SOUTHAMPTON, England — Jurgen Klopp told us not to worry about Mohamed Salah.
A full 55 days after his 49th league goal for Liverpool, Salah scored his 50th to turn what had looked like a nervous, near title-challenge-ending draw with Southampton into a 3-1 victory that will put them top of the Premier League for at least another nine days.
Salah had looked jittery all night. Nothing he seemed to try was quite right: passes a little off, stumbling here and there, the ball seemingly caught under his feet all the time. Just as he has in the past few games, he’s looked desperate to score, frantically attempting to end his poor run of form, as a consequence trying too hard in fact — which isn’t just a glib football phrase, it actually has roots in psychology — to the detriment of his general performance.
But when he collected the ball from Jordan Henderson‘s header and sped, arrow-straight towards goal on a thrilling counterattack, it was as if he entered into a trance, a brief, 50-yard version of “the zone.” He had passing options, and had he missed, the rest of the team might have left him to walk home afterwards.
He was never going to miss, though. As the whole world briefly paused he picked his spot in the corner, and just as the planet began spinning on its axis once more, the ball had been passed into the corner of the net. Tension broken, Liverpool on their way to their most crucial win since the last one.
“Not at all,” said Salah afterwards, when asked if he considered passing the ball. “As a striker you need to score.” This was less a striker’s greed more an acute sense of a goal scorer’s responsibility, a man saying “enough messing around, we’re winning this and I’m scoring.” It was the perfect combination of technique and nerve.
It felt even more appropriate that Henderson scored the third, the nerve settler. He might not be the most inspiring footballer, one that few will ever sit their grandchildren down and tell them they saw play, but you at least know what you’re getting. Sure, he might slow down play and opt for caution more often than you’d like, but he brings control and certainty. Klopp’s Liverpool need that, and his introduction was the turning point of the game.
Klopp wanted to give his captain the night off, leaving him and James Milner on the bench and bringing in Naby Keita and Fabinho. But at the point when desperation might have set in, as yet another attack broke down and Southampton strolled once again through a wispy Liverpool midfield, on he came. The kids weren’t doing the job, it was time to bring on the big boys. “They helped a lot, pushed the whole team,” said Klopp.
You could make a decent case that this was the toughest of Liverpool’s remaining games. Southampton’s revival under Ralph Hasenhuttl has included victories over Tottenham and Arsenal — the latter ending a 22-match unbeaten run — at St Mary’s, and a league table from the day he took over has them 10th. That’s particularly impressive when you consider they were below Huddersfield when he arrived.
“We were analysing them before the game,” Klopp said, before dropping his head and making a mournful noise, as if he’d been told to break through a brick wall with a tooth pick. “We knew it would be tough, tough, tough. Everyone will come here in the future and feel how difficult it is, so that makes it even more satisfying and brilliant that we could win. It was great for us.”
For long spells, though, it didn’t look so great. At times Liverpool seemed to be suffering from a strange combination of low confidence and over-elaboration, as if they were trying to pass, trick and flick their way back into form. For all of the first half and a good chunk of the second, it didn’t work. More to the point, it isn’t really them: certainly in the second half of the season their strength has been doing the simple things brilliantly, like converting crosses and, as in this game, brilliant counterattacks.
“The performance was not top level but it is about fighting,” said Klopp. “People want us to play like Manchester City; we are unable to do that, we play our own football. We have 82 points now, that is massive in this crazy league and everyone is waiting for us. I am really proud. It is incredible.”
They keep doing this, Liverpool, convincing absolutely nobody for much of the game before coming back right at the end, like the villain in a horror film you thought was dead only to lurch back into life.
This season Klopp has become more and more preoccupied with control and maturity, with winning games by any means necessary rather than being beholden to any particular style. Here and against Tottenham last weekend, they didn’t have much control but they did have absolute bucketloads of maturity. If they win their first title in a generation, nobody will care much about the process, only the result.
“In the end, it’s brilliant,” said Klopp, beaming his 100-tooth grin. You could hardly ask for a more apt summary of Liverpool’s season.