Liverpool return to form in convincing fashion with 3-0 win at Huddersfield
HUDDERSFIELD, England -- Three quick thoughts from Liverpool's 3-0 Premier League victory over Huddersfield Town at the John Smith's Stadium on Tuesday.
1. Liverpool return to form in convincing fashion
Perhaps the past eight days were merely a blip. Liverpool had a point to make here and they did it convincingly, beating Huddersfield 3-0 for a second time this season and never looking in danger after Emre Can gave them a first-half lead. There will be tougher tests ahead than this but, after back-to-back league and cup defeats, three points were crucial for their grip on a Champions League place and Jurgen Klopp's side delivered.
Liverpool controlled the early possession but it would be Huddersfield, quick in the challenge and sharp on the break, who had the first chance. A sharp counter ended with Chris Lowe centring for Laurent Depoitre, who tried to place his shot past Loris Karius but saw the keeper save well. More power might have done the trick.
The visitors were hardly threatening at this point but, on 24 minutes, Can forced a parry from Jonas Lossl and that proved a sighter. Almost immediately Liverpool came forward again and Can, running onto a half-cleared cross 25 yards out, drilled into the bottom corner via a cruel deflection off Philip Billing.
There was little instant response from the hosts but they came close five minutes before the break when Lowe whipped a free kick narrowly wide.
Right on half-time, Roberto Firmino made it two. The angle seemed impossible when, played in by Sadio Mane's flick, he took the ball almost as far as the byline -- but he found a gap between the poorly positioned Lossl and his near post, squeezing the ball home and putting Liverpool firmly in command.
All the same, it had not been a riveting half and the early stages of the second showed little sign of things hotting up. Mane drew a sprawling save from Lossl with a header, James Milner also forcing a tip-over from range, but there was no need for Liverpool to take any risks.
Huddersfield appealed for a penalty in the 72nd minute when substitute Collin Quaner went down in the box, but their cries were speculative -- as, in truth, were their efforts to get back into the game. Mohamed Salah should have made it three after seizing on an error from Terence Kongolo, taking the ball past Lossl but jabbing into the side netting, but a clincher did arrive when Liverpool won a spot kick of their own. It looked soft, Can tumbling under Billing's challenge, but Salah found the bottom corner without fuss.
2. Solidity the key to Liverpool's success
This was not the kind of win Liverpool are renowned for and Klopp will not mind one bit. Salah was generally quiet, Mane only a flickering presence and chances hardly bountiful in number; but they exuded a sense of control that has often eluded them and, crucially, rarely looked in danger at the back against determined opposition.
Klopp knew his team would be in for a physical, hard-running battle and shuffled his pack accordingly. In came Jordan Henderson and James Milner, replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield, while Dejan Lovren's selection in place of Virgil van Dijk was rather more eyecatching.
You could understand the logic: those defeats against Swansea and, in the FA Cup, West Brom had set doubts creeping in and this was a night to get the job done. They did it, and in a hugely professional manner. Had Can's effort not ricocheted past Lossl then perhaps, as at the Liberty Stadium last Monday, they might have found it tough to expose a back line that left little space in behind. Early chances had, after all, been hard to come by. It proved academic though and instead Liverpool deserve praise for the control they showed in that final 75 minutes.
Huddersfield did not create a chance of note in that time, while Liverpool picked their moments to break in any serious numbers. They were clinical, solid and sensible; Henderson, starting for the first time in 2018, was a vocal presence throughout and, with Milner, ensured Aaron Mooy had no chance to impose himself on the game. Van Dijk was not missed in defence and Klopp now faces a poser: does he keep things broadly the same when Tottenham, who will be far more dangerous than the Terriers, visit Anfield on Sunday? After the criticism that has come Liverpool's way lately, it is at least a nice problem to have.
3. Huddersfield set for relegation struggle
Huddersfield started the season so brightly but, make no mistake, they are in a relegation battle now. In isolation, a defeat to Liverpool is nothing to set the alarm bells off but they have now gone seven league games without a win and, even more glaringly, have lost their last four. The promoted side sit only a point clear of the bottom three and their honeymoon is over -- and among the concerns here was that the goals they conceded, one down to ill luck and another from an individual mistake, were the kind that frequently afflict struggling trams.
David Wagner once said that he has known Klopp "longer than I've known my wife". He certainly knew how to make things difficult for his Liverpool team, and Swansea's successful shutout eight days ago may have provided some inspiration. They set up with three centre-backs, a compact midfield trio and two powerful centre-forwards in Depoitre and Steve Mounie. Flair players like Alex Pritchard, Rajiv van la Parra and Tom Ince were deemed unsuitable to start this one and the reasoning was fair enough: the obvious question to ask of Liverpool these days is their ability to unpick densely massed opposition.
Yet the opening stages were not quite attack against defence, and how different things might have been if Depoitre had put away that early opportunity. Can's fortunate opener changed the complexion of proceedings but Wagner will be disappointed that Huddersfield did not make a genuine go of things after that. Had Firmino not exposed Lossl on the stroke of half-time then perhaps they would have come out firing for the second half; in the event they looked deflated, and bereft of the creativity needed to make a serious impression. Wagner's change in strategy did not come off; with a trip to Manchester United up next, he needs to find a successful blend quickly.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.