Roberto De Zerbi praised his Brighton predecessor Graham Potter for leaving him a great team, saying: “I tried not to damage it.”
Mission statement was the only modest aspect of the Italian’s Premier League debut as Brighton were the last side to exploit Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses.
Leandro Trossard started the De Zerbi era in style with the first hat-trick by a guest player at Anfield since Andrey Arshavin scored four goals for Arsenal in 2009. Liverpool fought back, two goals down, leading through a brace from Roberto Firmino and an unfortunate Adam Webster own goal, but a win would have flattered Jurgen Klopp’s side. “I wasn’t 100% convinced that we wouldn’t concede at 2-3,” admitted the Liverpool manager. Trossard agreed with him seven minutes from time.
It was the least the visitors deserved and the fifth time Liverpool had lost points in seven league games this season. Klopp was visibly discouraged by their inconsistency.
De Zerbi wanted bold football and that’s exactly what he got. The confident visitors were ready to replicate Liverpool’s pressing in their own box and thread inch-perfect passes through central midfield, repeatedly shattering the home defence. Were it not for a brilliant save from Alisson and a poor header from Danny Welbeck, they would have taken a four-goal lead in the first 18 minutes and crossed before Firmino changed the complexion of the game. Klopp admitted Liverpool were surprised by Brighton’s formation and approach. It took them forever to respond.
The breakthrough came early and after a weak clarification by Trent Alexander-Arnold. After staunchly defending the Liverpool right-back following his fall at the hands of England manager Gareth Southgate, Klopp could have used a convincing response from a talent he described as “world-class”. It was not imminent as Alexander-Arnold was wrong for both Brighton goals and almost a third just before half-time.
After the defender headed a Solly March cross back into the Liverpool quarter, the superb Moisés Caicedo beat Jordan Henderson with the second ball and found Alexis Mac Allister. His touch was blocked by Welbeck with his back to Trossard, who easily slipped away from Alexander-Arnold and drove into the far corner.
The Liverpool defense was torn apart in the early stages. Another March cross marked Welbeck uncovered in the middle of Liverpool’s goal. Six yards away and with Alisson in sight, the centre-forward headed straight for the Brazil international when he needed to do better.
Alisson came to the rescue of the home side after a careless mistake by Thiago Alcântara, who rolled the goalkeeper’s throw under his foot to Pascal Gross. Suddenly Welbeck was free in the area. His touch fell on Trossard, whose shot was destined for the bottom corner until Alisson stretched out a leg to save with his right foot. It was a vital intervention, although Liverpool’s afternoon would deteriorate before the bailout began.
Brighton deservedly doubled their lead when Alexander-Arnold put a long ball down Welbeck’s run. Pervis Estupiñán sent the striker to the left and found March, who released Trossard with a nice first touch. From a similar position to his first goal, the Belgium striker swept another sharp finish past Alisson.
When Virgil van Dijk stopped Welbeck from lunging at another flowing Brighton move, Liverpool faltered badly, struggling to contain the visitors’ adventure or retain possession long enough to threaten a response. But the comeback began thanks to a much-needed intervention from VAR.
Firmino’s finish was initially overruled for offside by referee Andrew Madley after a flag from his assistant when Mohamed caught Salah Henderson’s chip and turned the ball in the Brazilian striker’s path. However, VAR ruled that Webster Salah had played on the side when the captain’s ball sailed over the top and after much deliberation, Madley reversed his decision to the irrepressible delight – and relief – of Klopp.
The Liverpool manager brought in Luis Díaz for Fábio Carvalho at half-time and the move paid off as the Colombian winger helped level. After a Brighton break that faltered, Henderson splashed a beautiful ball at Thiago who freed Díaz to a one-on-one against Joël Veltman. He focused on Firmino, who moved away from Lewis’ dunk before beating Robert Sánchez with a cool finish.
Liverpool bizarrely canceled their two-goal deficit when the Brighton keeper made a mess while attempting to clear an Alexander Arnold corner. The ball sailed past Sánchez’s fist and caught the unlucky Webster before sloshing over the line.
The comeback was on but built on suspect foundations, with Liverpool’s defense constantly vulnerable to Brighton’s exploratory runs. Kaoru Mitoma put on a lively performance as a second-half substitute. His cross from the touchline should have been intercepted by Van Dijk but it sailed past the defender at the back post to Trossard. The hat-trick was sealed with an emphatic shot that Alisson was only able to shove into the net roof. The only damage De Zerbi did was to Liverpool.
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