With nary a minute of Dominik Szoboszlai or Alexis Mac Allister required, Liverpool wrestled control of a combustible engine room in a way they have so infrequently over the last few years. What was once the gaping hole in Jurgen Klopp’s side is now shaping up to be something of a great strength for Anfield’s next iteration.
Certainly more performances like Thursday’s will surely assure Ryan Gravenberch of a spot alongside this summer’s even bigger money signings in the starting XI for Liverpool’s biggest games, such is the drive and vision the youngster offers, one that culminated with the fourth goal in this 5-1 win over Toulouse. Wataru Endo will feel he has done his chances of a big role no harm either; a side that even tonight struggled to control the pace of this breathless encounter could certainly do with his ball recovery skills.
With Gravenberch, Endo and Curtis Jones setting a solid foundation from the outset, you would not have known this was a largely fringe Liverpool XI, the hosts moving the ball crisply across the Anfield turf and hunting down possession as a pack. Give one the space to shine as an individual and they invariably would, Diogo Jota spinning in midfield, flicking the ball past one defender before rolling it past Guillaume Restes. Soon after Jota laid on an even better opening for Darwin Nunez, the latest spell of penalty box pressure culminating in a deft flick from the Portuguese. Nunez might have done better than volley over. His moment would come.
Before then, Toulouse pounced on the sort of sloppy mistake that has been a little too prevalent whoever is in the Liverpool XI. It was a neat counter that saw Aron Donnum slip through Thijs Dalinga but Alexander-Arnold really should not have been playing the visiting frontline on. Perhaps Ibrahima Konate and Virgil van Dijk might have done better at making amends on the original mistake but this would not be the last time that Toulouse slipped into space behind the Anfield backline.
Alexander-Arnold would make amends, however, on more than one occasion. Liverpool tend not to score headed goals — this was their first since April — and at 5-foot-10, Wataru Endo is hardly the obvious target. So precise was the delivery, however, that a flicked header was all that was required to restore Liverpool’s lead.
If the assist can be taken for granted, one does not expect goal-saving interventions from the right back early in the first half. When Caoimhin Kelleher rushed out to claim a ball he couldn’t get, Gabriel Suazo needed only to smash the ball across a goal line protected by Alexander-Arnold. However, the right back showed great anticipation, moving the minute he saw his opponent open his body to strike the ball and blocking it with his thigh.
If anyone outshone Liverpool’s captain on the night, though, it was Gravenberch. His drive through the guts of the game is not something Klopp often had before this season. There is a gravity to his play that cannot help but draw defenders who must know that they should really be worrying about Jota and Darwin Nunez. Gravenberch’s powerful running into the box just before the stroke of half time opened up space for Jones, whose shot deflected into the path of Nunez, determined to rip the net off its roof, so powerful was his strike.
With three to their name at halftime, Liverpool should have been home and hosed but Toulouse continued to threaten on the counter, forcing that great block from Alexander-Arnold. The game was only put to bed when Nunez fluffed his lines at the end of a flowing move, crashing a shot against the post. Gravenberch was on hand for the rebound, an impressive night ending not with a goal on the rebound but a warm ovation from Anfield soon after. His replacement, Mohamed Salah, would add a fifth in added time, a rising shot clipping the bar after a swift run by Jota.
Nominally stationed behind the Dutch international, Endo was not afraid to push up and drove a smart shot wide 10 minutes into the second half. There were occasions when the front-footed nature of the midfield opened avenues for Toulouse to exploit but just as frequently the French side were hemmed in by a physical, technical trio they could not overcome. What was once Liverpool’s soft underbelly now looks to be reinforced with steel.