25 August 2018

Liverpool 1-0 Brighton

Salah 23'

That was one of Liverpool's worst attacking performances in recent memory, at least with a full-strength side, with Salah, Firmino, and Mané all starting.

Multiple missed shots from Salah that he'd almost always at least put on-target, at a bare minimum. One notable effort from Mané, in the fifth minute, early enough where this probably would have ended differently.

Multiple hospital ball passes from Mané, giveaways in threatening positions, with both his line mates almost as equally guilty. Passing accuracy well below average for all of the front three.

Just one clear-cut chance, after creating four in each of the first two matches, way back in the ninth minute, with Firmino's close-range header brilliantly saved by Mat Ryan.

Whatever. Liverpool still won.

Liverpool got at least one goal, and Liverpool didn't give any away.

No prizes for guessing who the goal came from. Hello, Mo. But it wasn't a flowing start-to-finish passing move. It wasn't a blitzkrieg counter. It wasn't individual brilliance, although there was brilliance from all four individuals involved.

It was Liverpool's press, the type of press that's absolutely necessary when an opponent sits so deep and sees so little of the ball. It was James Milner, running into position to tackle Bissouma on the turn, the ball directed right at Mané. It was Mané to Firmino to Salah instantly, thankfully finished as we've become accustomed to.

You'd think that'd be the floodgates. Liverpool had beaten Brighton by four in each of the last two meetings. Liverpool hadn't won 1-0 in more than a year.

Nope. It just wasn't working today in attack. Not from that front three, aside from the goal and Firmino's chance. Not Keïta breaking lines, not crosses from the fullbacks.

As with Liverpool's romp over West Ham, it's hard to gauge just how much to credit or blame Liverpool or the opposition. Brighton defended very deep and very well, with last season's results very clear in their memory. A line of five sat directly in front of a line of four, the former pretty much on the edge of the defensive third, the latter on the edge of the penalty box. 4-5-1 rather than the usual 4-4-1-1, Bissouma brought in ahead of the creative Pascal Groß. And Liverpool weren't potent enough to break it.

To be fair, that doesn't happen often.

It's no coincidence that Liverpool's lone goal came with Brighton trying to transition: a tackle, two passes, and goal within five seconds, all within Brighton's defensive third.

From the 23rd minute on, it was all about Liverpool's midfield and Liverpool's defense, especially in the second half. The former just dominated possession for the first 75 minutes, not creative enough to break through Brighton's defense but also not allowing Brighton to counter or sustain any possession, with Keïta and Wijnaldum leading the side in tackles.

And Liverpool's defense was almost as secure as in the first two matches. Superlatives again don't do Gomez, van Dijk, and Alisson justice. Poor Glenn Murray didn't have a chance when Brighton hoofed forward, as Gomez won seven aerial duels. Virgil van Dijk commanded and controlled, organizing on corners, cutting out counters.

Of course, there's always one fright, no matter how secure Liverpool look. One goal didn't used to ever be enough. Maybe it is now.

When Liverpool's center-back pairing finally made a mistake – van Dijk misjudging the flight of a deep cross – Alisson was there, diving back across to deny Pascal Groß in the 89th minute, the first clear-cut chance Liverpool have allowed this season. Two strong punches on set plays. And three absolutely "I want to die but I love it" moments with the ball at his feet in the penalty area: a dribble around and away from Murray, a sombrero over Knockaert, and nearly turning into Murray but strong enough to toe-poke it to Wijnaldum. Let's just pretend that he was trying to keep it interesting for us.

Defending is a team game. Goalkeeper, center-backs, full-backs, midfielders, and attackers. And this team is good. And this team hasn't conceded a league goal at Anfield in six months, seven clean sheets going back to the beginning of March. And three clean sheets to start the season.

Three wins from three. One romp, two grinds. Three wins, however they're achieved.

We know the attack's going to fire. Early and often and then again. Which makes it even more encouraging to see the defense start as it has.

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