Jurgen Klopp had given his squad a directive: make the outside world talk about how good the Liverpool players on the pitch are instead of them focusing on the ones sidelined through injured. And so since Virgil van Dijk and Thiago have been absent following reckless challenges in the Merseyside derby, the Premier League champions have won five out of five.
This despite Joel Matip only returning to be fit enough for the bench after four months out on Tuesday night and Fabinho succumbing to a hamstring problem against FC Midtjylland.
That has left Liverpool with teenager Rhys Jones and Nat Phillips taking turns to partner Joe Gomez in the heart of defence, yet only two goals have been conceded in the period after Van Dijk suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage.
The crowing performance of this period was Tuesday night’s victory away to Atalanta, billed as the club’s toughest Champions League group game.
A Diogo Jota-fuelled attack blitzed the hosts, with the rearguard nullifying a side that hit 98 goals in Serie A last season, the highest figure in Italy’s top tier for more than six decades.
Given the injuries and the scrutiny on the defence after the loss of Van Dijk, their response to setbacks has been remarkable.
Liverpool have not been pretty to watch in recent weeks, but they have been incredibly difficult to beat. At Atalanta, their grit was greased with an offensive masterclass – their 5-0 win was the biggest ever by an English club away to Italian opposition in European competition.
Jota illuminated with a hat-trick, Mohamed Salah joined Steven Gerrard as the joint-highest goalscorer in the continent’s elite tournament and Sadio Mane continued to prove he is impossible to contain when he’s in the mood.
But the platform was given at the other end of the pitch, where Duvan Zapata – directly involved in six goals in his five previous Champions League starts for Atalanta – was nullified.
“We can start with Rhys – exceptional,” Jurgen Klopp said of his teenage centre-back when analysing the defensive showing. “I cannot imagine being 19 and playing my second professional football game in the Champions League against Zapata, it’s incredible!
“I would have been nervous like hell, but the boy was not. Defending is obviously a common thing, and how the team defended was absolutely incredible. When you leave the last line alone, which we did from time to time, we won the challenges anyway.
“We had to change because Virg is not there any more, so we share the responsibility, we put it on 10 shoulders instead of one, and here it was incredibly good what the last line did, supported by all the others.
“Everybody has to step up now; Robbo [Andy Robertson], Trent [Alexander-Arnold] and Joe, they are in charge. If Joel plays then it is different but if it is one of the young players, then they have to demand and command that line.
“It was really nice to see. I couldn’t be more happy for Rhys. You should see him in the dressing room, you’d need something special to get the smile off his face! It’s good to see.
“We scored five goals, could have scored two or three more, but Alisson had to make three world-class saves as well, so you see how big the threat is if you let them do what they are good at.”
Klopp was understandably beaming over such a comprehensive win against opponents that have proved to be quite uncomfortable to play against with Pep Guardiola previously comparing facing them with a trip to the dentist.
There was, however, one drawback. The Liverpool manager did not like how Roberto Firmino, core to his side’s successes, had been spoken about in relation to Jota’s form.
“It made sense first of all to use the good shape Diogo was in, and secondly because of the way Atalanta plays and defends, we should use the skillset of Diogo to help us,” Klopp explained.
“But the world is sometimes a bad place, that in the moment when somebody is shining we immediately speak about another player who played what feels like 500 games in a row.
“Without Bobby Firmino, we would not be in the Champions League even. He will be in the team, and for a lot of people in the world if you ask them ‘what makes Liverpool special?’ they would say ‘the way Bobby Firmino is playing’.
“For us it is important that we have more than 11. Diogo played a super, super game but that says nothing about Bobby, and has nothing to do with me causing headaches. I am more than happy that the boys played like they played.”
Jota’s addition to the attack certainly affords Klopp the opportunity to be more flexible with his systems and rotation – both in terms of rest and positionally – for the forwards.
And there can be no headache in opting to use both or choosing between the player who for so long defined the attack and the one currently being most decisive in it.
That is a good problem to have, especially when you’re top of your Champions League group with maximum points as well as at the summit domestically despite being painted in shades of crisis.
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