AS the temperature dropped from late summer to midwinter, without hesitating for a second to remember that there’s a little thing called autumn, I retreated indoors to spend the weekend binge watching series two of Stranger Things, interrupted only to see the Mighty Reds tear apart West Ham United like a Demogorgon doing the same to… Sorry, must avoid spoilers.
The popular Netflix show has some obvious parallels to Liverpool FC. It goes from normal to bonkers in mere seconds, characters do their finest Albie Moreno impression by evolving from a villain in one season to a hero the next, and it also likes to remind you time and again that everything was much better in the ’80s.
The breakout star of the show is 13-year-old Millie Bobby Brown, a frankly absurdly good actress who once again smashes it as the superpower wielding character “Eleven”. You may not know though that she is also a Red. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep combined with the several hours in a row of plowing through ST2, but as Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino tore through the West Ham defence on Saturday, I automatically assumed that Millie was in the stands, controlling West Ham’s backline with her powerful mind and parting them like the gate to the Upside Down.
As many plot twists as there are in Stranger Things, nothing made me scratch my head on Saturday more than Jürgen Klopp’s team selection. Starts for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mane were one thing, but then going on to play them in what was basically a 4-4-2 formation blew my mind, and made the eventual comfy win all the more satisfying.
Klopp has been getting plenty of criticism this season for not being tactically astute enough, or able to adapt when his favoured way of playing isn’t working. Well Saturday he adapted plenty. He trained his team to utilise a different formation specifically designed to tear apart West Ham, then even had to change personnel at the last minute after learning of Jordan Henderson’s injury on the morning of the game.
That unfortunate news led to a surprise starting spot for Gini Wijnaldum, who only days earlier had a swollen ankle and was rumoured to be out for an indeterminate number of weeks. The Dutchman was now starting despite not bringing his boots with him to London, such was the lack of anticipation that he’d be needed. In fairness to the lad he did well playing in spare plimsolls from the London Stadium lost and found.
Mohamed Salah though? I mean blimey. Just blimey. I remember being impressed by him years ago at Basel in the Champions League, wondering if he could one day be a Red. Then we were linked with him and I was excited, then he joined Chelsea and I was miffed, then he left Chelsea without being given a chance and I was perplexed, then he tore up Serie A with Roma and I was vindicated, then he finally joined Liverpool and I was happy. But even I didn’t anticipate he’d basically be Leo Messi’s Egyptian cousin.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve been without a regular goalscorer for so long, or maybe it’s because none of us expected these kind of numbers out of a wide player, but it’s safe to say that we are now clutching little Mo to our collective Liverpool bosom, and we appear to have an absolute superstar on our hands.
Yes, he misses the odd chance, and I can’t help but see that Manchester United one over and over in my head and wonder what might have been, but as others have pointed out, if Salah scored all the ones that he’s missed then bookies would have to stop taking bets on next year’s Ballon d’Or. An astonishing 12 goals in 17 games isn’t even the whole story.
His movement, his menace and his pace open up so many opportunities for his teammates, and opposition defences are starting to realise that he’s likely to slice through them at a moment’s notice, allowing more space for Firmino and Mane.
Last season at Roma he scored 19 goals in 39 games in all competitions, so this form isn’t new, but the ratio at the moment is higher in England than it was in Italy. If he plays 50 games this season he’s well on course to score 30 goals. I’m not sure he’ll be able to keep up that pace all season, but if he can, then good Lord.
We’ll see plenty more goals like the one he put away to open the scoring on Saturday. It’s not the first time he’s been allowed to break away down the field from an opposition corner with his pace. Who knows though, with Salah and Mane on the field maybe teams will feel they have to leave more players back from set pieces just in case, which should in turn make it easier for our defence to deal with them.
However, my favourite part of the West Ham game was his second goal, and Liverpool’s fourth. The play from Mane was excellent, but it was a tricky ball over to Salah, who controlled it expertly, got it out of his feet and from a decent distance and tight angle managed to fire it into the one part of the goal where Joe Hart couldn’t get to it (though you may argue these days that Hart doesn’t seem to be able to get to most things). It was an outstanding finish, and with that in his locker you wouldn’t bet against him continuing this scoring run even if teams do start to seek him out for special attention.
The other success story so far this season has been the incredible resurgence of Alberto Moreno, who last week was rewarded with a place in the Spain national squad. Not bad for a player who only months ago was labelled “literally brainless” by a number of Liverpool fans who struggled with the definition of the word “literally”.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Albie. His mischievous little face and his impish qualities that saw him joining Daniel Sturridge in his wriggly arm celebration at Selhurst Park, get a tattoo of a monkey in sunglasses on his leg for no discernible reason, and take his dog for a walk on a hoverboard (I felt it unfair that the dog didn’t have one too) are what endeared him to me, even if they pissed other people off. Of course they only pissed people off because he wasn’t playing very well.
He had looked a good player at Sevilla, though his defensive qualities were being questioned even then. However, his goal at Tottenham Hotspur early in his time at Liverpool showed what he could do when playing with confidence. That confidence was shattered as time went on and mistakes crept in, with the Europa League final being the last straw for most fans. After another shaky afternoon against Arsenal on the opening day of last season, Moreno was more or less done in the eyes of fans and it appeared, the manager.
Following 12 months of watching someone who didn’t even want to be playing there taking his position at left back, Moreno could have been forgiven for seeking a new challenge somewhere else come the summer. However, instead he buckled down, trained hard and has returned as a new and improved version, with a maturity and defensive awareness which suggests that instead of sulking he has been paying close attention to a manager and coaching staff who we are constantly told don’t know how to train defenders properly. Whatever you think of him, you have to admire that.
Moreno has been consistently excellent this season in both defence and attack, and it’s a joy to see. Perhaps also something people should bear in mind when writing a player off. No one was written off more than Albie, but now it’s hard to imagine the team without him.
After the Tottenham defeat we said that Liverpool needed to brush themselves down and win their next three league games, which would take them to a not-too-shabby 22 points from 12 games. They’re two thirds of the way there, while also putting themselves in a strong position in the Champions League. A win over a rather wobbly-looking Southampton after the international break will put them in a much healthier looking position before the massive clash with Chelsea at Anfield.
Klopp also has the luxury of being able to work with a good amount of his first team during this break, with James Milner, Salah, Sturridge, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Matip all staying with him at Melwood for the next fortnight. The confidence levels have surely been heightened after a week of three wins, 10 goals scored and only one conceded, and it feels like the perfect platform to push on and make something of a season that many were writing off only a couple of weeks ago.
It is of course also important not to get ahead of ourselves, there is plenty of work to be done, but this season can still be a great one if the manager and his players play to their strengths and don’t let the doubters stop them from believing.
And you can trust me on that because, as top Red Eleven would say, friends don’t lie.
If, like me, you are starting to believe again then why not treat yourself or a loved one to a copy of my new book, Kloppite: One Man’s Quest to turn Doubters into Believers, available from Amazon, Waterstones and other reputable bookeries.