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14th Sep 2019

Liverpool’s Cerberus attack are making a habit of the sublime

Kyle Picknell

A Jetro Willems bolt from the blue gave Liverpool cause for concern in the first half before Sadio Mane hit back in equally triumphant fashion. After that, well, Liverpool were inevitable

You’d be forgiven for being taken slightly aback at the way Jetro Willems collected a pass from Christian Atsu, chop-shimmied inside a startled Trent Alexander-Arnold and fired into the top corner off his weaker foot to open the scoring for Newcastle United within the first seven minutes at Anfield.

It was a bravura finish, one you’d expect from a flying winger, less so a fairly run-of-the-mill Dutch wing-back in a Steve Bruce side.

Given that a few years ago, Willems, when asked, registered his dream five-a-side team as himself, himself, himself, himself and himself, the confidence with which he took the opportunity perhaps shouldn’t have been that surprising. But then again, it was his first goal in two years.

What wasn’t surprising was the manner in which Liverpool hit back just before the half-hour mark, that unstoppable triumvirate down the left side aligning and opening up Newcastle’s back nine – yes, nine – like a proverbial tin of beans. All it took was six measly touches. Van Dijk with one to cushion and another to set Robertson loose down the flank, perfectly weighted, perfectly encouraging; one for Robertson to instantly knock the ball past a hapless Emil Krafth and another to find Mane; one stretched toe for the Senegalese to get the ball out of his feet and another, this one the most devastating, to curl the ball triumphantly into the top corner.

It was an unerring finish and one that, given the ridiculous consistency and level of performance that Mane has reached over the past few seasons, was a shock to absolutely no-one. Give him the ball in and around the opposition area with the slightest amount of time, half an instant, maybe less, and he will take the opportunity. He will fucking bury it.

To the sound of rousing cheers from Fantasy Football players up and down the country, Divock Origi limped off eight minutes before the break after a fairly ponderous cameo. It was bad news for Newcastle, as this meant the Colgate-addict himself, Roberto Firmino, was coming on to do that thing that he does, which is to make Liverpool immeasurably better just by being there, gliding into space, showing himself for passes.

He had an immediate impact, first by pressing from the blindside and robbing Atsu in midfield and then by getting his head up and looking for the clinical final ball with immediacy. Mane was only too happy to oblige his teammate as he tore diagonally between Schär and Lascelles.

Dubravka did well to get to the through pass first. He did slightly less well to completely fluff it, pouncing on the ball with all the authority of a small kitten mortally frightened of spherical objects and grant Mane a tap-in for his second of the afternoon.

The second half played out as something of an onslaught as Wijnaldum went close, Firmino too, whilst Emil Krafth, who had a considerably frantic afternoon, blazed Newcastle’s only semi-viable opportunity over the bar in the kind of apologetic manner we had all expected when Willems daringly cut inside for the opener.

The game trudged on in unspectacular fashion: Liverpool keeping the ball, moving it around, quietly exploring avenues and options. Newcastle, in response, were left to scramble around the house slamming doors, shutting blinds and closing windows. Unfortunately, this can only go on so long given the calibre of Liverpool’s attacking trident.

They remind me now of the dominant basketball force of previous seasons – the Golden State Warriors. You can, if you concentrate for the entirety of the contest, maybe keep tabs on one of them. You can hope against hope that another is uncharacteristically quiet and has an off day. What you can’t do, and indeed, what seemed impossible, was to keep each of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson from torching you alive. At least one of them always would. The same can now be said for Liverpool’s frontline.

Before the goal, impeccably taken, Salah was ominously quiet, routinely finding himself suffocated by those in black and white should he so much as think about maybe asking for the ball. Newcastle were doing all they could to shut off the Egyptian’s route to goal but, as is so often the case when a team sets its stall out to defend and defend and defend for the entirety of the 90 minutes, to little apparent success, both the legs and the heart began to wane late on.

The goal itself was exquisite. Salah received the ball deep and with a fatigued Atsu and Shelvey half a yard back from where they should have been he was free to play a pass into Firmino. What the Brazilian did next with the ball shouldn’t have been aired before the watershed.

It’s hard to describe, something of a pirouette-spin-flick devised and executed with such imagination and daring that if it was Lionel Messi, Ray Hudson’s consequent, vocalised eruption on co-commentary would have caused avalanches everywhere from the Andes to the Himalayas. It would have put ski slopes the world over in a week-long state of emergency.

All Salah had to do was collect the pass, glided to him like a shuffleboard puck, and breeze into the open space to score.

It’s nothing new, of course, that Roberto Firmino is an all-seeing panopticon and a true delight of a footballer. It’s nothing new that Salah can drift into anonymity for large swathes of a match before then blazing through on goal and settling it in a moment. It’s nothing new that Mane is now one of the most deadly attackers in the world, or that van Dijk can waltz through games like this as unhurried as an ex-pat on a Mallorcan sun-lounger. Fabinho, too, is (not so) quietly becoming as crucial a presence to Klopp’s Liverpool, too, with yet another immovable display at the base of the midfield, all positional intelligence and selflessness, the footballing equivalent of a Tiki totem pole the rest of the team can cycle and dance around through the night.

What is new is the almost tedious regularity with which these players are doing these things. There has been much said of the boring juggernaut that is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City all-stars. It must surely now be applied to Liverpool too, who haven’t lost at Anfield since May 2017, and now deal with fluke, unaccountable events, such as a mediocre full-back briefly transforming into Manchester United-era Ronaldo, with complete deck-chair indifference.

They know and believe that they simply have too much quality not to overcome it.  And that’s a vital, Premier League-winning trait to have.