It’s no secret that when we saw our draw for the CL this season, it generated a lot of confidence. Ajax, given the way that they get and have been cannibalized, are not the Ajax of legend or even the upstart of two seasons ago. Midtjylland are a European Cup first-timer from the 14th-ranked league in UEFA. But Atalanta… Atalanta is something different. While they’re far from the status of one of the Milans or even the Roman clubs, for the past three seasons, they’ve been contenders in Serie A. are in their third straight Champions League, and made the semi-finals last season. So, right away, this game at the Stadio di Bergamo was picked out as the most serious challenge for the Reds in the group stage. So, yeah… About that…
LFC ran riot in Bergamo tonight but context is extremely important here. Atalanta have built their side to pretty much do one thing: attack. Constantly. You no doubt remember my regular bitching (say, every other week or so…) about the slogs in the PL, where we have to constantly probe a side with 9 or 10 players behind the ball, hoping for a way through, and the game overall often descends to a level of tedium that is enervating until we finally score and the other side decides to come out and play football (i.e. tries to score.) But even Sean Dyche isn’t just being an ass because he can be (which he also does. Poke around Google for a story about him at the Grand Canyon.) Atalanta is now the case study for why most teams in the PL and Europe avoid running with Liverpool at all costs. When they do, hat tricks tend to happen. It makes for an excellent game to watch, mostly for Liverpool fans and any neutrals who tune in, because the action is constant and goals happen frequently. They just mostly happen for Liverpool, which is not the best way for the other side to proceed if you want three points. Our two other opponents in the group came out determined for that to not happen, with Ajax even abandoning their legendary 4-3-3 to try to secure at least a point in Amsterdam. But Atalanta plays the way they play. Their entire side is built for it and trying to pack it in and wait on the counter runs contrary to their entire string of success in the last few years in the Italian league.
In the end, this game turned out to be something close to what I expected; a constant race from one end of the pitch to the other. I did kind of expect Atalanta to get a goal or two out of it, even if I was confident of a Liverpool victory. I didn’t expect a 0-5 demolition. In a way, Atalanta ended up playing closer to what bottom half sides in the PL do, given that we dominated possession. But it’s not because they were just giving up on trying to move the ball forward and letting us retain control. It’s because the Italian side couldn’t get the ball off of us for most of the match. Even pushing their whole team up the field, as they like to do, didn’t cause us any problems in the middle third. The trio of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, and Curtis Jones controlled the area and let Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the new front three run rampant against Atalanta’s isolated (and far too narrow) centerbacks. Meanwhile, Joe Gomez and first-time CL starter, Rhys Williams, weren’t really troubled for most of the match and handled themselves perfectly when I Nerazzurri did manage to get something going.
But let’s talk about that “new front three” and, clearly, the man of both the moment and the match, Diogo Jota. I can already see the chorus of Twitdiots declaring themselves vindicated against their imaginary detractors for Klopp’s choice to both start Diogo over Roberto Firmino and for him to perform so spectacularly. As I tried to point out to one of them (something akin to attempting to point out racism to a Trump voter), context is everything. Yes, we routed our strongest group stage opponent with Diogo starting. However, we would’ve expected this kind of scoreline against tiny Midtjylland, right? Guess who started that game, too? Oh. He did get both goals there and he was starting alongside Divock Origi and Taki Minamino, but those aren’t actually the most important points of this discussion, whether they support my point or theirs. The important context is that Atalanta chose to run with us and Midtjylland (and Ajax and damn near everyone we play in the PL) didn’t. Does anyone think we wouldn’t have put 5 in against the Danish club if they’d played the way Atalanta does? No. They sat back and resisted until we were all almost unconscious from boredom.
There’s no denying Diogo’s skill. He’s clearly an incredible buy for the club and the amount of money that we forked over to Wolves almost seems like a steal in this day and age, since he already has 7 goals in all competitions, six of them coming in the last 10 days. (Just warmin’ up!) There’s also no way to deny the energy that he injects as soon as he hits the grass, whether it’s at the kickoff or coming off the bench. But, as the gaffer said tonight: “In the moment when somebody is shining we immediately speak about another player who played what feels like 500 games in a row. Without Bobby Firmino, we would not even be in the CL.” The Twitdiots are patting themselves on the back for the manager “finally” acceding to their decision that Jota is “clearly” the superior player to the center forward who’s led us to success after success for the past few years. If Jürgen feels like Jota is the better guy right now and wants to start him on Sunday, I’m fine with it. But let’s not forget the difference between playing a club that actually, y’know, plays defense and one that doesn’t and simply hopes to outscore whomever they’re playing. (We’ve been there!)
Atalanta 0 – 5 Liverpool
All of that said, let’s talk about the FBD. All of the goals were fairly typical of our style of play when we have the room to execute it. One interesting tactical difference is that we saw Robbo coming inside quite a bit, in more of a Guardiola fullback approach (underlapping, as opposed to the usual overlapping with Sadio.) But an important personnel difference is Jota’s speed that is greater than Bob’s and comparable to Sadio’s and Mo’s, which meant the usual interplay of dropping and running behind of center and wings was even harder for the opponent to follow.
That first goal was emblematic of that and Diogo’s strength. It was a nice feed by Trent and then just carried in by Diogo, past a foul that would have earned a penalty shot and probably a red card if he had gone down. (Here we restart the conversation people have been having since the weekend about Mo “diving”. This kind of foul is almost routine for Mo, but when he finally reacts to getting kicked or grabbed, it’s a dive.) Still, the skill and speed to make this play is a signal of what this guy can do.
The second was something a bit more special, as Gomez dropped a nice pass, reminiscent of Virg’s output, to the far post, and Diogo made a brilliant touch to bring it down and then swung around to hammer it in. He put himself in a great position and Joe found him with an excellent pass, but that finish was all Diogo. That was something else. At that point, it was kind of direly obvious just how unprepared Atalanta’s back line was for our speed up front and precision passing from the back.
Goal #3 was a now-classic Liverpool “Why sure we’ll take your corner kick and score with it, thanksverymuch.” It was quite reminiscent of Salah’s famous run against Arsenal in his first season, but this time it was the reward for a smart clearance by Curtinho, who saw Mo getting ready to tear past the midfield line. It’s smart play by Mo at the end as well; rather than just letting his momentum carry him into a tangle with the keeper or a defender, he stops and lines up one of his favorite shots. However, one thing to reemphasize from the commentators: Why would you ever- EVER -play Mo Salah onto his left foot?
They referred to that goal as “classic Mo Salah”, but the fourth, 90 seconds later, was classic Sadio Mané. After a great throw by Trent (Hi, Thomas Grønnemark!), Mo slides a perfect pass into the box for Sadio. Sportiello comes out to try to cut off the angles and Sadio, cool as always, just chips him as we’ve seen him do so many times before. We’re closing in on 200 goals, combined, between Salah and Mané and most of them have been excellent work like that.
The last, and the hat trick-maker for Diogo, was another sterling example of the kind of play this squad can produce on the regular, when they’re rolling. This is Robbo to Sadio to Diogo, easy as you like. A highlight is at the 6:36 point, where you can hear O Captain, Our Captain yelling: “Oh, what a pass! What a pass!” from the sideline, still urging and encouraging, even after being substituted. Note that all five goals were assisted by different players. Team.
And those are just the chances that actually worked. Mané had at least three more, including an open header off a corner and watching Sportiello just get his fingertips to a ball curling inside the right post. Salah had a couple more, as well, as did Jota and Firmino when he came on. If you were looking for a side that lived up to the label “unplayable”, this was it. When your starting three have 5 goals and 2 assists between them, somethin’ done worked, and Mo and Sadio both contributed a couple successful tackles and a couple interceptions, as well. But the midfield had a lot to say about the game also.
Curtis had a great game, staying sure on the ball, getting more touches than any other LFC player (89), and demonstrating his ever-improving vision. It was funny to hear the commentators chatting about a “couple of 19-year-olds on the pitch for Liverpool” when Neco Williams came on late in the match. At that point, we actually had three, as Rhys Williams is also in that age bracket.
This is depth. This kid was staring down one of the most respected attacks in Europe and came away without much of an issue, including winning an aerial duel against Duván Zapata and one of those clearances coming from the six-yard box. Once again, he was regularly in the right spots, frequently got his head to the ball, and contributed to a clean sheet. But part of that was also the ability of Hendo to, once again, play superbly at the 6. He laid waste to the area in front of Gomez and Williams, while still completing more key passes (3) than anyone else for our side. Seriously. A complete midfielder.
On top of that, it’s great to have you back, Alisson Becker. Atalanta still created some chances and the keeper had to be on his toes, making some regular saves and three excellent ones; mostly when trying to deal with Zapata, who was constantly probing and only ended up scoreless on the night from the indifference shown by the crossbar to his excellent play (and Joe going to ground a tad too early, but whatever.) This was a complete performance by Liverpool, from back to front. Plus, we finally got Kostas Tsimikas back on the pitch, so here’s hoping Robbo can take a game or two off, post-international break (sigh…)
- That’s three clean sheets in CL play and 9 points from 9. Since the firebombing by the Villans, we’ve given up 4 goals in six games. Assuming we can resemble this performance at Anfield in a couple weeks, we should be able to get the bench some more serious time against the Dutch and the Danes.
- With 21 goals, Mo is now tied with the legend, Stevie G, as our highest goalscorer in European play. Something tells me he’s going to be far and away the leader by the time he’s done here.
- Jota’s was the 10th hat trick for LFC in European play and first since Mané’s vs Porto a couple seasons ago. He’s the 9th different player to do so for the club.
- This win was also the biggest ever by an English side away to an Italian club. Still settin’ records.
So. Sunday. Citay. I’m no longer overly concerned about our CB situation, not only because Williams is capable but also because Matip was on the bench tonight. Thiago is also rumored to be available this weekend and Naby Keita at least got some run, so our options are almost as good as they can be (missing only Ox.) I want this one. Making a statement win here would put some distance between us and not only City, but the nearest contenders and give everyone else a couple weeks to stew on it until December (Merry Christmas, Everton!) See you at Magee’s.