Jurgen Klopp’s deep intake of breath in front of Anfield said it all. Liverpool had been put through the ringer, their nerves were shredded, but they were three points better off than they had been at the start of the night.
For most teams, one could argue that this vastly improved performance would have been enough without the result. Not at Liverpool. Not right now. Perhaps they could still have afforded a two game wobble in the Champions League, it is hard to be certain when Rangers and Napoli are yet to play their second game in Group A. However, the stratospheric standards that they and Manchester City have set for each other means that, in the Premier League in particular, Jurgen Klopp’s players have next to no room to be good but unlucky. When you are aspiring for the level of success Liverpool rightly are, improvements to the underlying metrics and performances only count for so much. You have to put points on the board.
Those improvements were there in abundance and they were needed in a match decided by the finest of margins, Joel Matip’s header flying over the goal line before Ajax’s Dusan Tadic could flick the ball off the line to safety. On another night — one where Remko Pasveer wasn’t showing the agility to shame a man half his 38 years, where Muhamed Kudus didn’t score the best goal of the group stage so far, or where Darwin Nunez hit the target with the game’s best opportunity — Liverpool would not have needed to leave it so late.
For 88 minutes this felt like an occasion where they were plain out of luck. They hammered at the Ajax line, responding impressively when Kudus had cancelled out Mohamed Salah’s earlier opener. The corner from which the levee eventually broke was the 10th they won, many more had brought moments of great strain on the visiting goal and Pasveer’s best save of an outstanding night came when he sprung down to his left to get in the way of Virgil van Dijk’s bullet header. His chest first block of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s strike was not bad either. Nor was the glove he got on Darwin Nunez’s cross, taking it out of the path of an onrushing Luis Diaz.
Liverpool demanded that level of excellence not just from Pasveer, but from the impressive Calvin Bassey and Jurrien Timber. Indeed across the pitch there were few Ajax players who did anything other than perform exceptionally well as they had to so as to keep themselves in the contest and perhaps even win it. They were an inch or less away from doing exactly that when an unmarked Daley Blind flicked Dusan Tadic’s cross wide of the far post. It was also only their third, and final, shot of the match.
But, even if the Eredivisie champions had won, no one could have viewed this as a rerun of last week’s disastrous performance in Naples. Liverpool were assertive with and without the ball at the upper end of the pitch, far from perfect when their opponent hit them in the space down their defensive channels (there are questions to be asked again about the intensity Alexander-Arnold showed on defense when Kudus scored), but applying enough pressure to make it hard for Ajax to advance that far.
“We knew we had to put a completely different shift into the game,” said Klopp. “The boys did that. We played a lot of good stuff against a really hard-fighting, good opponent. We scored the first goal and should have scored more from set pieces especially, I don’t know these balls didn’t go in.
“Ajax didn’t have a lot. [Scoring from their first shot] is how it is in our situation. It was an incredible strike from Kudus… You could see the impact of [the goal]. The pressing before the goal was much better than after the goal. We’re only talking about a yard or two in these moments, if we press we have to do it right. At 1-1 we had to go back to how we started and keep going.”
That they did, and although Liverpool wobbled for a time after Kudus’ goal, for most of the time they seemed far more sure of themselves than they have in weeks gone by. Perhaps that was explained by the presence of Thiago in the engine room once more. From the moment he broke the Ajax pressure valve with a first time pass to Alexander-Arnold in the first minute a sense of surety seemed to envelope the Reds’ midfield.
It soon spread so that for all that it had been apparent before kick off that Liverpool really needed to win before kick off they never seemed particularly panicked in their pursuit of victory. The 15th, 16th and 17th shots in the penalty area might have gone to waste but still they ground on, convinced the win would come now that they were back in their groove. They were right.