Above all else, Jürgen Klopp looked relieved when he strutted over to the Kop End to perform his three trademark celebratory fist pumps after his team won the Merseyside Derby 2-0. He had earned them; Liverpool played magnificently against Everton, certainly by their recent standards.
For the majority of the game, the Reds were vastly superior to their local rivals, only allowing two chances, headers by Tarkowski and Davies, respectively.
The midfield was key to Liverpool’s win. With Thiago missing through injury and Naby Keïta benched, the midfield duo of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson was reinstated to the starting line-up. Fabinho’s inclusion meant that young phenom Stefan Bajčetić moved from the No. 6 position to the left-sided No. 8.
This small tweak worked wonders, as Bajčetić was able to use his athleticism and willingness to engage in duels further up the field, constantly harrying Everton players on the ball. Him and Fabinho worked in tandem all evening, with the 18-year old often dropping alongside the Brazilian to form a double pivot. The combination of Bajčetić’s youthfulness and athleticism and Fabinho’s experience and positional awareness provided a fine balance to Liverpool’s midfield.
Jordan Henderson also showed a much-improved performance. The Reds’ captain was deployed in an advanced role on the right of midfield, and played a big part in Liverpool’s press.
In many ways, the trio of Fabinho-Henderson-Bajčetić was a throwback to Klopp’s midfields of three or four years ago. What they lack in natural play-making ability, they make up for with their work rate and tenacity. Bajčetić’s man-of-the-match performance showed just how much Liverpool have missed a high-volume ball-winner in the middle of the park this season.
With balance in the midfield restored, Klopp’s men looked more like their usual selves. Their play style was more vertical, moving quickly from front to back, as beautifully exemplified by the two counter-attacking goals. Whenever they lost the ball, the counter-press looked more intense than in previous weeks, with Everton players rarely having time to look up and pick out a pass.
In addition, a more defensively-minded midfield freed up Liverpool’s full backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Both relished the chance to go forward more frequently. For both of Liverpool’s goals, Robertson ended up in Everton’s box, akin to a centre forward. Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold’s aggressive, overlapping run enabled him to set up Gakpo’s first goal for his new club.
Gakpo started down the middle, in a Firmino-esque false nine role, after having been deployed on the left wing against Wolves last Saturday. He gave an excellent account of himself, finding space intelligently, and frequently breaking Everton lines with his acceleration and ball-carrying ability.
The Dutch international primarily played on the left of a front three at his former club, PSV Eindhoven, but it has become obvious that Klopp sees him as more dangerous in central areas. With Gakpo down the middle, Darwin Núñez shuffled back to the left wing. His delightful assist to set up Salah’s goal came from the left side, but he still frequently drifted into central areas, where it seems he is most comfortable.
With Gakpo likely to continue playing as a centre forward after his standout performance, it will be interesting to see where Núñez will get his minutes, particularly with Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino back from injury. Klopp seems to prefer playing with a striker, who can drop deep and link play, which are not Núñez’s strengths. And while Núñez can play out wide, he is not a natural winger. For all of his talents, he is still yet to find his position and role in this Liverpool team. Nonetheless, he contributed massively to this win, particularly with his lightning-quick sprint and pinpoint delivery for Liverpool’s first goal.
The Reds now find themselves nine points behind fourth-placed Newcastle – who they will face this Saturday – with a game in hand. If Liverpool win their next three league games, they will climb above the Magpies in the standings. With 17 matches to go, the fight for top four is far from over.