Monday, June 17, 2024

Leeds United 1-6 Liverpool: Talking points as rampant Reds rediscover winning formula

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On Monday evening at Elland Road, Liverpool finally played a game in which they looked like their old selves, the team that won every trophy on offer within the last four years. Leeds United didn’t quite know what had hit them as Cody Gakpo (35′), Mohamed Salah (39′, 64′), Diogo Jota (52′, 73′) and Darwin Nunez (90′) all put their names on the scoresheet, along with Luis Sinisterra delivering some consolation for his team (47′).

Liverpool back to best?

Too little too late, some would say, given the table rankings and the time of the year, but Liverpool certainly played this game like they used to play, year after year, when they represented the only formidable challenge to Manchester City for the Premier League title.

The Reds pressed all over the pitch, wave after wave, showing exactly the style that has made Jurgen Klopp so successful on Merseyside, as well as at Borussia Dortmund before. Despite boasting notable quality in midfield, Leeds were frequently unable to carry the ball past the halfway line, and the possession of only 26% for Javi Gracia’s side tells it’s story.

Leeds did, however, manage to take the same total number of shots as Liverpool – 13, but only three went on target. Liverpool sent seven the right way, and the fact that Illan Meslier dealt only with one of those and conceded the other six doesn’t really say anything about the Leeds goalkeeper. There was nothing he could’ve done with any of the six that went in.

But leaving numbers aside, Liverpool played a very different game to many we’ve seen this term from them, fighting with everything they had for every ball, winning possession high up the pitch and producing mesmerizing collective trickery to break through the stubbornly defensive Leeds’ lines.

The player who perhaps personified the Liverpool performance in this match was Diogo Jota.

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Having started on the left attacking flank, the Portuguese was far from his best in the opening half an hour, which is only to be expected as he seeks to rediscover his form following a long injury absence, but once he got going, he was unstoppable.

Speaking of long absences, Luis Diaz was out for even longer, but the Colombian winger made his comeback in this game, coming on to replace Gakpo for the last 10 minutes.

Liverpool’s new midfielder

On the other hand, the player whose game personifies the Liverpool resurgence, most notable in the second half of the 2-2 draw against Arsenal a week earlier and in this whole game, is Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The media have always been quick to point to the 24-year-old’s perceived defensive frailties, but it seems Klopp has finally found a way to get the best out of his creativity.

Much in the same way as Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has grown accustomed to putting John Stones to the right defensive flank, and then having him roam through the middle areas of the pitch, Klopp put Alexander-Arnold a bit further to form a double pivot with Fabinho, stretching the remaining defenders across the width of the pitch to make a line of three.

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And Alexander-Arnold, who was never short of creativity and lovely passes, obviously thrives in his new role, not only taking a more active part in the team’s efforts to create promising situations upfront, but also helping to play out from the back and break through opposition pressing in an effective way.

Alexander-Arnold’s positional change reshapes the team’s formation from a classic and slightly found out 4-3-3 to a rather exciting 3-2-2-3. But most of all, it seems to rectify the consequences of the club failing to act in the transfer market to sign a new midfielder for two windows in a row. Following their defeat to Real Madrid in the race for Aurelien Tchouameni last summer, they were believed to be in pole position to land Borussia Dortmund star Jude Bellingham at the end of this season – until they pulled out of that race, deeming the in-demand teenager too expensive.

There are, of course, numerous midfield names linked with a move to Anfield this summer, but for the time being, it looks like Klopp has the position covered.

Salah breaks another record

Salah scored both of his goals with his preferred left foot. Having entered the game as the joint-best left-footed scorer in the history of the Premier League, he now leads the way on his own with the tally of 107, two more than another Liverpool legend, Robbie Fowler, who held the record for 16 years.

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The pair of Kop heroes are well ahead of other brilliant left-footed attackers, such as Robin van Persie (94), Ryan Giggs (83), Riyad Mahrez (65), Romelu Lukaku (60), Olivier Giroud (50), David Silva (49), Daniel Sturridge (47), and Louis Saha (46).

There was a time when Salah was branded as a “one-season wonder” by rival fans, and even before he had even kicked a ball in the Liverpool shirt, the sense of the Merseysiders’ decision to bring him in was infamously questioned by a couple of pundits. Now, those who delight in seeing the decline of this Liverpool team this season believe him to be finished, but even a poor season like this for Salah’s standards is better than many great ones by other attacking players.

The 30-year-old Egyptian has 37 goal involvements (26 goals, 11 assists) in 43 appearances in all competitions this term. Not quite at the level of Erling Haaland, mind, but still a very decent output for a player supposedly “out of form”.

No handball?

The contest between the two teams ended up as pretty one-sided, but it has to be said that the decision to allow the opening Liverpool goal to stand raised quite a few eyebrows.

Minute 35 was running when Junior Firpo intercepted an Alexander-Arnold pass towards Salah, and as the ball bounced off the ground, the Leeds left-back poked it on towards Liverpool’s fullback-turned-midfielder, who in turn used his elbow to get it back on track.

Both Firpo and Marc Roca raised their hands to signal the officials, but the whistle of referee Craig Pawson remained silent, and Alexander-Arnold was able to continue his run, receive the ball back from Salah and whip it low across the box, towards the far post where he found Gakpo for a tap-in. Apparently, there was a brief VAR check but no change of decision came, to the dismay of the the home players.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to understand why Alexander-Arnold wasn’t judged to have handled the ball in this situation, but it won’t have come as a surprise for anyone. The English officials have reputation for making inexplicable calls, and the PGMOL has been apologizing for their blunders with consistent frequency.

Some would even say that Sinisterra’s goal, which happened purely due to Ibrahima Konate acting rather irresponsibly on the ball as the last player ahead of Alisson Becker, was an act of karma.

Leeds in trouble?

No realistic Leeds fan would’ve expected their team to get away with anything against Liverpool, not when the Reds seem to have arisen again. They will have been aware that the Anfield triumph in the first half of the season was a fluke, a moment when Jesse Marsch’s men took advantage of a notable Merseyside stupor to steal the three points. Not that the scoreline of this game was to be expected either, but Liverpool were simply the favourites, especially after the mauling Leeds took from Crystal Palace the week before.

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Nonetheless, this result will have been seen as most unwelcome in a moment when Leeds need to be fighting tooth-and-nail to survive in the Premier League. The relegation zone consists at the moment of Southampton (23 points), Leicester City (25) and Nottingham Forest (27), with Everton hovering just above the latter on mere goal-difference. But Leeds are next, with a tally of just 29, and as West Ham, Bournemouth, Wolves and Palace continue to improve, it all points to Gracia’s men leading the way in a race they surely didn’t want to be a part of at all.

The next three games, against Fulham, Leicester and Bournemouth, will be crucial for Leeds, especially with clashes against title defenders Manchester City and top-four chasers Newcastle to come straight after.

As for Liverpool, it really seems too late to be seriously hoping for a top-four finish. With nine points still separating them from Newcastle in fourth, not to mention the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Brighton who sit in between, and just eight matches left, it looks pretty hopeless.

As Klopp himself says, it’s important for his team to finish the season as strongly as possible and see where that leaves them in the end.

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Veselin Trajkovic

Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.



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