Salah, Coutinho sublime as Liverpool thrash Bournemouth 4-0
BOURNEMOUTH, England -- Three thoughts from a comfortable 4-0 win for Liverpool at Bournemouth.
1. Scintillating Liverpool leap back into top four
Liverpool are back in the top four, and if anyone needed a reminder of what Jurgen Klopp's team are capable of, then they provided it on Sunday evening. This was a rout, albeit against obliging opponents, with the result rarely in doubt after Philippe Coutinho scored a wonderful early opener. Dejan Lovren, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino added three more; if their creativity had faltered in successive home draws, the crowd at Dean Court saw them close to maximum expression.
The visitors were in control from the start. Within three minutes, Coutinho had looped a header off-target from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's cross; before 11 minutes had elapsed he came even closer, curling a sumptuous free-kick onto the inside of Asmir Begovic's post. The ball rebounded out, but it was a temporary reprieve.
It wasn't long before Coutinho made it third time lucky, and the goal itself was a joy. Taking a return pass from Andrew Robertson midway inside the Bournemouth half, he used the left-back as a decoy before jinking into the area past a bemused Simon Francis and cutting a perfect finish into the bottom corner.
In the 26th minute, it was 2-0. Firmino, whose deflected shot had just won a corner, did excellently to just about keep the ball in play after the set piece had been cleared up into the air. The Brazil international hooked it back from beyond the far post, allowing Lovren to concert a brave, stooping header.
Out of nothing, Bournemouth contrived a chance to make things interesting, with Jermain Defoe running clear but rapping a shot off the upright. He was soon punished for his profligacy; Salah missed a fine chance to make it three but quickly atoned, twisting inside Charlie Daniels near the near byline and running across Nathan Ake before firing past Begovic for a half-time margin Liverpool totally deserved.
Bournemouth introduced Ryan Fraser, who inspired their fightback against the same opponents a year ago, and the substitute hit the side netting from a reasonable opening 11 minutes into the second half. Defoe then forced Simon Mignolet into a save to his left, but Liverpool were still creating openings, with Oxlade-Chamberlain striking the outside of the post.
From their next chance, Firmino, seemingly a fraction offside, rounded things off by glancing home a whipped Coutinho cross. There were nearly 25 minutes left and the only question was how many more goals Liverpool would try to score. Half-chances came and went for subs Adam Lallana and Danny Ings, but in the end, 4-0 painted a more than convincing picture.
2. Salah on course for a miraculous season
Salah is nearly midway through the kind of season that could break records. We're still eight days short of Christmas, but Sunday saw his 20th goal of the campaign, taking all competitions into account, and his 13th in the Premier League alone. His movement is so sharp and his power almost unstoppable in full flight that there are times when his impact from a wide attacking position invite comparisons with the Cristiano Ronaldo of a few years back.
For context, the last Liverpool players to exceed the 20 mark over an entire season were Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, who finished with 31 and 24 respectively, in 2013-14. They will not muster a comparable title campaign this season, but in Salah, Liverpool have a forward who more than matches that vintage for sheer excitement.
Sunday's emphatic performance was not just about Salah, who was replaced by the returning Adam Lallana for the last 20 minutes to huge cheers from the away support. Coutinho was also at his irresistible best, gliding in from his perch on the left to create havoc, dovetailing wonderfully with the movement of Salah and the equally irrepressible Firmino.
Coutinho's first-half goal was his 10th of the season, no mean achievement for a player who had such an interrupted start to this term and Liverpool must be desperately hoping that they can resist any fresh Barcelona approach in January. The understanding their attacking players have formed is surely too precious to break up midway through a season, and watching him here, Coutinho only appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself.
Encouragingly there was more structure behind their front men, too. Liverpool have struggled for balance in recent months, but Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Oxlade-Chamberlain looked a balanced blend in midfield, the latter producing one of his best performances since joining the club. Now the challenge is to bring this all-round level to a somewhat sterner assignment: an away fixture against Arsenal this Friday night.
They can call upon a fresh Sadio Mane, who was not required to leave the bench here, for that game; whoever plays alongside him at the Emirates will surely be brimming with confidence after a performance that brought back some momentum.
3. Bournemouth's regression gives Howe a dilemma
A little more than 12 months ago, Bournemouth came back from 3-1 down to win this fixture 4-3 amid delirious scenes. There never appeared to be the remotest chance of anything similar occurring this time around, and while being outclassed by Liverpool is no disgrace on its own, on this evidence it is hard to see Eddie Howe's side avoiding a relegation battle in the second half of the season.
Perhaps things could have been different if Defoe, played through by Junior Stanislas's deft pass after a rare coherent break by the home team, had converted the kind of opportunity he usually puts away in his sleep. In the event, that simply emphasised the gulf in quality at both ends of the pitch on an evening that raised questions about Bournemouth's approach in a game like this. They were so open from the start, carved apart time and again by opponents so quick to seize on any loss of possession. Although the host kept trying to play the brand of football that has brought them so far, it rarely stuck to any meaningful degree.
It breeds the thought: does Howe need to adapt in order to maintain Bournemouth's Premier League place?
A more pragmatic approach might have worked against Liverpool, who had failed to break down West Brom in midweek, but Howe's central midfielders, Andrew Surman and Lewis Cook, failed to provide meaningful support for a disjointed back four, and at times they were cut to ribbons. Bournemouth are to be praised for sticking to their principles and not, as is the current fashion among the league's smaller clubs, shutting up shop against the big guns. But the concern is that their current group of players are not good enough to consistently play Howe's brand of football to good effect.
Perhaps Howe, whose recruitment since Bournemouth's promotion three seasons ago has been hit and miss, will strengthen in January. It's hard not to think he needs to: set against that euphoric day last winter, his team have clearly regressed.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.