts faze them in the slightest.
He’s remarkable. 👌🏻 https://t.co/sbaUvNJ2EI
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) November 22, 2020
8) On the point of Milner, how strange that Leicester focused on the right-hand side he patrolled so well. The graphic that flashed up in the 25th minute showed that 70% of their attacks had come down that flank, yet only once had he really been beaten. Even then Fabinho came across to cover after Justin evaded both the Englishman and Matip.
There was not much Rodgers could have done to affect the course of this game in reality. Liverpool were without their first-choice right-back so targeting that position was an understandable tactic in theory. But that rather ignores the 18-year career of one of the most astute and hard-working players ever. If only Leicester had someone in charge that had signed him or something. They could have done with a better grasp of the supposed weak point they tried to exploit.
9) Fofana is great fun. Not entirely convinced he is a centre-half on this showing, as Mane constantly out-thought him and Roberto Firmino snatched his soul with a wonderful turn before hitting the post in the second half. But he was a real force on the break with a skill set that could well lend itself to a slightly more advanced role.
There was one instance in the 12th minute, when he tackled one player and released the ball out to the left before haring towards the Liverpool box, only for Justin to overhit a simple pass with Fofana unmarked, that made him seem wasted in defence. A little later he evaded both Keita and Wijnaldum with a run beyond the halfway line to start the move for the chance Barnes should have scored. Six interceptions seems more like the work of a progressive midfielder than a partner to Jonny Evans. Plus moving him forward would reduce the likelihood of each mistake he makes resulting in a shot.
10) Don’t know why that Matip situation was not given as a handball when penalties have been awarded this season in similar circumstances. There will be no further comment at this time.
11) One thing came to mind when watching Jota trying to catch his breath as Milner waited to take a corner both men had combined to win, one bound for the head of Evans. It was his interview after the Atalanta game in which he scored a hat-trick, and the response to being asked whether he was “playing the best football” of his career.
“Well, I’m playing in the best team in my career so far, that’s for sure,” came a thought-provoking and mindful reply. It begged more questions: how many other players are capable of scaling up from teams in the upper or mid-table to the genuine elite? And why do some teams view such signings as beneath them? Liverpool’s front line was comprised of players purchased from Wolves, Southampton and Hoffenheim, who impressed at a certain level and showed enough to suggest they could be elevated even higher in a suitable system with world-class coaching. It is a credit to their scouting and recruitment team – but an equally damning indictment on those who still insist on shopping at Waitrose when there are bargains to be found at Asda.
12) Rodgers was at pains to balance the “narrative” of Liverpool battling injuries by presenting his own list of Leicester absentees after the match. Only the most stubborn fool would deny that Wilfred Ndidi, Caglar Soyuncu, Ricardo Pereira and Timothy Castagne might have made a difference.
But his worst performers were all bona fide regulars. Evans was abysmal, his baffling own goal almost compounded with another in the second half while his distribution was poor. Youri Tielemans was sloppy in possession, more rushed than usual by Liverpool’s midfield. Barnes remains so very wasteful. James Maddison only partially atoned for an anonymous first half with his improvement in the second. Rodgers would have had more of a point if it was the stand-ins letting him down.
13) Schmeichel at least gave a wonderful account of himself with some admirable resistance. The two keepers put in antithetical but excellent performances: Alisson the serene last line of defence and his opposite number more of a Boromir in the face of constant onslaught. His nine saves featured some fine athleticism and acrobatics but also sublime decision-making. It feels as though Schmeichel is never really considered among the league’s best players in his position but he absolutely is.
Schmeichel has had a decent night, but it isn't great for #LCFC when you have to say that.
— Rob Tanner (@RobTannerLCFC) November 22, 2020
14) It seems telling that Liverpool committed 15 fouls spread across nine players and received no bookings, while Leicester managed six between four and had both Justin and Nampalys Mendy yellow carded. The tactical foul ground has been tread countless times before with regards to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham and the many supposedly nefarious teams that came before them but Klopp has recognised the usefulness of the art too.
Liverpool have committed 91 fouls to Leicester’s 88 this season. Yet the former have received seven bookings – the fewest in the Premier League this season – to the latter’s 21 yellow cards, which is the division’s most. So many prospective Leicester moves were countered at the source with a simple trip or obstruction. So few Liverpool attacks were stopped with such nous at any point.
15) Andy Robertson deserves a mention: he was brilliant. So too was Mane, who is at a similar stage of baffling under-appreciation as Mo Salah. These are talents who have achieved so much and make it look so easy that they risk it being taken for granted.
Yet the leader in those stakes for this game must be Curtis Jones, slotting seamlessly into the country’s best team despite not exiting his teenage years for another couple of months. To not look even vaguely out of place in this side, helping fill the voids left by Jordan Henderson, Thiago and even Fabinho, is quite something. Let’s call this a defeat for John Barnes and a resounding victory for the alien concept of being patient with a young player, letting any opportunities present themselves and watching him grasp them with maturity and confidence. Why loan him out to start 25 games at West Brom when he can be meticulously coached in Liverpool’s exact style, playing a little less but learning exponentially more?
16) Then there’s Firmino, whose goal will only placate the critics for so long. He has looked tired at times, sloppy in possession and tired out of it. The emergence of Jota only forced the issue further; those debates would have been undermined completely if Divock Origi was the only alternative. But this was much closer to the Firmino of years gone by. His goal was a more quantifiable measure of his impact – and particularly welcome after hitting the post when it seemed as though he would never score again – yet the things that really define him were all there: the link-up play, the insatiable work-rate, the skill.
One of the inevitabilities of team sport is the constant demand to improve and refine. When a team emerges that is so clearly operating at a much higher level than anyone else it emphasises how silly it is: they could not possibly be doing so well if any of their composite parts was not performing to their manager’s standard. Each of us are guilty of being swept away by the current of popular opinion at times. Bear with me, but it might be that Klopp has a better idea of how best to keep this machine functioning.