Liverpool set up against Crystal Palace with the crucial midweek clash against Hoffenheim in mind. A significantly weakened starting eleven was fielded: Lovren, Moreno, Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Can were all notable absentees. By and large, the deputies put in a decent shift – Joe Gomez and Andrew Robertson were particularly impressive at full-back, and Ragnar Klavan looked assured aside from one dreadful moment against Loftus-Cheek. However, the introduction of Salah was needed to make the attack look genuinely potent: not until he and Solanke came on did Liverpool finally get the breakthrough. From there, they remained comfortably on top and recorded a narrow but deserved win.
Nobody could criticise Klopp’s desire to rest key players ahead of Wednesday: the second leg of the Champions League playoff is the most important game for the club since the Europa League final against Sevilla, so it made sense to keep as many players as possible fresh. However, the lack of additions so far this window was thrown into stark relief by the situation that this left the team in: removing just a few starters left a side littered with players who have no business lining up for a team with title ambitions. Milner in midfield was just about the only way to field a central three with less creativity than at Watford, Klavan can do a job when called upon but is prone to getting bullied, and Gomez is still very young and was played out of his natural position. The only two players to come in who represent very strong squad options were Sturridge and Robertson – Sturridge would be a luxury for any side to be able to bring in, and Robertson will most likely make himself the first-choice left-back in the near future. This kind of depth is required across the pitch if the squad are to genuinely challenge on multiple fronts this season, and Klopp must therefore look at making more signings before the September 1st deadline.
Fortunately, even the weakened team had enough about them to get past Palace. Sadio Mane was one of the first-teamers to retain his place, and he was vital: he constantly looked likely to make things happen, and indeed was the one to eventually beat Wayne Hennessey. When on the left, he linked up very well with debutant Andrew Robertson – the new signing from Hull was equally impressive. Particularly in the first half, which was bereft of invention for the most part, he was the only one creating chances; his deliveries were consistently excellent, and only a dreadful miss from Matip denied him an assist. On the other flank, Gomez was also quietly impressive. There were far fewer marauding runs – understandable given that Gomez is naturally a central defender – but it was encouraging to see him look at home in the Premier League. The promising youngster had an injury-plagued campaign last time out, but thankfully appears to have picked up where he left off. His intervention early in the second half was vital, as he did just enough to put Benteke off in front of goal. This was only required because Klavan had been comprehensively beaten by Loftus-Cheek moments before, but in fairness to the Estonian this was the only blip in an otherwise strong performance. It would be madness to suggest that he is good enough for a regular spot in the first team, but it was telling that the back line was generally much calmer without the presence of Lovren. An elite partner for Matip (ideally, of course, Virgil Van Dijk) may well finally give Liverpool the competent defence they have needed for years.
It was also encouraging to see effective substitutions from Klopp. He has been much criticised for leaving it too late to make changes, but acted in good time this time out to ensure that the team got the win. Of course, this is easier to do when half of the usual starters are available off the bench: Salah will not regularly be deployed as an impact sub, a role he played to good effect. His pace and skill added a new dimension to the attack, and he was unlucky not to get himself a goal. However, the other important change saw Solanke introduced – he was not one of the regular starters to be dropped for Palace’s visit, and ‘super-sub’ is likely to be a part he is asked to play quite regularly. As such, it was excellent to see that he had a big hand in the goal. Having replaced the frustratingly poor Wijnaldum, it was a matter of minutes before he made the difference; he used his physicality to contest for the ball on the edge of the box, and it broke for Mane to finish composedly. Based on what he has shown so far, Solanke is one of those rare breeds of target man that can also function effectively in Liverpool’s system – he therefore provides a ‘Plan B’ that doesn’t make the side look horribly dysfunctional, and this could be invaluable over the course of the campaign. Origi was introduced at Watford, and was anonymous: his squad position is undoubtedly under threat from the man who is looking more and more like a steal with each passing day.
In short, the game largely confirmed what everyone already knew about Liverpool: the first team are very strong going forward, and the defence is a signing away from at least passing as competent, but beyond the regular eleven there is a worrying lack of depth. The problem has been highlighted by the joint absence of Lallana and Coutinho, which has left a midfield in dire need of a creative influence. Nonetheless, the overall result was a positive one: multiple young players continued to show that they can step up when called upon, and ultimately the three points vindicated Klopp’s decision to rest players for Hoffenheim’s visit.
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