Naby Keita’s strike took a big deflection to spark celebrations at Anfield as early as the fifth minute before Trent Alexander-Arnold set up Roberto Firmino to make it 2-0 to the hosts less than 20 minutes later.
Mohamed Salah was once again heavily involved and even though he failed to get on the scoresheet, his performance served up plenty to be discussed.
Here, we analyse his display.
Touches – 69
Passes – 36
Pass accuracy – 75%
Shots – 7
Shots on target – 1
Dribbles – 4
Key passes – 0
Dispossessed – 4
Salah looked as lively as ever and eager to make an impact following on from his crucial goal away to Southampton in the Premier League. He was a constant threat down Liverpool’s right side and a key figure during various exhilarating bursts forward.
The Egyptian was so dedicated to the cause that on one occasion he showed incredible speed to rush from the opposition’s half to the left-back position, stopping a Porto counter-attack and eventually winning the free-kick. He had his fair share of efforts on goal – and then some – but didn’t work the keeper enough.
Even though he didn’t directly contribute to goals on the night, his mere presence in attack made for a dynamic Liverpool front line. The kind of pace and directness with which he attacks the opposition can disrupt their shape and create space for other forward runners. He was relentless in his efforts down the right flank but regularly popped up in the middle as well, stretching the back three with his movement.
It’s strange to pull up an accomplished pro like Salah for a shortcoming that’s associated with inexperienced youngsters but it’s not for the first time this season that he’s proved less than efficient. His worst moment was when he latched on to a horrendous back-pass but then, having gone clean through on goal, put his effort wide of the far post. There were other occasions as well when he would’ve been better served playing a pass or laying the ball off but his insistence on going for goal meant just one of his seven efforts worked the keeper.
There are promising signs. Despite his recent drought, he isn’t shy to pull the trigger and there’s no denying his obvious threat. Such is his energy and intensity in attack that even when he isn’t hitting the back of the net, he more than warrants his place in the XI.
The forward, who enjoyed a remarkable 44-goal maiden season for the Reds, is without a goal in his last seven matches – his longest drought for the club.
However, Salah has found the net three times in his last three league appearances against Sunday’s visitors Tottenham, and a fortnight without football may well be just the thing to kick-start the 26-year-old into life with seven games to go in the title race.
Asked whether the Egyptian had benefited from not having to travel for the matches against Niger and Nigeria, Klopp said: “Oh, 100 per cent.
“Of course if you can gain freshness in that time then that’s clear.
“The boys never had a day off, actually. They always trained, but individually and not at the highest intensity, so that helps of course. Not only for Mo, for the others as well. All good.”
Klopp virtually has a fully-fit squad to call upon, although the likes of long-term absentees Joe Gomez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will have to wait a few weeks to be considered for a matchday having only just returned to first-team training.
Gomez is probably closest after finally recovering from a broken leg sustained in early December but it is the presence of Oxlade-Chamberlain, out for a year with a serious knee injury, which has been most anticipated..
Even Klopp admits he was relishing the prospect of the England international’s return but, after the 25-year-old suffered a minor setback with a hamstring issue in his first competitive action playing for the under-23s earlier this month, the Reds boss is being more circumspect.
“How can I say this? I think one of the biggest mistakes I made was being so excited about having Ox back,” he added.
“I’m pretty sure Ox felt a little bit after the last session with us, and then he played the game and felt a little bit more, and everybody was looking at him.
“So now we keep him a little bit more in the shadows, he’s in a pretty good moment, he will train, and when he is back and ready to be properly involved again, then I will inform you. Until then I will not speak about him.”
Liverpool have lost just one of their last 24 league meetings at Anfield against Tottenham and realistically will have to continue that run if they are to maintain pace with Manchester City, who play Fulham more than 24 hours before the Reds take the field.
Murmurs of discontent have started to become audible about Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
A seven-match goalless streak, and just one strike during his last 10 run-outs, in all competitions has coincided with a period of intense anticipation as the Reds aim to prevent their pained wait for the Premier League’s title extending past 29 years.
Has the Egyptian King’s crown slipped, or is he undertaking a self-sacrificing role in manager Jurgen Klopp’s recalibrated system?
WHAT HE’S DOING
A naked look at the EPL numbers, unavoidably, points to a drop in Salah’s output.
The Egypt forward has 17 goals and seven assists in 31 top-flight run-outs this term. He ended 2017/18 on 32 goals and 10 assists from 36 appearances.
Looking at his two campaigns on Merseyside, the 26-year-old is averaging more minutes per goal (156.4 in 2018/19 – 92.3 in 2017/18) and assist (379.9 in 2018/19 – 295.4 in 2017/18) this season when juxtaposed to his record-breaking debut.
He is also having less shots per 90 minutes (3.5 in 2018/19 – 4.4 in 2017/18) and is getting into fewer advantageous positions, as adjudged by a decline in expected goals per 90 minutes (0.62 in 2018/19 – 0.77 in 2017/18).
This latest pair of statistics play into a perceived conservative streak being applied by Klopp during 2018/19. But is this trope true about the German?
Liverpool’s goals per game has, actually, marginally improved this term (2.26 in 2018/19 – 2.21 in 2017/18), with the disparity for big chances created per game negligible (1.97 in 2018/19 – 2.05 in 2017/18).
The Reds have already levelled 2017/18’s tally of 17 clean sheets. It will also take some collapse to match last term’s concession of 38 goals – their present count is just 18 with seven dates to fulfil.
Beyond any tactical tweak, a full season of imperious Netherlands centre-back Virgil van Dijk, plus last summer’s then world-record addition of Brazil No1 Alisson, are major contributors to this new solidity.
Salah is averaging slightly more tackles per game (0.5 in 2018/19 – 0.3 in 2017/18), but his interceptions per match is the same (0.1). This does not point to a fresh burden of defensive duties.
Intriguingly, Salah’s key passes per 90 minutes (1.90 in 2018/19 – 1.89 in 2017/18) and expected assists per 90 minutes (0.29 in 2018/19 – 0.25 in 2017/18) have remained, broadly, static. This contradicts a narrative about growing greed.
From the right wing, Salah strikes fear into all opponents.
Left-backs in the Premier League, however, have been able to rest easier this season.
In 2017/18, Klopp utilised a 4-3-3 formation for 30 of the Reds’ 38 fixtures. On the four occasions he used a 4-2-3-1, Brazil striker Roberto Firmino was usually up top.
A notable tactical change has occurred this term. 4-3-3 (17 matches) has stayed in favour, but less markedly when compared to 4-2-3-1 (11 matches).
When the 4-2-3-1 has been used in 2018/19, Salah has largely been the spearhead with Firmino dropping back into a No10 position.
This subtle alteration has multiplied the amount of times the €39 million signing from Roma in June 2017 has, directly, had two centre-backs to deal with rather than one left-back. Furthermore, such a role has put an increased onus on hold-up play and performing with back to goal.
If 2017/18 at Liverpool turned into getting the best out of a singular, stellar component in Salah, 2018/19 has been about the collective.
Salah scored 38.1 per cent of their EPL goals then. Firmino notched 17.9 per cent and Senegal forward Mane registered 11.9 per cent.
Salah and Mane have each contributed 24.3 per cent this term, while Firmino’s sat on 15.7 per cent.
Salah’s standing has necessitated the increased use of double markers on him in 2018/19. This has hampered his offensive impact, while granting renewed space for the likes of Mane.
The attacker’s movement, furthermore, has been regularly selfless. He twice dragged the Arsenal defence apart for Firmino’s goals from open play in December’s 5-1 demolition of Arsenal.
A similar trick granted Mane his first strike in this month’s 4-2 triumph against Burnley.
Salah’s failure to pass to the same player when clean through at Bayern Munich in last week’s Champions League round-of-16 decider grabbed attention, but isn’t explanatory of his play at large.
Confidence must also be a factor – and only Salah, himself, can elucidate his frame of mind.
A shooting accuracy of 47 per cent in 2017/18 delivered 32 goals. In 2018/19, a rise to 49 per cent has, only, produced 17 strikes – to date.
For an isolated – but illustrative – example, a trademark curled shot flew into the grateful arms of Everton’s Jordan Pickford in the centre of his goal during this month’s drab scoreless draw.
In 2017/18, he pirouetted past left-back Cuco Martina, held off defensive midfielder Idrissa Gueye and, surging with belief, placed an unstoppable shot into Pickford’s top corner to earn the FIFA Puskas Award for best goal.
An element of fortune has also deserted Salah this term. Moments to match February 2018’s double implosion from the Tottenham Hotspur defence, gifts gratefully accepted and ruthlessly dispatched, plus Manchester City shot stopper Ederson’s unwitting assist a month prior, have been rare.
Fine margins. But they have, seemingly, started going against Salah more frequently.
WHAT THEY SAY
Even within the Reds ranks, dissatisfaction has been voiced.
Former defender Jamie Carragher, who made 737 appearances for them from 1996-2013, reacted on Sky Sports to Salah’s display in Sunday’s 2-1 win at Fulham by saying: “He has been selfish and greedy, no doubt. His record for Liverpool has been outstanding in the Premier League – scoring and creating goals.
“Nobody has been involved in more goals this season, he’s been a constant threat. But two or three times today he’s got to get his head up and see what’s around him.”
Predictably, Klopp has remained sanguine.
“It’s our life, sometimes you score and sometimes not,” the German told beIN Sports after the Fulham trip. “It is completely normal and any striker could face a situation like that.
“I am completely happy with his performance with the team.”
Ahead of the Bayern clash, home goalkeeper Manuel Neuer also spoke of Salah’s enduring menace and fear he sparks.
‘Because he only scores one in the last eight doesn’t mean anything,” he stated.
Salah is scoring less goals and getting fewer assists per minute in the EPL during 2018/19.
History is also against him. Since the top-flight’s inauguration in 1992/93, only Alan Shearer (1995/96), Cristiano Ronaldo (2007/08) and Luis Suarez (2013/14) had managed to notch 31 times in a 38-game season before he surpassed them.
What he summoned in 2017/18 is an outlier. For context, Salah’s combined tally of goals and assists for 2018/19 is the joint best at 24.
The Egyptian’s present barren run is bothersome, while he’s increasingly deployed in a manner that stymies his individual threat.
Liverpool, however, last season finished 25 points behind runaway champions Man City in fourth. They now sit first, with a two-point advantage – albeit having played one more match – over the holders.
At the 31-game mark of the previous campaign, Liverpool had 63 points in third and Salah had 28 goals. Fast forward to today and they lead on 76 points, with Salah scoring on 17 occasions.
Salah’s numerical return is weaker. Liverpool’s collective, however, is unquestionably stronger.
No matter the rising scrutiny, he continues to play an enormous role in a season that promises so much.