Liverpool refind glimpses of their old selves, helped by youth of Bajcetic | Jonathan Liew

Spanish teenager was brave on the ball, as was Cody Gakpo, although Liverpool also enjoyed the luck against Everton

Well, they always say the form book goes out of the window on derby day. At the conclusion of this game, as Liverpool’s players shared backslaps and embraces on the pitch, as Jürgen Klopp strode over to the Kop to punch the air with his harpoon-fist, as Anfield buzzed to the strains of “going down, going down, going down”, it was possible to sense a curious and unfamiliar vibe around this place. Two-nil against Everton. Salah on the scoresheet. Was this … normality?

Things have not felt normal at Liverpool for a while. It’s not just the football, which has been cold and insipid. Nor Klopp himself, who for the last few months has borne the tetchy disgruntlement of a Hollywood A-lister now reduced to doing commercials for price-comparison websites. Even Anfield in the hours before this game felt devoid of its usual crackling electricity, its heaving optimism. For Liverpool, 10th in the Premier League, this was a fixture pitched somewhere between juddering apprehension and pure terror.

The hopeful reading is that this comfortable win against their favourite opponents can restore a little of the old swagger, set them back on an upward path. There are reachable prizes to aim for here. Brentford, Fulham and Brighton can all be overhauled. Tottenham remain resolutely Tottenham. Beat Newcastle this weekend and suddenly fourth place is only six points away with a game in hand. Real Madrid visit next week. Time to move.

And there were real causes for encouragement in this game. The defensive display, particularly in the second half. The performances of Darwin Núñez, Cody Gakpo and Stefan Bajcetic. Even the flailing Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed to grow into this game, earning a second-half assist and unveiling his classic repertoire of crosses: the stinger, the zinger, the curler, the swirler, the roller, the high diagonal, the sly left-footer.

But then we have been here before with this Liverpool, a club forever turning the corner only to encounter another corner. And for all the riotous fun of the second half, there were also some warning signs for them. Another slow start. The continuing struggles of Fabinho. Those weird 10-minute periods when Liverpool simply forget to pass the ball, as if under some malign collective spell. Indeed for much of the first half-hour they looked like a pale shadow: frazzled, tired, dead behind the eyes.

There’s a lot of talk about fatigue. But the problem here isn’t so much physical as mental. Perhaps the reason Liverpool start so badly is that they have lost the ability to self-motivate. They need something to kick them to life. Often, to their detriment, it’s going a goal down. Here, on the other hand, they get a little stroke of fortune.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that if James Tarkowski’s header goes in, the entire DNA of this game mutates. Instead it hits the post, Dwight McNeil’s follow-up hits the heels of Abdoulaye Doucouré, and suddenly – for the first time in what feels like years – there’s space. Liverpool never get space. Klopp’s Liverpool used to be a counterattacking team. Hardly anybody lets them counterattack now.

Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez gave Seamus Coleman a tough time.
Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez gave Seamus Coleman a tough time. Photograph: Alex Dodd/CameraSport/Getty Images

But suddenly Núñez has 80 yards of fresh green grass ahead of him. Suddenly Liverpool feel charmed by their escape. In those few seconds some twitch of an old memory seems to stir within them. The dizzying speed of the break stuns Everton into stupor. Jordan Pickford tiptoes out of his goal with all the conviction of a man putting the bins out in his socks. He doesn’t get close to getting close. Salah scores. Anfield breaks into voice. Suddenly it’s 2018 again.

The goal has a double effect. Everton, whose gameplan of aggressively squeezing Liverpool in midfield has actually worked pretty well, suddenly lose all heart and retreat back into their shell. Liverpool, meanwhile, have room to breathe. And most cheeringly of all, it is their new guard who make the best use of it.

Núñez and his outsized ambition are perfect for this game. He makes the left flank his own, combines well with Andy Robertson, plays a sumptuous Alexander-Arnold-style 60-yard pass to Alexander-Arnold. Gakpo is having his best game for Liverpool: secure under pressure, shielding the ball well with a tight turning circle and a sharp burst of acceleration to wriggle into gaps. There is a directness to both of them that evokes the classic early Klopp sides, all pace and impatience, the shortest route to goal through the quickest means possible.

But it is Bajcetic who is the real revelation here. How refreshing it must be for a raw, skittish midfielder like Fabinho to have a player as mature and assured as Bajcetic alongside him to learn from. And the Spaniard is the perfect teacher: brave on the ball and an intelligent mover off it, the sort of player who always knows exactly how much time he has on the ball, who can speed play up or slow it down. Which is not bad for a guy who six months ago was literally a child.

Núñez, 23, signed in the summer. Gakpo, 23, signed in January. Bajcetic, 18, was making only his third league start. These guys were not here for the good times. They have no laurels upon which to rest, no accumulated baggage slowing the limbs and slowing the mind.

They long to build something new, but they can’t do it on their own. Liverpool’s future looks bright enough. It’s the present they need to sort out.


Jonathan Liew at Anfield

The GuardianTramp

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