Liverpool got their Premier League title charge back on track against Bournemouth. Here’s why it was exactly the performance they needed.
- Liverpool ease back to top spot
It was not so much the victory but the manner of it that will satisfy Liverpool supporters the most. Jurgen Klopp’s men ran out 3-0 winners at Anfield but it could easily have been more. Much more. The hope now is that this performance will signal a lasting return to form.
Consecutive draws against Leicester and West Ham had allowed Manchester City to close the gap, prompting fears of title-race jitters, but more worrying still was that Liverpool had already been out-of-sorts for weeks. The wins over Crystal Palace and Brighton were achieved by the narrowest of margins. Before that there were defeats to Wolves and City.
Not since the end of December – when they thumped Newcastle and Arsenal in the space of a few days – had Liverpool been at their free-flowing best, but this was more like it. Bournemouth can be a dangerous opponent – Chelsea will testify to that – but they could barely lay a glove on them.
Any expectation that Liverpool might freeze under the pressure soon disappeared. Instead, they started at full-throttle, forcing the visitors back with the kind of aggression they have recently lacked. Indeed, it was telling that they won possession in the attacking third more times in the first half (seven) than in the full 90 minutes against either Leicester or West Ham.
They continued in the same vein. By the end, Premier League tracking data showed they had made more high-intensity sprints (140) than in any game since their 1-0 win over Everton at the start of December.
Sadio Mane was the man to break the deadlock. The Senegal international has been one of few Liverpool players to have impressed consistently in recent weeks, hitting vital goals against Palace, Leicester and West Ham, and he was on the spot again to extend his scoring run when he headed home James Milner’s cross midway through the first half.
Mane impressed right up until his substitution but this time he was not alone. Mohamed Salah was at the heart of everything, scoring the third and striking the crossbar in the closing stages, and Roberto Firmino was back to his best, too, albeit without the goal his performance deserved.
Their combination play was dazzling at times, most notably for Liverpool’s third goal – a move which involved every member of their attacking trident. First, Mane turned smartly on the ball just inside Liverpool’s half and fed Naby Keita, who threaded it through to Firmino. The Brazilian shaped to shoot before backheeling the ball to Salah, who finished coolly.
It was a devastating passage of play which highlighted their near-telepathic understanding, and there was more to come. Less than 10 minutes later, Salah showed impressive awareness to release Georginio Wijnaldum, whose delicate cross was perfect for the unmarked Mane. This time, however, his header drifted wide.
Liverpool were in the mood, springing forward on the counter-attack at every opportunity in the closing stages, but it was not just the front three who made life so difficult for Bournemouth. Keita produced one of his best performances for the club in midfield, making more tackles (seven) and more recoveries (12) than anyone else on the pitch and also freeing up Wijnaldum to bomb forward.
The Dutchman’s goal, brilliantly lifted over Artur Boruc, rewarded an unusually adventurous performance. With Keita and Fabinho sweeping up behind him, he registered his highest numbers of the season for touches in the opposition box (five) and shots on target (two). He created more chances (three) than in his previous six appearances combined.
Liverpool’s free-wheeling counter-attacks and unrelenting intensity made a mockery of suggestions that they had lost their nerve in the title race, and there was impressive defensive focus, too. Bournemouth managed 12 shots but only two of them were on target and none of them were clear chances.
Virgil van Dijk was commanding and composed, completing 103 of his 107 passes, and Joel Matip impressed alongside him, making more more clearances than any other player (11) and, like Van Dijk, using the ball well too. Midway through the first half, there was even an outstanding long pass to put Firmino through on goal.
All in all, then, it was exactly the response that Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp needed. Their return to the top of the Premier League may prove to be temporary, but the dip in form is over. On this evidence, Liverpool are already back to their best.