Football Features

“Adrián Arrives?” – Five things learned as Liverpool clinch UEFA Super Cup on penalties

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:58, 14 August 2019

After a draining night in Istanbul, Liverpool won the UEFA Super Cup 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw with Chelsea.

The match itself was a gruelling but thrilling battle, full of end-to-end action. What did we learn?

1. King Kanté

Someone at Liverpool FC owes N’Golo Kanté money or insulted his parents, that’s the only explanation for the almost vengefully brilliant performance Kanté put in against the Reds. Despite missing the end of pre-season with injury and managing just 17 ineffective minutes at Old Trafford at the weekend, the World Cup winner hit this match like Prime Tyson.

Kanté was everywhere. And not just in the usual way in which he is everywhere, making non-stop tackles and pinging long-range passes into space behind defenders. Well, he did that too, of course, but he was also carrying the ball with Eden Hazard-levels of balance and poise and nutmegging opponents with the kind of ease that Lionel Messi would do. It was a throwback display, the kind of thing Fernando Redondo used to do 20 years ago – and to see it come from Kanté was so delightful.

Now sure, Liverpool’s midfield was poor both in terms of personnel and performance but Kanté was running rings around them. He had professional footballers looking like training cones with the ball at his feet. It was a phenomenal display from a genuinely likeable footballer, and if this is the kind of level Kanté is going to be delivering throughout the season then Chelsea just might be alright.

2. What’s in a handball?

There was an incident early on in the game where Sadio Mané overhead kicked a cross at goal. The Senegalese striker connected sweetly but the ball never got anywhere near the goal because Andreas Christensen blocked it, with his hands.

This wasn’t awarded a penalty presumably because Christensen was mere inches away from Mané when the ball was struck so could never have moved his hands out of the way. Still though, his hands were raised in an unnatural position and just a few months ago Liverpool got a penalty in the Champions League final for a handball infraction much more harsh and absurd than that.

Did the rules change? Did the way they were applied change? Obviously VAR was involved on both occasions but given VAR is mostly just the opinions of another referee it’s clear that the rules and the application thereof need clarification and consistency.

3. Bobby Firmino has a knack

Liverpool rotated a few of their players for the starting XI against Chelsea and it didn’t really go so well. Chief among the disappointing performers in the first-half was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Now, there is a good reason for this – he hadn’t started a competitive game since 2017/18 when a cruciate ligament injury ended his season – but it is what it is.

So at half-time Klopp made a harsh but necessary switch by bringing on Roberto Firmino. Suddenly Liverpool were absolutely transformed as a side. Now obviously it wasn’t all down to Firmino but there can be no denying that the Brazilian does set a certain kind of tempo through the natural pace of his game. He’s all go all the time.

And against Chelsea, Liverpool desperately needed that go. They had been thoroughly outplayed in the first half but in the second they looked much more like their usual selves and that was in part because Firmino energised the side. His pressing set a tempo and tone for the Reds and moreover his positional play allowed Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to better orient themselves in attack.

It was no surprise that Firmino created the equaliser with a canny bit of movement and a deft touch of the ball, nor was it surprising when he put Liverpool into the lead with yet another great run into space and a beautiful cutback into space for Mané to hammer home, nor even when he scored his penalty in the shootout. The Brazilian may not be fully fit but he just always finds a way of getting it done.

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4. How High?

Liverpool in 2017/18 were an absolute riot to watch. They pushed up high and played with an unmatched ferocity as they pressed everything in sight. It was pure hurricane football built around the Reds’ impressive front three. It was also an exhausting system that rendered any title challenge utterly impossible, the players would be exhausted.

So Jurgen Klopp switched it up for 2018/19 and the team played a lot more defensive. They didn’t push up as high or press as much and were a lot more prosaic as a result, but this allowed them to grind out wins much more easily and they ended up picking up 97 points and falling just one short of an incredible Premier League title win.

So everyone wondered how Liverpool would play this season, and on the evidence of the UEFA Super Cup the answer is by combining the low pressing of 2018/19 with the high line of 2017/18. Playing a high line is absurdly risky, but when you offset it by pressing high you can choke opponents out before they can ever threaten your defence.

When you push high and don’t press? You’re just inviting your opponent to raid into your half and that’s exactly what Liverpool did in the first half against Chelsea. It was suicidal stuff from the Reds and it was a miracle they only conceded once. They caught Chelsea offside twice so perhaps will consider that justification for their system but honestly the infrequency of the offside trap actually working vs. the amount of times Chelsea waltzed into their half and attacked their defence at will should be a huge cause for concern for Jurgen Klopp.

Taken in isolation this could be seen as an aberration but Norwich City had similar joy against another anaemic press-high line combination on the opening night in the Premier League. Liverpool fans will be hoping this is just some early season nerves (or something to do with the heat in Turkey) because if the European champions carry this mishmash of styles into the rest of the season then better and more organised sides than Chelsea will really make them suffer.

5. Adrián Arrives?

Adrián’s last start before tonight saw him getting tuned up by AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup fourth round. He conceded four goals and looked absolutely shocking. So much so that West Ham released him in the summer and he looked like he was going to enter 2019/20 without a club, but Liverpool picked him up on a free transfer to replace the outgoing Simon Mignolet.

He was called into action much sooner than expected, having to come off the bench against Norwich because of Alisson’s injury. Then he started in Istanbul and had a mixed night. On the one hand he gave away the penalty which was rough, but then again he also made a handful of impressive saves and then pulled off a nice save in the shootout to win Liverpool their first trophy of the season.

Could he use this moment to springboard into actually being a top quality player for Liverpool?