A Philippe Coutinho stunner gives Liverpool the win. No, this is not February 2015, but it felt like deja-vu in the win against Stoke in Reds season opener.
Many fans had hoped to see a fluid Liverpool side, hungry for revenge against the side that embarrassed them on the last day of the season but that was not a realistic expectation. Stoke is always a difficult away day and the opening game of the season is always a little conservative because neither side wants to get off to a bad start. Couple all of that with the fact both sides had a number of new signings starting and it is understandable that it was a little scrappy.
Both sides showed glimpses of what they could offer this coming season, but neither really seemed to get going with both staying in first gear for the entire 90 minutes. It is difficult to judge these games but a few observations from myself are as follows. Let me just say, I am one of those fans that prefers a performance to a result and was a little underwhelmed with us going forward but I liked the resilience of the defence.
- Christian Benteke will win you headers. He won 7 aerial duels today and had Liverpool been a little bit more attacking they may have threatened Stoke with this tactic. On numerous occasions the big Belgian dropped deep and won the header but the space he had vacated could not be exploited.
- Those expecting goals from the off may be very disappointed in these opening games. Liverpool look like they are going to try to contain teams and keep it tight defensively. This type of tactic means Benteke will be isolated for large parts of the game with the central midfielders sitting a little deeper. As a result, we are more likely to win 1-0 and 2-1 than 5-3 until we are let off the leash a little.
- The high pressing tactic may return…but I doubt we will see it in first 7 away games. Against Stoke, Liverpool allowed the opposition centre-backs to have plenty of space and time on the ball. People saying Benteke was lazy are, ironically, being lazy themselves. It was a clear tactic not to engage them high up as neither Ibe or Lallana did the same. It was only when the ball went to the midfielders did we see Milner press them.
- Jordan Henderson does a job as a deep lying midfielder, but he’s infinitely better when given the freedom to get forward. Our new captain made a few good tackles and some important blocks but his inexperience playing this role showed from time to time. Out of instinct he would chase the ball and subsequently leave pockets of space in front of the defence. Emre Can was introduced and it gave Liverpool a completely different feel. We saw Henderson appear in the Stoke box on a few occasions and it was a threat they had to think about.
- Dejan Lovren can defend. People, as usual, are going a little over the top with their praise of him on twitter but the Croat looked like he had been at the club for close to a decade. Martin Skrtel, on the other hand, bought his starting position into question. The protection from Joe Gomez at left back and an energetic midfield helped. Could this finally help Liverpool concede less than 40 goals in a season?
- Joe Gomez is not perfect. He has weaknesses like many young players but he did not wither under the pressure of the occasion. He had a few tentative moments but he did not dwell on them and will no doubt gain confidence from his performance. However, Liverpool may still need to consider a new left-back.
- Coutinho is magic. Yes, he did not have one of his better games but that is to be expected given our tactics. It is a sign of a special player who can be kept quiet for 85 minutes and then produce a strike as stunning as that. He seemed to come alive a little more when Emre Can and Roberto Firmino were eventually introduced.
- Brendan Rodgers will not pick the team or play the way we want all the time, but as long as he has a plan in mind that is all you can really want. His idea for this game was to keep it tight, not concede and potentially pick up a win by the odd goal. Has he learned from last season? Maybe. It was refreshing to see us keep a clean sheet and not crumble under pressure, but personally I would liked to have seen something more upfront but perhaps we will see that in the coming weeks.
The Reds are 3 points up on last season already and have one of the toughest away games out of the way. The performance was nowhere near perfect but as plenty say football is a results game.