LIVERPOOL, England — Three points on Liverpool’s dominant 6-1 win over Watford at Anfield on Sunday, a result that puts Jurgen Klopp’s side at the top of the Premier League.
1. Brilliant Liverpool go top
This time Liverpool took advantage of their chance. This time they went top of the league for the first time under Jurgen Klopp and the first time since their last title challenge collapsed in cruelly dramatic fashion. Now Liverpool have reached a summit they sat upon most recently in May 2014 until their capitulation at Crystal Palace allowed Manchester City to overhaul them 48 hours later.
Liverpool were headed back to the top two weeks ago until West Bromwich Albion’s Gareth McAuley mustered a consolation goal that altered the standings. Fast-forward a fortnight, and after Manchester City and Arsenal both stumbled, Liverpool surged. They seized the opportunity, sweeping aside Watford 6-1, and there would be no mistaking the Reds’ position.
Walter Mazzarri’s men had risen stealthily to seventh place before kickoff. They arrived at Anfield having kept three consecutive clean sheets but were breached three times by half-time, six times in total. Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can delivered the early goals. Before Georginio Wijnaldum added a late sixth, Roberto Firmino scored a fourth, getting a reward for his selfless running, and set up Mane for the fifth. Firmino was rampant. So were the rest of the team.
Liverpool played fast, fluent, attacking football: They’ve now scored 10 goals in two league games and 30 in 11 but could easily have managed more on Sunday. Lucas Leiva, whose last league goal came in May 2009, was denied by his fellow Brazilian Heurelho Gomes early on. Costel Pantilimon made a fine save to keep out substitute Daniel Sturridge, and the Englishman, whose Premier League drought dates back to April, struck the bar.
Watford also played a part in the scoring, with Daryl Janmaat’s low shot making Liverpool remain strangers to clean sheets. It may yet cost the Reds, but for the meantime, the table makes pleasant reading at Anfield. A day after Chelsea went top by scoring five goals of their own, Liverpool surpassed them by scoring six, showing that they can get onlookers searching for the superlatives as well.
2. Coutinho stakes his case for awards season
The year-end accolades are shaping up to be a private battle of the attacking midfielders. It is looking increasingly likely that come the end of the season, the individual awards will go to an attacking midfielder. There are contenders aplenty. Eden Hazard may be the early favourite to regain the titles he won in 2014-15. Mesut Ozil and Kevin de Bruyne are staking their cases, too. At Anfield, however, there is a growing case for Coutinho to be recognised.
On Sunday, it was the Brazilian’s brilliance that secured victory. He showed both strings to his bow within three first-half minutes, creating the first goal and scoring the second, taking his personal tallies to five goals and five assists already. Only de Bruyne (six) has made more goals for others while Coutinho ranks in the division’s top 10 prolific players himself.
The whipped cross that Mane headed in broke the deadlock. The second was typical Coutinho, a low, right-footed shot that beat Gomes at his near post. Coutinho has a trademark move of using his first touch to veer infield and his second to shoot with his right foot. It brought a goal against West Brom. When he first tried it against Watford, he shot wide, yet it was an indication of his influence — just as it was when he struck the bar (albeit from an offside position) and split the Watford defence with a pass only for Firmino to shank the ensuing shot wide.
Thereafter, Coutinho began the move that ended with Can heading past Pantilimon, who had earlier replaced the injured Gomes. Then Adam Lallana, Firmino, Mane and finally Sturridge took the baton.
But once again, Coutinho’s was the crucial contribution. Even as others got each of Liverpool’s four goals at Crystal Palace last week, Coutinho was comfortably their outstanding player. He got two assists then, aided by his propensity to roam infield. It is one of the ways he has formed a formidable left-sided combination with James Milner. Similarly, it is a testament to the unflashy Englishman that despite not being a specialist left-back, he has arguably been the best in the division at his new position this season. It is a reason that, should Liverpool’s title challenge persist, he will merit a mention come awards season as well.
3. Deeney remains stuck on 99
While Liverpool ended their wait to go top, Watford celebrations of another kind were put on hold again. Troy Deeney has spent a month at 99 goals for the Hornets since scoring against Bournemouth. Now he has 13 more days to contemplate reaching the milestone, and perhaps it will come against Leicester, the club that tried to sign him in the summer.
Luther Blissett, Tommy Barnett, Ross Jenkins and Cliff Holton are the four Watford centurions. Blissett, the club’s all-time top scorer, was at Anfield to see Deeney’s latest attempt to join a select club, but he rarely looked like joining them, just as the Hertfordshire club never seemed likely to add to their sole win at Anfield, which came in 1999. In Deeney’s defence, he was starved of service and more prominent than Odion Ighalo, whose loss of form presents Mazzarri with a problem.
Deeney, wearing perhaps the biggest pair of shorts spotted on a football pitch since the 1950s, finds ways of contributing when not scoring. The ball is drawn to him. He links play, finds teammates and generally provides Watford with a focal point. He was Etienne Capoue’s supplier when the midfielder perhaps should have scored a consolation goal. In contrast, Ighalo is the finisher who has finished only once this season.
But the more immediate issue lies in defence. Mazzarri’s decision to switch from his preferred back three to a back four backfired. Such attack-minded full-backs as Janmaat and Jose Holebas may be better off as wing-backs, but they could have benefited from extra bodies in midfield, too, where they were swamped.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.