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Monday, March 4, 2024

This is Liverpool 2.0 – Two teams, 260 miles apart, two dominant wins

Liverpool were relentless. Victory had long since been secured but they kept pushing.

They swarmed all over their outclassed opponents, the perfect encapsulation of the “pressing monsters” Jurgen Klopp and Pep Lijnders want them to be.

The slick interplay, the intelligent movement, the clinical first-time finishes were a delight. Always on the front foot, always probing. Here was firepower in abundance.

The setting was the Kirkby academy on Saturday evening. Liverpool Under-18s thrashed Arsenal 7-1 to reach the last 16 of the FA Youth Cup. It was an extraordinary result against the seven-time winners, who reached the final of the prestigious competition last season.

Twenty-four hours later, some 260 miles south, there was a youthful feel to another emphatic victory as Klopp’s title-chasing side moved five points clear at the top of the Premier League table.

Bournemouth frustrated Liverpool for 45 minutes but, after the break, they were swept aside as the leaders leapt from rusty to ruthless, with Darwin Nunez and Diogo Jota doing the damage and scoring two apiece.

What a Premier League debut to savour for Conor Bradley, who excelled at both ends of the field in the absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Bradley became the first Northern Irishman to play league football for the club since Sammy Smyth in 1954.

“I’ve been wanting to do this since I was about five, so I’m really proud,” Bradley said. “Trent has been in unbelievable form so I’ve just got to keep trying to do my best for the team and see where that takes me.”

In setting up Jota’s second, 20-year-old Bradley became the third-youngest player to provide an assist on his Premier League bow for Liverpool (after Jordon Ibe and Joe Gomez).

“Really impressive. A real hard worker and a good footballer who can defend and attack” was Klopp’s glowing assessment.

If Bradley keeps performing like this, the prospect of Alexander-Arnold operating in midfield on a more permanent basis becomes ever more likely.

Bobby Clark, 18, Owen Beck, 21, and Kaide Gordon, 19, were introduced off the bench late on — and with Harvey Elliott, 20, and Ryan Gravenberch, 21, also involved, it was the first time since April 1965 that Liverpool have fielded six players aged 21 or under in a league match.

Klopp was without Alexander-Arnold, Mohamed Salah, Andy Robertson and Dominik Szoboszlai, but a feature of Liverpool this season has been the ability of those on the fringes to step up and deliver when called upon.

It’s a testament to the environment Klopp has created. There’s a freshness and vibrancy to what he coined “Liverpool 2.0” — a mix of seasoned campaigners, fresh blood and youth.

There’s also a clear identity and culture that extends from the under-18s through to the seniors. The names on the backs of the shirts may change, but the brand of football is unmistakeably Liverpool.

On Saturday, the attacking trio of Lewis Koumas, Jayden Danns and Trent Kone-Doherty ran riot against Arsenal. All three have trained with Klopp’s squad this season and have returned to the academy ranks energised by the experience.

The pathway under Klopp is clear and the sight of Jarell Quansah, 20, breaking through has inspired those seeking to follow in his footsteps. They have a manager who will always look within for solutions before dipping into the transfer market.

Koumas, who joined from Tranmere Rovers at under-11s level, netted a hat-trick against Arsenal after dropping down from the under-21s.

Fellow 18-year-old Danns, whose two goals included a stunning free kick, is Liverpool’s top scorer (19 goals) at academy level this season. The England Under-18 international has been with the club since he was eight.

Kone-Doherty, the now-17-year-old who signed from the League of Ireland’s Derry City in 2022, also struck twice. A speedy winger, Kone-Doherty lit up the one-sided tie with his runs down the left. And then there was Trey Nyoni, 16, signed from Leicester City last summer, so elegant and dominant in midfield.

“We’re all proud of the performance the lads put in — it just epitomises what we do every day in training,” said Liverpool Under-18s boss Marc Bridge-Wilkinson.

His Arsenal counterpart, former England international Jack Wilshire, conceded: “They were better than us — that’s the harsh reality. We knew how dangerous Liverpool are in transition, and we didn’t handle those moments well enough. A real tough night.”

Bournemouth boss Andoni Iraola knew exactly how he felt.

The first half was scrappy with Klopp bemoaning “a lack of rhythm, too many long balls, too much in a rush”, but the interval allowed him to make the necessary tactical tweaks, including getting Nunez operating more centrally. He urged his front three to be less static and more aware of the pockets of space to exploit.

The message got through as Liverpool swiftly moved through the gears. Alexis Mac Allister was immense at the base of the midfield, gaining possession on 14 occasions, completing 60 of his 69 passes (87 per cent) and making seven tackles and three interceptions.

The opening goal was beautifully crafted as Ibrahima Konate, Curtis Jones and Jota combined to tee up Nunez, who finished in style. Jota’s first-time strike for the second from Cody Gakpo’s pass was emphatic.

The home fans were still chuckling at Jota’s initial mishit when he lashed home the third and then Gomez’s inviting cross from the right was expertly tucked away by Nunez to complete the rout. Nunez became the first top-flight player this season to move into double figures for goals and assists in all competitions. “Just a s*** Andy Carroll,” chanted the away fans ironically. He could feel the love.

From Kirkby to Bournemouth, 11 goals scored and two victories to savour with so much to admire.

(Top photos: Getty Images)



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