Sunday 22 September 2019

Reds continue to make case for defence

Liverpool 2 Fulham 0

Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham battles for possession with Virgil van Dijk of Liverpoo. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham battles for possession with Virgil van Dijk of Liverpoo. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Chris Bascombe

It is surely a reflection of Liverpool's season that their latest comfortable victory was greeted with a Kop chant acclaiming a defender.

The supporters' hero was Andy Robertson, but it could just as easily have been Virgil van Dijk.

Mohamed Salah scores Liverpool's first. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Mohamed Salah scores Liverpool's first. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In a game in which they dominated possession, initiated virtually all the attacks and rarely had to do much in the way of defending, it was the assuredness, play-making abilities and assists from those at the back that shone against Fulham.

This has been a theme of Liverpool's first four months. Injury permitting, Van Dijk will be the club's player of the year, if not the Premier League's.

Joe Gomez, who Jurgen Klopp wants to be rested for England, looks an uncanny impersonation of his Dutch partner.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has not been at his best recently, but, like Robertson, claimed a key assist here. Amid the mild hints of criticism despite a record-breaking start in the Premier League, it should not go unnoticed how difficult Klopp's side have become to not just play, but score against.

Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates after scoring Liverpool's second goal. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates after scoring Liverpool's second goal. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The foundations for a sustained title challenge are there, even if there has been a clamour for more decorative arts from those who operate further forward.

Van Dijk is so good; football looks so easy for him. The positional sense, comfort in possession and ability to ping a 50-yard diagonal pass to a team-mate is easy to identify.

More decisive is the frequency of headed clearances when opponents do threaten, usually from a set-piece.

Visitors to Anfield know they can only deal in moments, occasional forward forays needing to be rewarded. A year ago the shot-to-goal ratio was worryingly high for teams coming here, even those in the bottom half. Not now.

Fulham left Anfield feeling on this occasion that was as much due to poor refereeing as Liverpool's defensive improvement, believing they had become only the second visiting side to score here in the league this season.

A 14-second gap between Fulham believing they had a lead and Mohamed Salah scoring the opening goal turned the game irreversibly Liverpool's way.

Debate

If VAR was active, the debate as to who was really ahead might have gone on for another 14 minutes.

The competitiveness was sucked out of the afternoon once Salah struck his eighth goal of the season as the visitors quizzed referee Paul Tierney on why he had ruled out Aleksandar Mitrovic's header.

Robertson did appear to be playing the Fulham attackers onside. TV replays showed that the officials probably got it wrong.

There was no time for debate on the pitch as Alisson played the free-kick - from a moving ball - to Alexander-Arnold. He sent Salah clear and the Egyptian had the poise to beat Sergio Rico.

Slavisa Jokanovic, the Fulham manager fighting for his job after another defeat, cursed the officials.

"Robertson didn't sufficiently squeeze up and my player is onside and scored a goal," he said. "In one moment, a crucial moment, we go from one goal up to one goal down.

"In this country you normally can't show disrespect to referees but it's a problem (when they) show disrespect to my team, myself, and the Fulham supporters.

"The situation can be a little complicated but you must be sure to take this kind of decision.

"We didn't defend well this counter-attack but this counter-attack shouldn't exist. It's a completely absurd situation we have to defend."

Klopp directed arguments to Sadio Mane's disallowed goal at Arsenal last weekend, engaging in a "some you win, some you lose" form of pragmatism. He did, however, admit to having sympathy for his rival.

"One hundred per cent," said Klopp. "I wished him good luck. They changed the approach but you see this is usually a football-playing team that has a lot of quality.

"It was brilliant in the Championship. I think they should stick to it because they are good at it."

Before Salah's goal, Liverpool were creating more chances but Fulham's reshaped line-up posed a threat at times.

Ryan Sessegnon should have beaten Alisson after 24 minutes, excitement getting the better of him in front of the Kop when he struck well but wide of the post.

Jokanovic felt his changes - the most radical of which was the deployment of Calum Chambers as a deep central midfielder - were working until the contentious 41st minute.

But vulnerabilities remained against a classy Liverpool, especially down Fulham's right. There was space for Sadio Mane and the energetic Robertson to exploit, Liverpool's best work coming from such overlaps.

Their second goal came from that source, Robertson's cross volleyed in by Xherdan Shaqiri after 53 minutes - his second goal in consecutive home games as the Swiss attacker continues to endear himself to the supporters.

Cue the constant chorus of approval for the Scottish captain's contribution, Robertson playing as much as a left-winger as a full-back.

Liverpool eased through the second half. They are winning Premier League games while giving the impression there is more to come. It is a long time since they had such a solid base on which to build. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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