Anfield, Liverpool – The match ended 1-0, but beyond the scoreline laid one of Liverpool’s most comprehensive performances of the season. Given the requirements, the anticipation and the confident, high-quality opponents that they faced, it was a game that required unity, composure, and spirit. Liverpool delivered on all fronts. Jurgen Klopp called it a game “full of heart”, he wasn’t wrong.
A 1-0 victory usually highlights a close, tight match and that was the case here, but it shouldn’t have been. Liverpool had chances to make the final 30 minutes a lot less nerve-wracking but whether it be Sadio Mane’s over-eagerness in the penalty area or a slightly miss-struck shot by Mohamed Salah or even a point-blank save from David Ospina, they couldn’t. The expected goals (xG) count for this match was 3.4 – 0.9, only highlighting that it should not have gone down to the wire.
And yet, despite the scoreline, Liverpool were dominant and deserving of their progression to the knockout rounds of the competition. For the middle hour in particular, Liverpool controlled and tested Napoli in every department. It was a performance in which every player had a role and demonstrated it to the best of their ability. Knowing when to force the issue and when to not is a virtue Liverpool have harnessed, along with the importance of patience, precision, and considered penetration.
Klopp’s side are now much more mature and flexible, but are still capable of playing with urgency. Unlike many of their displays this season, there was more intensity to this one. Against Napoli, the midfield pressed more forcefully. The full-backs were more eager to travel further up the flanks and the shooting boots of Salah, at least, appear to be losing their dust.
Napoli’s 4-3-3 gifted Liverpool space
Napoli mirrored Liverpool with their customary 4-3-3 formation. Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon were the trio of number 10s that lead the Italian side. In the early exchanges, they did stretch the Liverpool backline and found joy when Kalidou Koulibaly or Raul Albiol lifted long balls from central defence beyond the Liverpool press and fed the nifty attackers.
But like Liverpool, the visitors struggled to put the ball in the net. The greatest chance came at the end when substitute Arkadiusz Milik – on to add more of a presence to Napoli’s forward line – brought the ball down and looked destined to score the vital goal that would’ve sent the southern Italians through. But Alisson produced a super save, being in the right position with the best shape to repel the seemingly inevitable goal.
That the evening was on such a knife edge from beginning to end, only highlights Liverpool’s courage to play and push their opponents back. When the time came for Klopp to decide whether to stick or twist, he chose carefully, keeping the front three on for a little while longer. It was a well-managed victory both on and off the pitch.
Liverpool midfield play with intensity
But to say that this was Liverpool fully back to last season’s chaotic best would be incorrect. Amidst the finger biting, the speedy counters, and the intricate play, there was also control. This was the type of performance that it’s assumed Klopp has wanted all season long. Mixing high intensity with an element of control. As usual, the midfield trio were key to setting the tempo and ensuring that a coherent shape remained.
It was the midfield three of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner – which featured heavily last campaign – that were deployed here. There was more intensity to the pressing, forcing Allan and Marek Hamsik deeper and limiting their time on the ball. The tempo was unrelenting and as Carlo Ancelotti highlighted in his post-match press conference, his side could not keep up. It led to Napoli often disregarding the midfield and playing more directly. As time ticked further on, this became increasingly prevalent.
High-speed but in control
Wijnaldum was much keener to play higher up the pitch than normal. At times he was part of the forward line and offered the much-needed link for creating through balls which Mane and Salah could chase. Mario Rui was constantly caught out by Salah’s movement and magic on the right and often required Koulibaly to sweep up any danger. The one time when Koulibaly allowed Salah in, he scored with aplomb.
The fact that Liverpool could rely on a much more dependent defence helped matters further. Despite the nerves, it meant that something special would have to be conjured up by Napoli to beat Alisson. “If I knew he was this good, I’d have paid double the price,” Klopp joked about Liverpool’s goalkeeper post-match. The Brazilian along with Van Dijk and the impressive Joel Matip, who slotted well into central defence, withstood the growing Napoli attacking force.
“If anything the match in Naples presented one positive for us, and it was that it gave Napoli the wrong impression of my team,” Klopp quipped. The performances, in truth, were chalk and cheese. To presume that Liverpool’s season has been building up to this type of display may be superficial, but the positives that they can take from it will be huge.
Progressing from this group was an achievement, but doing so with such an accomplished performance was certainly pleasing.
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