By Andy Hunter
As Jürgen Klopp is fond of telling, it takes greed, aggression, talent and a phenomenal work-rate to succeed on his terms yet Liverpool are making the hard art of victory look routine. The Premier League summit was reclaimed with ease against Southampton, a seventh straight win stretching a flawless start as well as the idea that healthy competition exists between the best and the rest.
Liverpool ended the contest before half-time as a Wesley Hoedt own goal, Joël Matip header and Mohamed Salah tap-in brought an emphatic interval lead over Mark Hughes’ visitors. If Charity Shield results are included, this is now the finest start to a campaign in Liverpool’s illustrious history. They are raking up wins while in second gear, have kept eight consecutive clean sheets at home in the Premier League and have two points more than Manchester City did at the corresponding stage of last season. Not that anyone at Anfield is looking too far ahead, of course.
“I once lost seven games in a row and that felt much different,” said Klopp. “Yes, it is a surprise but the performances we showed so far were good enough to win all the games. Different styles and different opponents but the boys were always there.”
Liverpool’s formation was even more adventurous than usual with Xherdan Shaqiri handed his first start in a floating role behind Salah, who was deployed as the central striker with Roberto Firmino left and Sadio Mané right. The summer signing was given only 45 minutes to impress against his former Stoke City manager. It was enough. Shaqiri instigated the breakthrough when he collected Mané’s piercing pass following a corner, cut inside Cédric Soares and shot for goal. It would have sailed wide but for a deflection off Shane Long which diverted the ball on to Hoedt’s thigh and in.
Klopp’s changed system – worked on for only one rain-interrupted training session on Friday – offered Southampton space to attack Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson in numbers. It was an invitation the visitors accepted regularly but the absence of Danny Ings, ineligible against his parent club, and the commanding presence of Virgil van Dijk ensured there was no end product. Van Dijk would exit in the second half with a rib injury that Klopp described as “not cool but not too serious”. His replacement, Joe Gomez, was equally impressive. Southampton paid a high price for the absence of any such authority in the heart of their defence.
Liverpool doubled their lead from another corner, conceded by Soares’ superb challenge on Salah as he shaped to convert Firmino’s return pass. Alexander-Arnold swept the delivery deep and Matip towered above Jannik Vestergaard to head his first Anfield goal into Alex McCarthy’s top corner.
The game provided a further demonstration of the widening gulf between the Premier League’s leading lights and their supposed competitors. Southampton did not play particularly badly and Liverpool were a long way short of their intensive, dominant best; yet they still strolled off at half-time three goals to the good. “It would seem so,” said Hughes when asked if the gap was growing. “I’d like to think that, on our day, we can give the best teams a good go. Hopefully we will prove that along the way but you have to acknowledge that Liverpool have a settled way of playing, personnel who have been here a long time and a manager who has been here a long time as well. They are clearly building something here.”
Number three was a simple but important tap-in for Salah. Klopp had played down concerns over the Egypt international’s form ahead of the game but, evidently, the source of 44 goals last season has not yet recaptured his sharpness. Salah went close several times, with one audacious backheel beating McCarthy but trickling agonisingly wide of the far post, before reacting more quickly than anyone to convert from close range after Shaqiri had struck the bar with a free-kick from 25 yards.
Shaqiri was replaced by James Milner at half-time as Klopp reverted to his trusted 4-3-3 formation and Liverpool coasted. “I told him I’d never substituted such an influential player at half-time before who wasn’t injured,” said Klopp.
The second half was flat by comparison although the watching Jeremy Corbyn, in the city for the Labour party conference and having paid his respects at the Hillsborough memorial before kick-off, can only have been impressed.
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