I’ll put my hands up; I wasn’t sure what to expect from the opening day of the new season, at least from a personal perspective. The events outside the Stade de France just over two months ago have undeniably left a deeper imprint than even I might have realised.
Across June and July, apart from writing a couple of retrospective pieces on Emlyn Hughes and Ronnie Whelan, and supplying Henry Jackson with a set of 2022/23 predictions, I kept all things Liverpool at arm’s length.
I didn’t watch one live-action minute of our pre-season friendlies, not even the Community Shield, instead forsaking that for a chilled-out weekend in Yorkshire on the fields of a music festival, making for an accumulative summer where I only glanced in Liverpool’s direction to peruse the brief highlights of a Darwin Nunez goal splurge against RB Leipzig, and to take a look at the ones we scored against Man City.
Not in attendance at Craven Cottage, apart from seeking out the team news 45 minutes before kick-off, I totally ignored the pre-match build-up. Worryingly, there had been no itch for football, no steadily rising desire to get back at it. The sport of the round ball hadn’t belonged to men for the last eight or nine weeks, and that had been just fine.
The opening day of a new season isn’t meant to feel like that. No nerves, no anticipation, it was almost as if the spectre of the return to competitive action was a week or two too soon, which of course it has been.
Another thing to accentuate this sense of detachment and borderline ambivalence is that it would be nine days beyond this opening game until I get the chance to click through the Anfield turnstiles when Crystal Palace roll into town.
Although it probably does, all of this isn’t meant to sound ‘grumpy old man’. I’ve just enjoyed ignoring football since Paris. It has been therapeutic and very much needed. If anything, I’ve enjoyed the break a little too much, a situation that had cast football as an uninvited interloper, one that has arrived earlier than required. Throw in Martin Tyler putting his foot firmly in his mouth with his Hillsborough remarks and it was hardly the loving embrace that August usually provides.
Then came Saturday.
Belatedly, all those familiar, yet previously absent new season sensations did kick in around 15 minutes before kick-off, generally provoked by my children deciding they needed to eat. Suddenly, the idea of not being sat in front of the television at 12.30 brought with it acute anxiety, and it was convenience meals all round.
So estranged was I from the nuances of pre-season, I hadn’t realised just how many injuries Jurgen Klopp was nursing. Bobby Firmino being deployed rather than Nunez was unexpectedly expected. Apart from that call, there were no surprises to be found in the line-up.
A handful of early vague scares, Fulham propelled themselves into their latest Premier League return with a bright and enthusiastic start to the game; I don’t know whether it is a trick of the mind, but it certainly feels like we have been dealt more than our fair share of newly promoted teams on the opening day of the season across recent years.
It took Liverpool a quarter of an hour to adjust themselves to the challenge, and a disallowed Luis Diaz effort should have been the moment of genesis for Liverpool to cruise to a comfortable victory. Fulham surprisingly maintained their early energy, however, and Aleksandar Mitrovic proved a constant threat, the conjurer of a series of unnecessary incidents, along with the opening goal of the afternoon. It all seemed completely unnecessary and self-inflicted to a degree, despite the credit the home side deserved.
Diaz was the source of our best moments. A near miss when trying to get on the end of an Andy Robertson ball across the Fulham six-yard-box, the frame of the goal struck and added to his disallowed effort before the interval.
The second half brought more discomfort; the sight of Thiago exiting with what appeared to be a hamstring problem sounded potentially long-lasting alarm bells. His departure also precipitated Firmino being replaced by Nunez.
Fulham could have extended their lead shortly before the hour when hitting the post. If it hadn’t felt so an hour and a half earlier, football was now feeling very alive and relevant.
Mo Salah carved a chance for Nunez which was blocked by the Fulham goalkeeper, a charmed life being led by Marek Rodak until the two linked again for the equaliser in what was a carbon copy of the previous move.
For Klopp, the trick will be striking the right balance in the front three in this post-Sadio Mane landscape. It is unsettling, but we shouldn’t worry too much too soon. On another day Diaz would have scored a couple in the first half, while Nunez and Salah showed clear signs of potential footballing telepathy.
At 1-1, we should have been looking at a ruthless final half hour where we predictably popped the party, but a careless invitation from Virgil van Dijk was enthusiastically accepted by Mitrovic. Fabio Carvalho was thrown on for Diaz as Klopp shuffled his cards, the former Fulham man sending an early opportunity over the crossbar when opting for a little too much composure.
Our second equaliser came with Salah netting via a ball from Trent and the almost accidental assist from Nunez. Fulham refused to read the script though and a tale of the unexpected played itself out with Jordan Henderson hitting the bar in the final seconds.
Not the ideal start to the campaign, the only plus side of the dropped points was that I felt the full force of the frustration at full time.
It was almost reassuring, an outcome that comforted as much as it pained, safe in the knowledge that you can be estranged from the Reds for a while, but you can never divorce them. Crystal Palace can’t come soon enough.
Up the disjointed Reds.
Premier League 2, Kirkby
August 7, 2022
Goals: Mebude 8′, 62′, Ogwuru 69′
That included goalkeeper Harvey Davies, Isaac Mabaya, Luke Chambers, James Norris, Melkamu Frauendorf, Bobby Clark and the impressive Stefan Bajcetic.
In addition to those who enjoyed a summer to remember with the first team, striker Layton Stewart led the line after a strong pre-season following a torrid time with injury.
The new season makes for new players stepping up to the U21s level but, for Lewtas, “the same expectations will be there.”
A fast start created openings for both sides, but it was Man City‘s Adedire Mebude who capitalised on a loose ball in the penalty area to put City 1-0 up after just eight minutes.
The young Reds showed glimpses of finding a route to goal, and Norris and Frauendorf had chances to strike back.
It was City, though, who were asking all the questions and Davies had to be there with the answers to keep his side in touching distance at half-time.
Half time: Liverpool U21s 0-1 Man City U21s
The second half started with a chance for Norris and another crucial intervention from Davies, but two strikes from City within the space of seven minutes put the game beyond reach for Liverpool.
Mebude’s second, a tap-in, doubled the lead for the visitors before Daniel Ogwuru added the third with just over 20 minutes remaining in the contest.
Lewtas did inject Mateusz Musialowski – another player to feature for Klopp throughout pre-season – into the contest off the bench, as well as Max Woltman, Dominic Corness and Oakley Cannonier.
Liverpool could not wrestle back the momentum and ended their day with plenty of valuable lessons for the campaign ahead.
Liverpool U21s: Davies; Mabaya, Quansah, Jonas, Chambers; Bajcetic (Corness 78′), Cain, Norris (Musialowski 64′); Frauendorf (Woltman 65′), Clark (Cannonier 78′), Stewart
Subs not used: Hewitson
One cannot assume anything in this league but three points were expected, yet they were not delivered, despite the goalscoring efforts of Salah and Nunez.
Jurgen Klopp‘s side were disjointed and the manager admitted Liverpool were “just not good enough” to take all three points back to Merseyside.
Here, This Is Anfield’s Joanna Durkan (@JoannaDurkan_) is joined by Lewis Bower (@LewisBower2021), Lubo Domo (@lubodomo) and Aaron Cutler (@aaron_cutler) to talk opening day struggles, the midfield and who should start up top against Crystal Palace.A draw that felt like a defeat…
AARON: There’s no escaping the fact it made for a poor start to the season. Having threatened to blow Man City away in the Community Shield, few supporters could have envisaged us beginning so sluggishly.
The might and relentlessness of City have distorted this league beyond recognition. A draw – however early – feels like a defeat. That may sound dramatic but there is simply no margin for error. Liverpool knows that better than anyone which made our approach all the more frustrating.
Sadly, too many of our lads were under par. We were second to everything and lacked any real cohesion. Continual breaks in play only exacerbated matters.
It’s rare to see the likes of Alexander-Arnold, Matip and Van Dijk so off the boil… and that’s before you get to midfield.
LUBO: I’m not the type to criticise after one game, but the team lacked rhythm and I was also surprised by Virgil getting fooled by Mitrovic.
Fabinho was far from his best, Thiago overhit a few passes too and there was no link between midfield and attack. Salah, Diaz and Bobby barely touched the ball in the first half and Trent got beaten at the second post, not for the first time.
JOANNA: I had a different viewing experience this time around and it made for interesting viewing as my family stirred the pot and looked for any reaction.
As the only Liverpool fan in the large gathering, I was on my own and I didn’t have much to counter with as we really were so desperately poor – of which I was readily reminded.
As you said, Aaron, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that this was close to the team that was relentless against Man City only a week ago, the pressure, discipline and accuracy were just not there at Fulham.
Two points dropped. Liverpool cannot afford us saying that too many times this season.
AARON: As for positives? At least we didn’t lose.
LEWIS: Despite a wretched result and, as a whole, performance, Klopp can cast hope in the performance of Harvey Elliott. Harvey connected a disjointed midfield to a rather hopeful but subdued Salah. Incisive in his more inventive passing and careful in retention, Elliott added intensity and quality, giving life to Salah in the process.
And Nunez, he instils fear into opposition backlines. His desire and intelligence in his movement will eventually give Salah more wiggle room.A word on that midfield performance and ANOTHER injury
A complete lack of composure led to a number of turnovers, meaning any grip on the game would be short-lived.
AARON: The midfield trio were appalling, frankly. I lost count of the second balls lost, while none seemed capable of dictating the pace of the game… something you’ve come to expect of Thiago in particular.
And on Henderson, he improved slightly when dropped into the No. 6 role but that’s not saying much.
JOANNA: You expected a Thiago injury at some point this season but it coming this early is a blow, but I still don’t see Klopp pushing for a new face as he will sense it is a stop-gap with those currently on the sidelines expected to return without too much delay.
Not sure I completely agree.
LUBO: There is enough quality in Naby, Hendo, Fabinho, Elliott, Carvalho, and Milner to get us through the injury crisis. On paper, we still have enough options. A new signing isn’t necessary as of yet, for me. I am not sure that the right player is available at the moment.
LEWIS: I sit on the other side to you, Lubo. It is probably time Liverpool dipped into the market. Although I agree with Klopp, we do not want a stop-gap. But I would like Liverpool to be more aggressive in their long-term targets. Lay some money out for Jude Bellingham.
Liverpool will perhaps need two midfielders in the next 18 months, so there must be someone else liked by the club.
AARON: I do fear we’ll pay the price for not re-enforcing in that engine room. The consensus seems to be the club is waiting for their primary target, who, like Lewis said, we can only presume is Bellingham.
Refusing to compromise and move for a second or third choice has served us well in the past but let’s not forget it also threatened to derail an entire season in 2020/21.
Yes, we have options, but too many of them have chequered injury records and simply cannot be relied upon. I’d be surprised if we see any one of Thiago, Jones or Chamberlain before October which should really prompt a re-think. I’d be even more surprised if we bought someone.And Nunez or Firmino vs. Palace?
JOANNA: I adore Bobby Firmino and I thought he showed really promising signs in pre-season after looking as though all the games and injuries caught up to him last season.
I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed to see him start at Anfield but you do feel Nunez has shown why he should be in the XI, from his movement to his goalscoring contributions.
He’s done what has been asked of him and he can create plenty of danger against Palace, and who would be opposed to seeing that?
LUBO: I agree, Joanna. As much as I love Bobby, Nunez has to start the next game. We need his presence, his strength and his positioning against this type of opposition.
Firmino will still be key, maybe they can try using him as the link between midfield and attack, the No. 10 role, perhaps, he’s more than capable to play there. But I expect Darwin to start and to score, again.
LEWIS: Another vote for Nunez. Darwin has more than earned his place in the starting 11. You can’t keep a £64m signing on the bench forever. Firmino himself is also not a bad option from the bench.
AARON: I’ll make it four from four! Nunez has to start, no question. His two cameo appearances have shown what a handful he’ll be for defences.
The Uruguayan strikes me as somewhat of a rough diamond but a striker that is always going to be involved. His movement is exceptional and his physical presence is a real asset.
On the flip side, Bobby’s influence appears to be waning. He still has a role to play but that is increasingly against certain sides and/or setups. When the Reds are expected to dominate possession and be in the ascendancy, his lack of goal threat comes into sharp focus.
With a game to chase, the manager turned to Nunez not long after half-time and the striker did not take long to make his presence felt.
It was a performance that leaves you wanting to see more and Nunez had a simple message after his first 40 minutes in the English topflight.
“This is just the beginning,” Nunez penned on Instagram, with images of his goal. We like the sound of that!
The clever finish accompanied an impressive performance off the bench, with the 23-year-old throwing himself into the contest and working himself into all the right places.
Klopp praised as much in his post-match press conference while also lamenting what could have been with better deliveries into the final third.
“Great goal. Could have scored another one as well, maybe two? Crazy,” Klopp said.
“So he is involved in a lot of goalscoring situations, that’s really cool and that’s where we have to bring him up.
“Now imagine if we’d have played good, how often we could set him up then! Because that was obviously our main problem, that our delivery was most of the time not good enough.”
With Nunez off the mark, Salah too, it is now a case of the Reds dusting themselves off and using the nine-day break to their advantage.
Liverpool’s £85 million summer signing came off the bench with his team trailing 1-0, before levelling the score and setting up Mohamed Salah for the Reds’ second equaliser.
Aside from Nunez’s cameo, it was an otherwise underwhelming Liverpool performance, who have now failed to beat Fulham in their last three league meetings.
Here’s how the media assessed Liverpool’s 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage.Nunez saved the day, now he must be trusted from the start
”A goal and an assist – of sorts – in both, Nunez couldn’t have done more from the bench in his opening two games. Firmino’s starting position is already looking precarious.
“Liverpool weren’t prepared for this afternoon. But, as Klopp said before the game, Nunez is ready for the Premier League. The Reds can’t keep him on the bench for much longer.”
GOAL‘s Neil Jones believes the Uruguayan still has some adjusting to do, but his potential is there for all to see.
“His ability to create chaos in and around the penalty area is already clear.
“He can tidy himself up, for sure, and will need time to read his team-mates’ moves and tendencies, but Nunez’s potential is huge.
“Liverpool needed him here.”
The Independent‘s Miguel Delaney pointed out how Nunez’s introduction also brought joy for Salah.
“In contrast to Firmino often disappearing and appearing into space, Nunez offered a gravitational pull all of his own.
“He attracted the ball every time, but also three Fulham defenders. That had the multiplying effect of also freeing Salah, which was were that equaliser came from.”
There was also praise from a certain Match of the Day presenter, who’s in no doubt the Uruguayan will score plenty of goals for the Reds.
Darwin Nunez equalises for @lfc. Very clear, from that goal alone, that he’ll score bundles. The movement of a goal-scorer.
— Gary Lineker ?? (@GaryLineker) August 6, 2022More injuries & “wrong attitude” – Not the start Liverpool wanted
Jones also honed in on Liverpool’s ever-increasing injury list, with Thiago the latest to pick up an issue on Saturday.
“Another game, another injury. That’s 10 first-teamers on the sidelines for Liverpool now, with Thiago Alcantara the latest to fall.
“Klopp’s squad, when all are available, is extremely strong, but at the moment it looks wafer-thin, which does not bode at all well ahead of such a gruelling campaign.”
The Echo‘s Paul Gorst highlights Klopp’s post-match comments suggesting the players’ attitude was “wrong”
“The Reds were simply nowhere near their collective best in the capital as Marco Silva’s Championship winners showed what they are about with a performance full of heart and desire that dragged Liverpool into the sort of dog fight they are usually so adept at side-stepping.
“When the manager is questioning the application of this group of players, it’s a massive sign that things haven’t gone according to plan.”
The Guardian‘s Sachin Nakrani feels it could be time for Harvey Elliott to be trusted in the starting XI once more.
Liverpool running out of midfielders with Thiago injured. On positive note, Harvey Elliott looks ready to replace him in the starting XI. Really clever and creative use of the ball by him again today. Could well pick up from where he left off this time last year, pre-injury.
— Sachin Nakrani (@SachinNakrani) August 6, 2022
“The first game of the season is hardly the time to be drawing conclusions but there were two obvious lessons here.
“The first is that Marco Silva’s Fulham look ready to fight for survival this season, as they look to avoid yet another change of divisions in May.
“The second is that Liverpool have not hit the ground running: they were a long way from their sharpest, especially in a stodgy first half.”