For the second time in the Champions League this season, Liverpool fired seven goals past the opposition, as attack after attack completely wiped out a stagnant Spartak Moscow and secured qualification to the knockout stages.
The Reds blitzed through the Russian storm straight from the off with Philippe Coutinho picking up a hat-trick, Sadio Mané notching a brace and, of course, Mohamed Salah getting on the score sheet to mark another famous European night under the lights of Anfield.
After the bizarre, yet successful, starting eleven that crushed Brighton at the weekend, Jürgen Klopp returned to normality – by his standards, anyway.
The makeshift defence at the Amex Stadium was quickly switched back to the standard back-four, with Joe Gomez continuing his excellent form and Ragnar Klavan filling in for Joël Matip.
Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum – the weekend’s centre-backs – were pushed back into midfield, though Jordan Henderson was benched, making Coutinho captain. The usual front suspects started up front.
In defensive shape, Liverpool sat narrowly in two, deep banks of four to form a balanced 4-4-2 formation, with Firmino and Salah up front, while Coutinho and Mané occupied the wings.
The obvious danger man for Liverpool to look out for was Quincy Promes who had enjoyed a scintillating start to the season. Aware of his quality, Mané frequently cut off the passing lane to the Dutchman.
Naturally, Liverpool were set-up to counter with nearly all the outfield players within their own half, and the goal resulted in such a plan, albeit not a traditional break. Coutinho immediately looked to expand play and, with the aid of Moreno’s run, attracted several Spartak players, before putting in a cross for Salah, who was adjudged to have been impeded in the box.
While the penalty seemed soft, Coutinho converted expertly and gave his side a foothold in a match knowing a win would secure top spot.
Meanwhile, Spartak looked to have incorporated a 4-3-3 formation with the use of a holding midfielder, and though starting well, the opener looked to have shaken all discipline and sharpness within their ranks.
The second goal could only be described as a complete lack of tactical sense from the Russian side. Serdar Tasci – one of the most experienced players on the pitch – completely exposed his own defence, having sat much deeper than his teammates, allowing Liverpool acres of space to work with.
From there, fluid, perfectly-timed attacking punished the amateurish mistake.
Liverpool chose not to sit on their laurels and continued to give Spartak little breathing space. Though flat in deep defence, the formation was ambiguous during pressing. Wijnaldum frequently pushed up, while Firmino often dropped deep to assist in the centre. Emre Can would resultantly screen the defence to offer balance.
In the picture below, Glushakov’s poor first touch gives Wijnaldum ample time to press, while Firmino and Salah cut off passing options where Spartak have numerical superiority. In the end, the ball is lost out on the left, and a further two defensive mistakes gift Liverpool their third of the night.
Liverpool never really had to go into full Gegenpressing mode – instead, more fixated on man-marking pressing with one runner, like that of Jupp Heynckes during his treble-winning season with FC Bayern München.
When Spartak did finally muster the courage to press high up the pitch, it was easily dealt with either by lack of intensity or Emre Can acting as a link player.
Liverpool started the second half just as they had the first in continuing to employ ‘the best defence is a good offence’ school of thought.
With nominal wingers Mané and Coutinho dropping for support, space was created on the wing for the ball-near full-back to attack. This worked to profound degree on the left-hand side where Milner – replacing the injured Moreno – overlapped with devastating effect.
While the full-back overlapped or cut-in, one of the midfield pivot in Wijnaldum or Can would opt to drop in to fill the void. Spartak’s fixation on attacking in the centre was easily snuffed out by Liverpool’s smart pressing with options far and few between.
Moreover, the Moscow side’s lack of wing-play only encouraged Liverpool to bombard the full-backs high up the pitch, which became more and more prominent when Milner and Alexander-Arnold were brought on.
Liverpool’s 4-4-2 shape quickly morphed into a 4-2-2-2, 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-2-4 on occasion, with Salah frequently leading the line and Firmino acting as a centre-forward.
When not causing problems for themselves – which were plentiful – Spartak were unable to match the Anfield outfit’s wide play and struggled to make their superior numbers around the ball between the defence and midfield count.
In the above picture, Spartak were unable to retain possession in the midfield, having been robbed my Mané, and moments later, Liverpool attack with width. Sturridge – only on for a few minutes – ran down the right unchallenged, before assisting the Senegal international.
READ MORE: Liverpool 7-0 Spartak Moscow: Player Ratings
This WhoScored graphic very much encapsulated both teams’ performance. Liverpool were energetic, intelligent and adept at creating space with the constant movement. On the other hand, Spartak lacked all imagination and were too slow on the ball, with Promes being the only outsource going forward.
The triumvirate of Mané, Salah and Firmino have looked nothing short of unstoppable this season and are seemingly on a telepathic wavelength in scything through opposition defences.
Coutinho put in a shift worthy of the captaincy at any big club, let alone Liverpool – the decision to not succumb to the pressure and riches from Barcelona has proven to be a turning point in the Reds’ fortunes, as the Brazilian continues to broaden his game in all aspects.
Scoring the second most goals in the group stages this season – behind Paris Saint-Germain – leaves little room to deny the Liverpool front line is a potent force to be both feared and envied across Europe.