Liverpool ticked familiar boxes en route to the Premier League summit on Saturday. Mohamed Salah scored his 29th goal in 29 appearances at Anfield since arriving from Roma, a clean sheet record dating back to 24 February remained intact and the prospect of Brighton repeating their solitary league win of 1982, or even their display against Manchester United the previous week, was never entertained. Beneath the surface, though, Jürgen Klopp’s team displayed a different face, and the characteristics required of those who stay top until the end.
Liverpool rarely do 1-0 wins under Klopp – nine in 109 Premier League games, to be exact. It arrived with Salah and Sadio Mané struggling with the early demands of the campaign, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner again excelling in midfield and Brighton increasingly dangerous after the late introductions of Jürgen Locadia, Pascal Gross and Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
Klopp claimed it was a game that would have usually meant dropped points for Liverpool. Instead, Alisson produced the first match-winning save of his Liverpool career to thwart Gross in the 88th minute and a tiring team fought their way over the line. Three games, three wins and three clean sheets. A pristine start while not at their fluent, incisive best.
“My whole life I have found a 1-0 a very pleasing result,” Klopp said. “I like it a lot but I am really happy after a 4-0, to be honest. In this early part of the season it was clear – we have to come into the season. West Ham was really good but then you come into another situation where you have to fight really hard and we did that. At Crystal Palace sometimes it looked like ‘Yes!’ and other times ‘Hmmm’ but we won it 2-0.
“Now again, the first half was really good football for this part of the season, really good with three, four big chances against a deep defending side like Brighton. In the second half we lost the plot. The freshness, the intensity, the legs – all these things. We had outstanding counter-pressing situations in the first half. In the second half we had none. We were still around but we didn’t win the balls. It’s not because the boys didn’t want it but because they felt the intensity. After winning 4-0 we didn’t run around Melwood for the rest of the week with our arms in the air. We will not do it this week. We will prepare for Leicester. We have a lot of things to improve but it’s clear that still winning on a not perfect day gives you different opportunities. That is clear.
“I’ve said before – if we are good, then we win, if we are average, then very often we lost. Usually we win or we draw when we are good and lose most of the time when we are average and that is what we have to change. We want to be brilliant all the time but, if that doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean we don’t go for a result. We fought for this result and so I am really happy.”
Milner typified Liverpool’s appetite, not for the first time this season, and his tackle on the debutant Yves Bissouma led to the relentless Roberto Firmino releasing Salah for the decisive goal. Chris Hughton called it a “learning curve” for the summer signing from Lille. It was for Brighton collectively, and the improvement in their second season in the top flight was evident. “This is an incredibly difficult place to get something and to play as well as we did,” the Brighton manager said. “I accept a lot was good defensive play – stopping them – but we had good spells and to finish as well as we did speaks volumes.”
Wijnaldum was the dominant force, however, and his performances in the centre of Liverpool’s midfield three this season speak volumes for Klopp’s ability to coach more out of a player. Patient and mature, the Netherlands international thrived on the responsibility at the heart of Liverpool’s play. It was not until the 80th minute that he misplaced his one and only pass out of 76.
“The situation was clear from the beginning,” Klopp said. “Hendo would not have a big break and Fabinho would need time to settle in, so it was always clear that Gini would be in the mix for that position. He can play both. He was brilliant in pre-season as the eight. He was good as the six but brilliant as the eight. That’s why we never had any doubts about that.
“They all have different characteristics in that role but if we don’t defend as a team neither Hendo, Fabinho or Gini can play the role very well because the space is just too big. It’s not possible. If we defend well, then it is all fine. Gini is a good footballer, the other two are as well. It is only important that you have this kind of mindset that you can cool yourself down in different situations, that you don’t follow the ball or offer runs in behind when we have enough players to do that.
“We need a few reasonable persons on the pitch, if you want, and Gini can switch from one mindset to the other and that is pretty good for us.” Pretty good with the promise of much more to come.