Liverpool 4 – Hoffenheim 2 (6-3 On Aggregate): Match Review And Analysis

There’s an argument that this was the most important game for Liverpool since the 2013-2014 season. Heading into the game it felt as though so much depended on the result, not just whether or not we’d be in the Champions League. I’ve been arguing for some time that our remaining transfer strategy would be dictated by whether or not we made it into Europe’s premier club competition. Southampton have been able to say to Virgil van Dijk that we’re not in the Champions League yet, so why move to us if he wants to play in it? Now that excuse is no longer there and I’d be amazed if we didn’t see movement on that front in the coming days.

Before the game the Hoffenheim manager, Julian Nagelsmann, wasn’t shy in declaring that his team wouldn’t be overawed by a trip to our home ground and didn’t think it mattered that much. Whether hubris or arrogance it struck me as a remarkably stupid thing to say, with far better teams than the Bundesliga outfit having been completely overwhelmed by Anfield on a European night. Jürgen Klopp, on the other hand, was quick to point out how well Hoffenheim played in the first-leg and the fact that they would be just as dangerous this time around. If it was a ploy to ensure that his players didn’t get complacent then it very much worked. So what were the major talking points from our Champions League qualifier?

Our Attack Is Mouth-Watering

For the past month or so all of the talk has, quite understandably, been about Philippe Coutinho. Barcelona’s attempts to unsettle our creative midfielder have been beyond the pail and have succeeded insomuch as the Brazilian hasn’t played for us yet this season. They haven’t been good enough to persuade the owners to sell him, however, so the whole episode has just hung over the club like a dark cloud. What that cloud has also done is obscure the fact that, in an attacking sense at least, the Reds are a very exciting prospect even without our want-away star.

We started this game with the sort of pace and verve that made the aforementioned 2013-2014 season an absolute joy to watch. It’s not something that we tend to associate with a Klopp team, given that the German seems to prefer turning the screw over unleashing hell. It was a blistering start that saw us go three goals up before Nagelsmann’s side really even knew what had hit it. I’ll admit I thought the young German manager’s set-up was questionable from the off, especially considering we caused his back-five such problems in the first-leg. There were spaces all over the place for Sadio Mané and Mohammed Salah to exploit and the German side’s high line helped us even more.

For the first few minutes I was slightly concerned that we might be made to pay for our profligacy in front of goal, with numerous chances going begging before Emre Can eventually found the back of the net thanks to a deflection after ten minutes. We were wasteful in the first-leg and more poor finishing might have seen the Kop grow nervous. Can’s goal seemed to settle the nerves, though, and it didn’t take long for us to double our tally. Salah still needs time to settle and grow in confidence for me, but his positioning is constantly excellent. I’d love him to score a goal after having taken people on sooner rather than later, but the Egyptian won’t mind scoring a tap-in like that every week.

If the first two goals demonstrated how good we can be when we turn the screw then the third showed exactly the level this Liverpool team can play at when it’s on-song. I’ll honestly be quite surprised if we see a better team goal than that all season long. The initial ball was excellent for Mané to run on to but what was to follow was little short of sensational. His decision to wait rather than try to take on several defenders showed intelligence, his back heel demonstrated his skill and Roberto Firmino’s dinked chip with his weaker foot was exquisite. For the ball to be laid on a plate like that for Emre Can shouldn’t be allowed in a Champions League match. Whatever’s going on at the back, we’re a force to be reckoned with going forward.

Individual Defensive Errors Worse Than The System

Of course, it’s almost impossible to talk about Liverpool’s attacking ability without also mentioning the difficulties we consistently seem to have at the back. One of the biggest questions that’s dominated coverage of our defensive frailties is whether it’s system or personnel. The truth is that the system doesn’t always help, but at times the personnel are the footballing equivalent of stepping on a rake. Hoffenheim’s first goal wasn’t particularly well-crafted by the German team, it was just Dejan Lovren kicking the ball straight to them and then Simon Mignolet not doing well enough, getting beaten by a shot across the face of his goal.

For once Alberto Moreno wasn’t entirely the issue. Whatever you think of the Spaniard, and personally I think he’s a brainless moron, he links up well with Sadio Mané and you can see why Jürgen Klopp wants him in the side from an attacking point of view. The problem is that his work in the front two-thirds of the pitch often leaves the back-left position wide open and teams are wise to it now. What we need is a balance between the pace offered by the former Sevilla defender and the defensive protection given to the side by James Milner. Could that be what Andrew Robertson might bring? Maybe. The twenty-three-year-old certainly impressed against Crystal Palace at the weekend.

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The reason we’ve spent all summer pursuing Virgil van Dijk is that the Southampton captain is better than our current players; more specifically he’s better than Lovren. Klopp can change his system all you want but the opposition will still score if your central defender kicks the ball straight to them or simply doesn’t jump when a ball is played into the box. That’s nothing to do with the way the team is set up and is all about the attention span of the individuals making up the system. I wrote the other week about how I don’t think van Dijk alone will improve that, not least of all because I’m still less than convinced by the goalkeeper. Joel Matip’s performances have improved over the last two games, however, so if he can stay fit and keep playing like that then we won’t have to worry about him.

As you might have guessed, I’m no fan of Moreno. It’s bizarre, however, that some people seem determined to want to blame him for everything bad that happens. The manager knows that he’ll leave gaps at the back but selects him anyway, so you have to assume that he’s picking him for a reason. That side of things is very much on the German’s plate when team’s exploit the problems it raises and is a sign of how the combination of managerial decisions and player weakness is what causes the problems that we seem to suffer from consistently. If we want to move forward and genuinely compete then we’re going to have to find answers to those issues.

Roberto Firmino Is Absolutely Brilliant

Ahead of tomorrow, my prediction is that Sadio Mané will take all of the headlines. The Senegal international was in electrifying form, causing the Hoffenheim defence all sorts of problems with his pace and his intelligent movement. He could well be as important to us this season as Luis Suarez was in his final year at the club, such is the level he’s started the campaign at. Yet it’s Roberto Firmino who pulls the strings as far as I’m concerned. We might be without one Brazilian for the moment but the one who is on the pitch is so good that defences have simply got no idea how to deal with him. Is it because they under-estimate him? Is it that he doesn’t look all that scary? I’ve got no idea. The one thing I do know is that he’s a phenomenal player. On a night when there were stars all over the pitch, Bobby F was very much my MVP.

I actually think it could be quite difficult for some people to pick a stand-out performer tonight. Emre Can scored two goals and played well in the middle of the park; Jordan Henderson was excellent with his range of passing and leading from the middle; Gini Wijnaldum seemed to get over his recent wobbles and return to form. It was Firmino, though, that was involved in everything good we did in the final third. If Mané offers the excitement of Suarez from three years ago then Firmino offers the fight and bite, pun fully intended. He is becoming more and more reminiscent of the Uruguayan every week thanks to his skill and determination. Keeping him fit and on the pitch is a crucial part of our season, for sure, but Klopp also needs to balance his pitch time. Last year we essentially ran him into the ground and we can’t afford to do that again if we’re hoping to have a strong end to the campaign.

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