It wasn’t pretty, but Liverpool will care not one bit. Their 1-0 win at Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday can be marked down as job done for Jurgen Klopp’s side as they navigated a tricky opening Champions League tie and took a firm step forward in a season when they will be forever reminded of their players missing due to injury.
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Klopp has grown increasingly exasperated this week at the narrative around Virgil van Dijk’s potentially season-ending injury. He was tetchy in the prematch news conference when asked about the sheer magnitude of Van Dijk’s absence; Liverpool have been, understandably, aggrieved at the manner in which it happened, but Klopp emphasised the need to focus on solutions rather than excuses.
And as the rain poured down in Amsterdam, Klopp’s Liverpool rode their luck at times and needed some heroic, last-gasp defending from Fabinho but ground out a win over Ajax that was as much about concentration and character as it was a tactical victory.
“It was not the most easy-on-the-eye performance — both teams can play much better football,” Klopp said after the match. “We were pretty dominant. Ajax is usually a brilliant football team, but it was tricky tonight.”
With Van Dijk and Joel Matip absent — and an eyebrow raised at suggestions they should have strengthened or need to strengthen at the back — Klopp partnered Joe Gomez with midfielder-turned-centre back Fabinho in the middle of their defence.
“I don’t think they’ve [Gomez and Fabinho] played before together [at the back]. It was good, but even [Fabinho] can play better. They need to get used to each other — get used to the verbal demands of that position. It was a good performance, but there’s a lot to improve, that’s good! How high or low the last line in the moment — it was absolutely good,” Klopp added.
With Alisson also recovering from injury, Adrian was deputised in goal, and the trio stood resolute to Ajax’s trickery and attempts to pull them out of position or exploit any space from Liverpool’s high press.
Liverpool actually sat deeper than we’re used to seeing, and Ajax’s lack of width, or use of overlapping fullbacks, meant they could largely cope with the elusive Dusan Tadic and the pace of David Neres and Quincy Promes. But fortune smiled on them. Adrian saved well from a close-range Promes effort — standing tall to block from 5 metres out — while Tadic managed to breach the high press and lobbed a stranded Adrian only to see Fabinho acrobatically clear off the line.
“He’s a top player, so top players can adapt,” was James Milner’s postmatch assessment of Fabinho’s clearance.
Davy Klaassen hit the inside of the post and saw another effort well saved, while Ryan Gravenberch put a half-chance wide, but the clean sheet will come as a welcome fillip after Liverpool’s turbulent week. When they arrived in Amsterdam, Liverpool were still publicly aggrieved at the rough justice they perceived to be subject to against Everton last Saturday. But privately you can picture Klopp ensuring his side were focused on what they could control, and not the absent personnel with six first-teamers unable to face Ajax (Alisson, Van Dijk, Matip, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Thiago Alcantara and Naby Keita).
“We are not dumb enough to think we did not need a bit of luck for the clean sheet. We could’ve done better. We don’t hang the clean sheet too high as there were two situations [Klaassen’s attempt and Fabinho’s late clearance] where we were far from perfect,” Klopp said.
Klopp gave a Champions League debut to Curtis Jones in Liverpool’s midfield, as he started alongside Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. But the ball was largely played over or around them, rather than through them. They looked dangerous on the counter attack and Mohamed Salah had an effort well blocked by Noussair Mazraoui, while Roberto Firmino again went without a goal as he looks to get off the mark this season.
But after a weekend when Liverpool went without any good fortune, they will have gladly accepted the gift offered to them for what proved to be their winning goal. Sadio Mane neatly cut inside Perr Schuurs and then hit turf before ball as he scuffed his shot into Nicolas Tagliafico, who failed to shift his position and diverted the ball past his goalkeeper, Andre Onana.
It was a scrappy, ugly goal, but Liverpool will take that gift. And in a week when Liverpool’s depth was questioned, Klopp’s trio of substitutions on the hour mark as he took off their high-profile attacking lineup of Salah, Firmino and Mane — who had his leg iced after coming off — was further proof of the trust the manager has in the options at his disposal.
Liverpool will face sterner tasks this season, and will need to play better against more adventurous opposition. Ajax were disappointing. Even after a summer where they their talent pool further plundered with Donny van de Beek, Sergino Dest and Hakim Ziyech all moving on, they lined up in an uncustomary 4-4-2 formation, rather than their usual 4-3-3. It’s in Ajax’s DNA that they never fear the opposition, nor adjust for them.
Perhaps Erik ten Hag took note of how Leeds United had managed to get under Liverpool’s skin earlier in the season with a similar outlook, but they looked like a side still familiarising themselves with their new signings and going through the post-transfer window evolutionary period.
“We did a fantastic job against a very good team. The plan and implementation were excellent, only the goal was missing,” Ten Hag said after the match. “We created opportunities, but we have to pull the trigger.”
The previous time Ajax played Liverpool in Amsterdam was back in 1966. Ajax won 5-1 that evening in a game that signalled the European awakening to Total Football. It was played out in thick mist; reports state that those at the wrong end of the stadium missed most of the second half. But on Wednesday night, Liverpool got some clarity, the skies lightened a little and they got an indication of what life looks like without their star centre back.
Liverpool weren’t at their best, but they ground this out. Klopp will be delighted as they got off to the solid start after a rocky week.