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Liverpool

Jose Mourinho’s pragmatism results in a missed opportunity for Manchester United at Anfield

Martyn Cooke

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On Saturday, for the second consecutive season, Jose Mourinho arrived at Anfield and firmly parked the Manchester United team bus across the face of David de Gea’s goal.

For those watching the contest on television and, even more so, those that journeyed to Liverpool for the early kick off, this was a game that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. It was a poor spectacle with little attacking ambition shown by either team with only two definitive clear-cut chances throughout the entire ninety minutes.

For both sets of supporters this game will not live long in the memory.

Mourinho admitted that, from his perspective, coming away from Anfield with a point was “ok” and explained his side’s pragmatic approach by highlighting injuries to key personnel, especially in central midfield, which limited his tactical flexibility.

Whilst there is undoubtedly truth in his statements, there were only two first team central midfielders available for selection with Paul Pogba still absent through injury, United’s approach to the game has still left many scratching their heads.

This was undoubtedly a missed opportunity for United.

Mourinho and his team arrived at Anfield as joint leaders at the summit of the Premier League table, full of confidence and in fine form having won nine out of their last ten fixtures in all competitions. They had made a dominant start to the season, having scored three or more goals in seven of those contests, and certainly went into the game against Liverpool as favourites.

In contrast, Jurgen Klopp’s side had won just one of their previous seven fixtures across all competitions since the start of September and had failed to keep a clean sheet during that period. At their free-flowing best Liverpool are undoubtedly a joy to watch, yet recent weeks have demonstrated that they have a soft defensive underbelly.

So, while a point at Anfield may look good on paper for Mourinho, in reality Saturday’s fixture was the perfect opportunity to play on the front foot and expose Liverpool’s defensive frailties. A more positive approach would surely have resulted in a greater chance of victory.

It would have been highly unlikely that Liverpool’s back-four would have been able to contain the attacking threat and creativity provided by Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, had Mourinho opted to unshackle them.

United supporters will undoubtedly suggest that if Lukaku had converted his one, and only, goal scoring opportunity late in the second half, as he probably should have done, that Mourinho’s approach would have been justified.

However, the imposing Belgian forward failed to convert his strike and had it not been for de Gea’s outstretched leg which turned away Joel Matip’s header in the opening period then United would have come away from Anfield empty handed and the pragmatic approach would have come back to haunt them.

Whilst Mourinho will certainly receive much of the criticism from the media for the contest turning into a dour affair it is also worth noting that Liverpool should accept a portion of the blame.

Klopp deployed a trio of solid, defensive-minded central midfielders throughout the contest, refusing to introduce any attacking flair into that area, and the lack of creativity in that middle third of the pitch certainly limited the amount of ammunition provided to the forwards. As the home team the onus should have been on Liverpool to take a more positive approach themselves.

Both managers will have come away from Anfield relatively content with a point, and yet, for Mourinho and United this was a missed opportunity. Victory against Liverpool would have been a definitive statement of intent aimed towards their title rivals – you doubt that Manchester City will utilise the same pragmatic approach when roll into town later in the season – but instead this contest turned into a damp squib.

Mourinho is correct, a point at Anfield is ok, but for United this was a missed opportunity to play on the front foot and claim all three.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Liverpool

Virgil Van Dijk plays pantomime villain but oozes class on his Southampton return

Martyn Cooke

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Virgil Van Dijk
Photo: Reuters

It is fair to say that Virgil Van Dijk was certainly not the most popular figure inside St Mary’s last Sunday afternoon.

The Dutch central defender made his first return to Southampton since joining Liverpool for £75 million in early January and he was subjected to a continuous chorus of boos, jeers and mixture of colourful language from the home supporters, who certainly did not hide the ill-feeling that they feel towards their former star.

However, the reaction from the crowd appeared to have little impact on the 26-year-old who, in actual fact, looked to be enjoying his role as the designated pantomime villain for the day.

He spent much of the afternoon with a smile across his face, although admittedly there was plenty to enjoy within the game for anyone connected with Liverpool.

Van Dijk produced his most dominant and imposing performance of the season against Southampton on Sunday and he was the model of composure and control at the heart of a defence that has looked increasingly frail and fragile at times this campaign.

The Dutchman was near faultless and looked every inch the world’s most expensive defender.

That 26-year-old has experiencing something of a topsy-turvy start to his career at Anfield and his return to form on Sunday will have come as a relief for player, manager and club.

The defender scored on his debut in the Merseyside derby but was then part of the team that lost consecutive games against Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion.

He was then the centre of attention last week when he conceded a somewhat controversial last-minute penalty against Tottenham Hotspur.

However, he was in cruise control on Sunday against a Southampton team that struggled to make any clear-cut goal scoring opportunities.

Van Dijk was unaffected by a hostile St Mary’s crowd who certainly showed no signs of forgiving either the Dutchman or Liverpool for the controversy that surrounded his on-off transfer sage for almost half a year.

The ill-feeling stemmed from the summer when Southampton reported Liverpool to the Premier League for making an alleged illegal approach for their star defender.

Liverpool issued a public apology and ‘withdrew’ their interest in the player only for Van Dijk to subsequently hand in a transfer request, which the Saints refused.

The 26-year-old did eventually get his move to Anfield, although he had to wait until January, and the £75 million fee sparked plenty of discussion and debate.

However, now five games into his Liverpool career, Sunday’s performance would suggest that Van Dijk has now settled into life at his new club and it will be intriguing to see what impact he has on the team over the remainder of the season.

Under the management of Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool are undoubtedly entertaining to watch.

The team attack with pace, energy and dynamism and the forward trident of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have proven to be devastatingly effective so far this campaign.

However, much of the progress that has been made in recent years has been undermined somewhat by the defensive fragility in the side that always leaves the team likely to concede goals.

Whether the arrival of Van Dijk will correct all of Liverpool’s defensive frailties is yet to be seen. He is, after all, just one new addition to a defensive unit that still has obvious weaknesses.

However, his performance on Sunday is a sign that he will have a positive impact on the team and may be part of a wider solution.

Ironically, the boos, jeers and colourful language that was directed towards Van Dijk by Southampton supporters were being thrown towards a different figure by the end of the contest – that of their beleaguered manager Mauricio Pellegrino.

Van Dijk may have been the pantomime villain on Sunday in the eyes of the home supporters, but for Liverpool supporters he will be the hero if he can help the club to secure silverware by the end of the campaign.

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Champions League

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Three talking points from Estádio do Dragão

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Estádio do Dragão, as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dismantled Champions League opponents Porto.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Sadio Mane plundered a hat-trick as Liverpool produced a five-star performance to thrash Porto and virtually seal their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Mane opened the scoring on 25 minutes before adding two more in the second half which, coupled with goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, made it a hideously one-sided affair at the Estádio do Dragão.

Porto offered precious little resistance during the 90 minutes and were completely outclassed by a Liverpool side bursting with confidence.

The return leg at Anfield in three weeks’ time will be nothing more than a formality to confirm the Reds’ place in the last eight.

Here are three talking points, as Jurgen Klopp’s men sounded a warning to the European elite…

Mane emerges from the shadows of Salah and Firmino

Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ has been a member short since Philippe Coutinho’s big-money switch to Barcelona in January.

But there has been no sign that the Reds’ form is suffering as a result. If anything, they look stronger by the game.

By his own high standards, Mane has had a relatively quiet campaign thus far and been overshadowed somewhat by the exploits of Salah and Firmino, both of whom were also on the scoresheet against Porto.

But the Senegalese forward returned to his dazzling best on the European stage to help Liverpool take total control of this last 16 tie.

Although he had a helping hand from the Porto keeper for his first goal, which really should have been stopped, Mane took his next two with great precision to round off a sensational evening for the visitors.

Klopp will be delighted that the former Southampton man proved to be so influential in arguably their most important game of the season.

Free-scoring Liverpool will take some stopping

It is not just Liverpool’s performances in the Champions League that have drawn widespread praise, but the amount of goals they have scored in the process.

No club have netted more than the Reds, with the five they bagged in their first knockout fixture since 2009 leapfrogging them above French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

It is now 28 goals in total for Klopp’s free-scoring charges, whose attacking weaponry proved too hot to handle for their Portuguese opponents.

As they showed against Sevilla in the group stage, Liverpool’s defensive frailties can sometimes undermine them.

And when, as expected, they line-up in the quarter-finals, they are likely to face a side with much more to offer in attack than Porto did.

However, new signing Virgil van Dijk, who made his Champions League debut for the Reds, should bring stability and leadership to the back line.

On this evidence, they look like viable contenders for the main prize.

Klopp’s reign is delivering the goods

When Klopp joined Liverpool in the autumn of 2015, many Liverpool supporters believed he would bring them immediate success.

The gregarious German is still yet to win silverware at Anfield, but there is no denying the club are taking significant strides forward under his management this season.

Some of the money they received from Barcelona for Coutinho has already been reinvested into the squad and more high-profile arrivals are likely to follow in future transfer windows.

Liverpool remain prone to suffering off-days against lesser opposition, perhaps more so than any of their main domestic rivals, but they possess the armoury to blow away teams of the highest quality.

Even Manchester City, the runaway Premier League leaders, recently succumbed to the Reds’ attacking might.

As always, the proof will come at the end of the season.

But under Klopp, Liverpool are playing an attractive brand of football that is illuminating Europe.

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