Grinding out a win when not at your best is a mark of champions, according to the old footballing axiom. Brighton made life difficult for Liverpool on Saturday afternoon, but when the Reds found the breakthrough their game-management was superb.
It was a pedestrian first-half performance for the visitors, who predictably encountered a compact and deep-lying Brighton backline. The only real moments of excitement were a near-miss from a sliding Roberto Firmino and a header which Xherdan Shaqiri planted narrowly wide.
Shortly after the break, Salah took it upon himself to break Brighton’s resistance, cleverly winning a penalty which he subsequently converted. The goal forced the home side out of their rigid shape, but Liverpool could not put them to the sword.
Despite the narrow lead, the Reds’ peerless backline was anything but anxious and repelled each of Brighton’s advances with little difficulty.
Ultimately, Alisson Becker didn’t face a single shot on target. His 13th clean sheet is in the bag, and he wasn’t made to sweat for it.
In front of him, Trent Alexander-Arnold turned in a solid display despite evidently struggling with an ankle injury in the early stages. Whilst his contribution going forward was slightly disappointing, he defended well, diverting away a dangerous Brighton cross late on and potentially preventing a goal.
Makeshift centre-half Fabinho looked as if he had been playing there for years. There were no jitters from the Brazilian, who looked comfortable throughout and ticked virtually all the boxes in an unfamiliar role – five clearances, two blocks, four successful aerial duels.
Jurgen Klopp may now feel he has five senior centre-back options.
Partner Virgil van Dijk was, as almost goes without saying, excellent. His calmness was exemplary, his use of the ball intelligent, his aerial dominance staggering and his leadership crucial. Fail to take heed of his instructions and you’ll know about it. Alexander-Arnold certainly did.
Only Andrew Robertson can rival his level of consistency. This was another top performance from the tireless left-back, who once again dominated his flank.
Robertson did the defensive dirty work (nobody else in red made more tackles) but also looked a threat at the other end as he linked-up intelligently with the attack. He’s unfortunate to miss out on my coveted MOTM award.
Skipper Jordan Henderson had one or two shaky moments, but he was impressive in the second half – strong in the tackle and sensible in possession. He’s becoming seriously good at those raking diagonals which instantly put the Reds on the front foot after they calmly knock it around in midfield.
Both he and Georginio Wijnaldum improved with the switch to a 433 in the last third of the game. The most notable aspects of Gini’s performance were his superb passing – he finished with a phenomenal success rate of 96% – and his ability to shrug off challenges and glide into space.
He even went close to a very rare goal when he shot just wide from the edge of the box.
The creative task fell to Xherdan Shaqiri, who would be expected to thrive in this kind of fixture. If anything, he was a bit too advanced in the first half, playing alongside the front three rather than dropping into the positions where he’s most dangerous.
He could have few complaints when his number came up on 71 minutes. It could have been a different story if he’d taken his difficult headed chance.
Sadio Mane carried more of a threat, but the end product was lacking on his 100th Liverpool appearance. He was perhaps guilty of being a little selfish when he lashed one goalwards in the closing stages with Salah in space to his right.
Klopp will want more from his menacing winger in the coming weeks.
Roberto Firmino was characteristically dogged and dropped deep to good effect. His performance levels have improved after notably dropping earlier in the season, and he looks to be back to his usual self.
And finally we come to the matchwinner, and indeed the man of the match, Mo Salah. The Egyptian was peripheral during the first half, but he came alive after the break, and it proved to be the difference, with Liverpool reliant on a moment of quality.
Salah provided it by getting the better of Gross in the area through a lovely turn before being hauled to the floor and winning the penalty. He could have put in a hopeful cross which would likely have been dealt with, but instead he decided to take matters into his own hands.
He’s a picture of confidence when stepping up to take a spot-kick. David Button, for all his best efforts, could do nothing to keep out his drive into the corner.
It was the ninth time Salah had broken the deadlock for the Reds in the league this season. He may not be scoring quite as many as last season, but boy is he delivering at key moments. And even still, 17 remains a very strong tally at this stage, and puts him on course to breeze past 30 before the season is out.
It was, admittedly, a poor miss late in the game, though it seemed as if he had been caught by surprise as James Milner found him at the second time of asking. Nevertheless, it’s important to focus on his all-round contribution, which has extended well beyond goals this season.
Salah was, just about, the biggest creative presence on the pitch. He made a team-high three key passes, one of which led to Mane’s aforementioned chance, and also looked to make space through his dribbling runs.
At times he functioned as the lone frontman, at times he shifted to the wings, at times he was almost like an attacking midfielder. In short, it was a really strong all-round performance.
In a recent article, I argued that there was no reason why Salah shouldn’t be considered the best player in the league, a title seemingly reserved for Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne. His display here, when his team were struggling, only strengthens his case.
Salah has now been directly involved in 21 goals in 22 Premier League games. His importance to this Liverpool team has only grown.
And all of a sudden, those levelling ‘one season wonder’ jibes have fallen a little silent.