F365 Says: Firmino rouses Reds as business time begins

Date published: Saturday 14th September 2019 3:25

It has been a perfect start to the season for Liverpool in every sense. Four Premier League wins from four matches with little other than an injury to his goalkeeper to cause Jurgen Klopp any concern while his players ease into another title tilt.

But the visit of Newcastle to Anfield marked the start of business time for the Liverpool manager. The serenity of the opening weeks of the season was spoiled by the drain on his resources either side of this Toon test but after a shaky start, it was one they eventually passed if not with flying colours then certainly, for Klopp, with reassuring ease.

The German’s staff may have had some red-zone concerns over some of his players amid their exertions in the UEFA Super Cup, a competition they won via shootout after 120 minutes in Istanbul. Though coming as it did, in the midst of an eight-day gap between Premier League matches at the start of a campaign following a full pre-season, the only gripes he retained centred around a three-and-a-half-hour flight and a over-exhuberant pitch-invader doing his best to wipe out Liverpool’s goalkeeping ranks.

Prior to this Saturday lunchtime kick-off, the earliest slot Liverpool could have been given, Klopp’s men had amassed a shade under 38,000 air miles on their international break travels, with 17 Reds called up for national service and 11 employed in action duty.

Those exertions and more jet-setting next week when Liverpool fly off to Napoli where they were beaten last term made Klopp take a look at the “bigger picture” with his team line-up to face Newcastle. It is a facet of management Klopp has mastered in line with Liverpool’s development. Prior to last season’s title tilt, Liverpool went through a five-year period in which they won only five of 18 matches immediately after international breaks. Before kick-off, Klopp had guided Liverpool to five post-internationals wins on the spin, keeping pace with Manchester City and, perhaps surprisingly, Arsenal.

The obvious difference now is that not only is Liverpool’s XI stronger than any out there other than City, Klopp also has the strength in depth to pick and choose his moments for rotation. Jordan Henderson or Roberto Firmino could have played from the start, in the Brazilian’s case after a couple of friendlies with Brazil in United States, but the Reds manager can now bench his captain and one of his most creative forces without worrying greatly over the consequences.

The prospect of resting Firmino was made more palatable by Sadio Mane and Mo Salah’s inactivity for Senegal and Egypt over the last fortnight. But perhaps their breather coupled with the fact Klopp has had only two days with all his players to prepare for Newcastle’s visit contributed to a lack of rhythm in the opening quarter at Anfield.

A least a couple of hours during those two days since Liverpool’s players reported back for duty would have been spent watching Newcastle’s victory at Tottenham three weeks ago, which offered the Reds their opponents’ battle plan. But Klopp might have been regretting not putting his time to better use all the while Steve Bruce’s men stymied Liverpool in the opening quarter at Anfield.

Maybe he could have taken a few moments to remind Trent Alexander-Arnold of the basic principles of defending one-versus-one. The England right-back was embarrassed by Newcastle wing-back Jetro Willems in the seventh minute and though he cannot be held accountable for a quite stunning finish, allowing his opposite number to come inside was a rookie error, the like of which Alexander-Arnold should have cut out by now.

Fortunately for Liverpool, Newcastle showed similar generosity to ruin their early resoluteness. Alexander-Arnold got his own back on Willems by darting behind while the Newcastle defender was snoozing, and while Paul Dummett came to his team-mate’s rescue on that occasion, when Emil Krafth erred a few moments later, the Newcastle defence was unable to re-organise itself in time to stop Mane from stroking into the top corner the first half of his first-half brace.

As half-time approached with Newcastle retaining parity with unexpected ease, the visitors shot themselves in the foot – twice. First, Christian Atsu attempted a drag back in his own half to beat two Liverpool chasers, one of whom was Firmino. Upon the game’s most inevitable turnover, Firmino sprung forward and took his choice of Mane or Salah. The pass looked a touch too heavy but you could make a similar description of Martin Dubravka’s footwork. The Newcastle keeper sauntered rather than sprang from his line, and though he still appeared favourite to reach the ball first, for reasons unknown, Dubravka seemed reluctant to claim possession, almost leading with his knees rather than hands and head.

Firmino’s display off the bench suggested rhythm rather than rest would win Liverpool the points. Salah was fresher but Firmino retained his groove, teeing up his team-mate brilliantly for a third which finally killed off Newcastle with 18 minutes remaining.

Klopp would rather have buried the Magpies without Firmino having to get his hands dirty, but the Brazilian brought with him Liverpool’s missing spark when he rose from the bench to replace Divock Origi, who toiled in wide and central positions during his 37 minutes in the Anfield sunshine. Firmino’s mere presence brought Salah into the game and together with Mane the pair kept the Newcastle defence on a lead.

Origi was unable to seize his opportunity and the look on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s face when he returned to the bench late on suggested he feared similar conclusions might be drawn over his performance. The England midfielder is still finding his own rhythm after a year-long lay-off but against a Newcastle side who it was known would defend with four men shielding the back five, Klopp would have been hoping for Oxlade-Chamberlain to bring more penetration on the right of Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum.

But Klopp is now in a position when he can pick and choose when to tinker. His players cannot afford to be quite so selective with their own contributions but again they were able to go through the gears when required. This was no procession, but Klopp’s Liverpool remain perfect where previously they might have faltered.

Ian Watson

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