Liverpool’s 4-1 win on Saturday might only have been against West Ham at home, but the quality of opposition shouldn’t camouflage all the outstanding features.
In individual terms each player made a significant contribution, from good saves by Loris Karius to the usual goals from season-long stars Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. Besides, there’s no opposition that can be prefixed as “only” where Liverpool are concerned, as bottom-three teams Swansea and West Brom have already beaten the Reds in 2018.
Professionalism in closing out the game was highlighted by Dave Usher and Liverpool have done this in other recent matches, too. Jurgen Klopp has also been giving a starting place to James Milner and he’s been excellent.
There’s always been criticism of Liverpool’s late defensive generosity under Klopp and you just wonder if Milner’s vast experience can come to the fore in the season’s remaining weeks. He once played his part in winning trophies with Manchester City, including two extremely tense title races in 2012 and 2014.
Late on in a season, after the players have been dragging themselves up and down football pitches for nearly eight months, the game begins to be played with the mind more than the body. Professionals have to be super fit to last the course of course, but this is the time of the season when experience matters, knowledge of what’s required and how to impart it verbally and also lead by example.
After 28 years without a title there is probably too much emphasis on Liverpool’s Premier League failures. Whenever they have had cup success this century there’s always been at least one seasoned campaigner driving them on.
Fans will always cherish the contribution of Gary McAllister to Gerard Houllier’s 2001 cup treble. He had played in the early stages of the season but it was only from April onwards that his intelligence and skill were fully utilised. He also had trophy experience having won the title with Leeds in 1992 and was integral to a team packed with talented youngsters like Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.
The presence of Sami Hyypia and Dietmar Hamann was also important in the unlikely Champions League triumph of 2005.
Liverpool are now at a vital stage of the season. They have bedded down into the Premier League’s top four and are favourites to progress to the Champions League quarterfinals.
Another player with recent experience of winning trophies elsewhere is former Arsenal man Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was also excellent against the Hammers on Saturday. As this coincided with a bad week for the Gunners there was again talk of how his move north had been fully justified. He hasn’t featured in the first team of late, but he and Milner were both aggressive and positive against West Ham.
If Klopp was sensing a renewed determination in opponents not to be too adventurous when facing the Reds, he’d want more from his full-backs and midfielders; to come forward and augment what is already a fairly deadly front three.
Liverpool have a tendency to become complacent and that’s when you need experienced players to set the tone, to remind teammates that football has a nasty habit of turning upside down even in apparently safe situations. It was no coincidence that Milner increased his aggression when the score lines against Porto and West Ham seemed secure enough.
Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performances were all the more eye-catching because central midfield was not previously considered an area where Liverpool excelled.
There had been a sense in some matches — certainly at Swansea, for example — that Liverpool could be stopped by simply putting them in traffic, as Carlos Carvalhal colourfully put it in January.
The emergence of two good attacking full-backs — Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson — has certainly improved matters there, but more aggression and ingenuity from the likes of Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain can open up even more possibilities.
Players like Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum have made decent contributions up to now but they can be drab and pedestrian sometimes. Henderson might be club captain, but it is often felt Milner probably should be as he is the most experienced player in the squad and also the most successful.
For much of the season he has sat patiently on the bench with most fans believing his Liverpool career was now simply a matter of filling in whenever Klopp felt others needed a break. That might still be the case of course, and a mere two games certainly doesn’t prove this was a preconceived plan.
Milner’s superb performances can only have influenced Klopp’s thinking with regards to how Liverpool approach the rest of the season. Champions League success might be a pipe dream given the standard of opposition left in the tournament, but wasn’t that also the case in 2005?
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.