Anfield, Liverpool – There was a passing triangle doing the rounds at Anfield. On the edge of the penalty area in front of the Centenary stand, three players – one donned yellow whilst the other two deep red – playing one-touch football. £67m to £75m to £62m and then back again. As you would expect given the fees, each pass was precise despite the pressure applied.
Alisson, Virgil Van Dijk and Naby Keita very much represent a new-look Liverpool; big spending matching the big ambitions. There are increased expectations around Anfield this season, the Champions League final has come and gone, the new campaign brings new hopes and the Premier League is the main aim.
“A new season represents new challenges, there is no resting on your laurels and the successful teams will not,” multiple-title winning defender Mark Lawrenson told me on the Anfield gantry. It can be applied to both Liverpool and Manchester City; both sides were successful last season – Liverpool reaching the Kyiv final and City winning the league title as well as the league cup.
On the first day of the new term, Liverpool were not resting on anything – they signalled their intent. There were only really positives for Jurgen Klopp to draw from the hammering of West Ham, the three points – and four goals – set the hosts on their way to their biggest opening day victory at Anfield since 1932 and, hopefully, their first title challenge since 2014.
At full-time here, there were many positives for those walking through the Stanley Gates. Three hours later and, although those positives remained, City had put their cards on the table with a convincing win at the Emirates, just reminding of the gap that has to be bridged.
For now though, until that first bump in the road and until Pep Guardiola’s side begin to pull away, Liverpool have to believe. James Milner’s tenacity from the first minute till last, Alisson’s distribution using both highly technical feet and Mohamed Salah’s ability to pick up from where he left off on the goalscoring front all gave those on the Kop reason to.
However, chief amongst the positives to take from what, in the end, was a fairly regulation win over a limp side with little-attacking capability was the debut of Keita. Klopp was happy to wait a year to get his hands on the midfielder from RB Leipzig – that’s rather telling of how highly thought of he is by the Liverpool coach.
On day one, Keita seemed to fit in perfectly. Tackling, passing, running, shooting. In many ways, the Guinean takes the best from Milner, Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino and puts them into one. It was not necessarily how impressively he appeared, it was more the comfort and ease with which he fitted into the Liverpool midfield.
Only nineteen minutes had been played when the debutant drove through the middle of the pitch. He released a ball to the left and Andy Robertson who delivered a low cross to perfection and there was Salah at the back post ready to get his goalscoring tally going for another season.
The chances for the home side kept coming; Lukasz Fabianski saved well when Trent Alexander-Arnold curled a free-kick towards his top corner, Georginio Wijnaldum prodded wide after another piece of Keita beauty and Salah could have scored a second but he was denied at point-blank range.
But rather than get frustrated, Liverpool supporters only turned against the officials. Referee Anthony Taylor produced a number of questionable decisions and often appeared to be hell-bent on disrupting the flow of the game. Liverpool did manage a second just before the break, when the visiting defenders switched off en masse.
Robertson again crossed from the left but this time it had height. At the back post. Salah’s attempt was blocked, and Milner reacted quicker than any opponent to pull back a pass from the by-line. Mane was one of three players in red shirts left unmarked behind the West Ham defence and diverted into an empty net.
The second-half didn’t see any more of a threat on the Liverpool goal. Alisson will have to get used to being anonymous for the large parts of most matches. Manuel Pellegrini struggled to make an impact through his substitutions, if anything, they allowed Liverpool greater freedom. The new West Ham head coach urged his side to push further up the field, he will demand a different style to that of David Moyes.
Referee Taylor was again making a rather unwanted impact on proceedings when he allowed Mane’s second goal of the afternoon to stand despite being some distance offside. It is only the opening matchday of the new Premier League season, and already the decision to not welcome VAR with open arms looks ignorant.
With a heavily one-sided affair reaching its end, Daniel Sturridge came off the bench to make it four. At least, that is what he made out – he claimed he applied the final touch at the back post although Ryan Fredericks also connected with a stooping header. Klopp just laughed, at 4-0 it was well within his right.