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Liverpool Continues to Play as Advertised—for Better or Worse

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah-led attack was still firing at Atlético Madrid, but its inconsistency elsewhere is leaving plenty to be desired in its quest to lift trophies once again.

It’s always dangerous to read too much into any one game, but Tuesday’s Champions League game at Atlético Madrid looked like it would be a major test for Liverpool. A 3–2 win inside the stadium where it won the European title just over two years ago tended to confirm the impressions of the early part of the season, though. This Liverpool side is exceptional going forward, but far from convincing at the back.

Liverpool is the only unbeaten side remaining in the Premier League. With the return of Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, marking the end of the injury crisis at center back, there has been a return to something like the form of the season before last. Mohamed Salah over the past few weeks has reached new heights, his two goals Tuesday giving him 11 in Liverpool's last nine matches. Liverpool had scored five in each of its last two away games, at Porto and Watford. The lack of summer transfer activity perhaps meant it has been undervalued as a unit going into this season, but it is clearly one of the best three sides in the Premier League.

Yet doubts remain. Is the squad deep enough, or could injuries and fatigue catch up with it, particularly in January and February when Salah, Sadio Mané and Naby Keïta are likely to be away at the Cup of Nations? And just how strong is it defensively? The three games in which it has dropped points in the league so far this season have been instructive.

Mohamed Salah and Liverpool beat Atletico Madrid in Champions League

At home to Chelsea, the issues were with breaking down a well-organized defense, even after Thomas Tuchel’s side had been reduced to 10 men. Against Manchester City, Liverpool survived a first half in which it struggled for rhythm in a far more even second half, but even then it felt very reliant on the brilliance of Salah and struggled at times to cope with City’s passing. A lot of teams, of course, will find it hard to keep up with City, and Liverpool that day had to field James Milner at right back because of an injury to Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Draws against the defending champion and the European champion, even at home, are nothing to be too troubled by, but the draw at Brentford, when Liverpool struggled to deal with the pace and intensity of Thomas Frank’s side, perhaps was. Again, it’s only reasonable to point out that Brentford has unsettled a lot of teams this season and was very unlucky to lose against Chelsea on Saturday, but still, Van Dijk did not look quite as assured as he did before the knee injury.

In that context, the trip to Atlético represented a stern examination of just how good Liverpool is. Atlético may be the Spanish champion, but it has started the season slowly, even if it had suffered only one defeat all season prior to Tuesday. Eighteen months ago, Liverpool faced Atlético in the last 16 of the Champions League, seemingly in far better form, but lost both legs, a reminder, as though it were needed, of how dangerous even a slightly out-of-sorts Atlético can be.

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The second leg, at Anfield, came the day before Mikel Arteta tested positive for COVID-19, which forced the 100-day shutdown of the English game. A recent cross-party government report was very critical of that game being allowed to go ahead, stating it led to the deaths of 37 people. Perhaps, against the backdrop of 160,000 deaths in the U.K., that toll barely registers, but it remains remarkable that there has not been a greater outcry, even after the parliamentary report, into the carelessness that allowed that to happen.

That reckoning, perhaps, is still to come, and the two will meet again at Anfield on Nov. 3, to potentially call more attention to the events of that day. From a purely footballing point of view, on Tuesday, there initially seemed little chance of a repeat of that defeat. Liverpool raced into a two-goal lead against a makeshift defense within 13 minutes, with Salah scoring for a club record ninth game in a row with a deflected shot after cutting in from the right before Keïta volleyed in a sensational a second.

But this is not a Liverpool defense that exudes confidence, and by the 35th minute Atlético was level, with Antoine Griezmann first touching in Koke’s shot and then brilliantly finishing after fine work from João Félix—with both Keïta and Van Dijk beaten too easily in the build-up. 

Keïta was withdrawn for Fabinho at halftime, but the dynamic of the game was changed anyway by the dismissal of Griezmann for a high foot on Roberto Firmino. That not only altered the outlook of this match but the rematch to come at Anfield, with Griezmann now suspended for the Matchday 4 contest.

As it turned out, Miguel Hermoso gifted Liverpool a penalty by dragging down Diogo Jota with 13 minutes remaining, and Salah took full advantage. Jota was then given a reprieve on the other end, with a lengthy review letting him off the hook for appearing to commit a penalty that could have let the hosts steal a point. Nevertheless, that’s three wins from three matches in the group and a general continuation of its good form for Liverpool, but if it is to win either the Premier League or the Champions League this season, it will have to tighten up defensively.

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