Brighton manager Chris Hughton turns on his players after they are unpicked by clinical Liverpool
For Chris Hughton, this was the most debilitating of afternoons. Along with a record 40,644 crowd in the Amex, the Brighton manager had just watched his side be taken apart by a magnificent Liverpool, bristling with counter-attacking menace.
His gathering dismay was apparent at the final whistle when he had delivered a sharp rebuke to his Liverpool counterpart, Jurgen Klopp, apparently unhappy with the German’s characteristically ebullient celebrations, which he felt verged towards the disrespectful.
But, by the time he made his way into the press room, the direction of his unhappiness had changed. His displeasure, he said, was all with his own team. Because what made the defeat all the more disheartening was he had seen it coming. He had worked all week on the training ground preparing his team how to counter precisely the menace Liverpool had so ruthlessly delivered.
“The top six are the top six for a reason,” he said. "“It’s because they have the best players. And when their best players turn up as they did today, the only way you can hope to stay in the game is to be at the top of your own game. And we were nowhere near it. That’s as poor as we’ve been in terms of possession. We weren’t anywhere near the level we should be.”
While he is acutely aware survival in the Premier League will depend more on results in matches like their next against Huddersfield, what worried Hughton was the effect a drubbing like this might have on collective morale.
“This is the first bad defeat we’ve had, so we’ll see,” he said. "“It’s a difficult one at the moment. You don’t want to dwell on such a defeat. But we’ll have to go over it because the players will have to learn from this.”
For Klopp, things were altogether more positive. This was as a clinical demonstration of what a potent force Liverpool’s front three can be. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and in particular the magnificent Philippe Coutinho kept up a relentless barrage of pace, at times seemingly pinning the previously resolute Brighton defence to the back of the Amex grandstands. This was the sort of counter-attacking football the German loves, given vivid exposure. But, maybe after Hughton’s chastising, he was in no mood to talk up his side.
“I like all these players, that is why they are here,” he said of his spring-heeled forwards. “But after a game like this, I don’t like to be so over the moon. I’m happy about the performance today, of course. But I don’t think it was world class or anything like this. It was just doing the job, come on let’s carry on.”
It was doing the job, all right. Scoring twice from set pieces and three times from high-velocity breakaways, this was “Kloppball” at its most exhilarating, at times breathtaking in its pace and ruthless precision. But what pleased Klopp more was that his defence held firm, despite being largely constructed of sticking plaster.
With unexpected last-minute injuries to Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan, and Joe Gomez succumbing to illness, he was shorn of centre-backs, obliged to play Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum in a hastily assembled back three. Plus, in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson at wing-back, he must have feared Brighton seizing the opportunity. But, with Can in imperious form, this looked a defence of some vintage.
“He needs to do that,” Klopp said of Can. “We don’t have anyone else. He enjoyed it today, it was like, wow, interesting. We had 20 minutes in training, it wasn’t perfect but the boys were ready to cope. I’m happy with that.”
And when the back-line was breached, Simon Mignolet produced a stunning save to deny Glenn Murray what looked a certain goal (although he could do nothing to prevent Murray scoring Brighton’s consolation from the penalty spot). But whatever Klopp’s enthusiasm for his defence, this was a game that belonged to his forwards. Particularly Coutinho.
“I think that showed you why Liverpool were so keen to keep hold of him,” said Hughton of the much-coveted Brazilian.
And he was right. On this sort of showing – his every touch freighted with threat – there are few No 10s to match him.