The visit to Porto was dead gum on paper. But for Liverpool it is another valuable opportunity for regeneration, integration and formative steps, writes Steven Scragg.
Wednesday evening was a mystery to Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp. A game that had no structural impact on their progress in the Champions League this season, but one that posed the challenge of maintaining momentum and stretching the leg muscles of some players who have been taking more time on the pitch.
For some members of the line-up mentioned by Klopp, this was about continuous regeneration, further integration and formative steps forward. For others, it was just football for the sake of it; Football out of pure love and joy.
In the latter case, why else throw Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane on a cold November night when an injury to either would be far more expensive than losing a few crumbs of money UEFA wiped off their gilded leaves? Beard?
However, Mo and Sadio love to do crazy things with an inflated size five ball, so they won’t have questioned the wisdom of their involvement. In any case, I’m glad they played because it warmed the soul while the body felt the cold.
For the rest, there was a sense of growth for many, if not most, of them. Handing the captain over to Alisson Becker on a night when he probably wasn’t too busy by the opposition was an act of genius. This was a gesture by Klopp that will add another 30 percent grizzly bears to the Brazilian’s overall game in the years to come .
Ibrahima Konate, who had another 90 minutes under his belt, was another plus. The man develops into the absolute monster of a central defender. There’s one element about him that makes you believe that with multiple brick walls he could literally go chest to chest and still leave them in a pathetic, crumpled pile while he laughs the whole time. This is where integration came into play.
It was also good to see that Konate can work with Joel Matip with some degree of effortlessness, which makes it easier to allay fears over the possible absence of Virgil van Dijk, who could sit back and watch the game from the sidelines before he could meet before the game rested his former employers on Saturday.
Neco Williams offered another bonus and showed one of his best performances in a Liverpool shirt. He could never be Trent Alexander-Arnold, no one could, but it is becoming more and more evident that he is modeling himself as the right-wing Andy Robertson. Committed, hard-working, comfortable on the ball and not shy of playing along here and there.
Williams just needs to keep working his concentration to fix these occasional glaring mistakes. They are becoming rarer and his regular engagement with a Welsh national team at the top of a wave is undeniably helpful. It’s crazy to think that at the club level he has played more international caps, 17, than he has league games, 13.
Furthermore, it was good to see Robertson back on the field with a timely return. We have all been impressed with the rise of Kostas Tsimikas, a player who has improved massively over his limited appearances last season when he was severely overwhelmed. His level seemed to be subtly dropping on this one, and a break may be needed before the December Games avalanche comes.
All of this helps to broaden Liverpool’s defensive options in more realistic terms, as we were only battling a key defense crisis a few months ago and both Williams and Tsimikas received more and more inflammatory criticism when asked in full -back. This is where regeneration came into play.
Williams and Tsimikas aren’t the only ones working on regenerating their Liverpool careers. In midfield, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has the opportunity to break free from what appeared to be a state of stagnation that made him a contender for the next player through the exit door.
After Oxlade-Chamberlain arguably took on the role of Adam Lallana in Klopp’s roster, she had become a minor matter.
Left behind by his own injury problems and the shape and development of other rivals for a place on the team, this is sink or swim territory for Oxlade-Chamberlain and so far he has chosen to swim. His recent performances have been great consistent, an advocate for doing the basics extremely well, and heads have started to turn, both on the sidelines and in the stands. The job for him is to stay fit, which is easier said than done for any Liverpool midfielder.
Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones and Naby Keita slipped through their fingers in the first third of the campaign, while Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Milner and Thiago have promises and high hopes for a long-term run in the team of their own.
This in the shadow of the departure of Gini Wijnaldum in the summer has made midfield Klopp the most complex puzzles to be solved, which has probably always been the case. A constantly rotating engine room, it’s like there’s an always open job for someone who can become an alpha figure.
Yes, Henderson is as close as it gets, but for a man who can skilfully carry a number of different midfield roles as indispensable as it makes him, it also means he can never really be demarcated as the eternal anchor of midfield . Henderson majestically changes shape while Fabinho forms the foundation. Yet we are all looking for an all-encompassing visionary, a hero.
Thiago’s arrival should fill that void and he has intermittently but minor injuries have and will continue to dot his career. Hence, we put so much hope in Jones’ whimsical nature that we can never muster the strength of determination to admit defeat to Keita, a player of such talent that it would be unbearable to give him a run of fitness in someone else’s colors Society.
We’ve invested too much time in Keita to give up now, but can we seriously see a dramatic change in the way he is so phenomenally doomed to only offer us illusions about the player he could have been?
But we saw the best of Thiago on Wednesday evening. A master class of a performance, his passing game breadth was breathtaking and his goal alone was worth the entrance fee. His presence must have been priceless to Tyler Morton.
Morton was able to hold on to the measured positioning for most of an hour, sat in front of a largely undisturbed back four, he was pedestrian most of the time, in the best possible way. He showed more than touched the ball, as if he were an incredulous witness to the greatness of Thiagos and the efforts of Oxlade-Chamberlain.
As a kind of conductor, Morton was very much like one of those people who practice canine agility, moving into space and pointing out what obstacle the ball needs to navigate next as it sweeps through the tunnel and then lurches over the seesaw.
In the last half hour, Morton took on a more progressive role, especially after the introduction of Fabinho. It was an intelligent performance through which he was led by the perfect midfield colleagues. There is potential in the game.
In many ways, Takumi Minamino had a similar evening in the top three, like the meat in the sandwich with salah and mane. He put it down, he switched off, he made himself a selfless attack figure.
The difference between Morton and Minamino’s Nights, however, is that the latter is a man who doesn’t take those steps into professional football, he’s a man who has to take chances now if they arise. He must have a significant impact now if he is ever to be a compelling alternative to Bobby Firmino or Diogo Jota.
The hope was that Minamino would turn sixteen after his goal against Arsenal on Saturday against the temporarily hostile FC Porto, but it didn’t turn out that way.
Minamino is suddenly the man who looks like he could just inherit the role of Lallana. Part of me is hoping Klopp will put him back on against Southampton, the team he loaned out last season.