They called them ‘The Fab Four’, but in the end it felt like they had just 15 minutes of fame.
It was late September 2017, and then as now Liverpool were about to play in their first Champions League away game of the group stages.
Spartak Moscow were the opposition, and all the talk dominating the build-up to the trip to Russia was about how Jurgen Klopp could field his exciting attacking quartet of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane together for the first time.
The sheepish Coutinho had only recently returned from the ‘back injury’ that blighted a summer in which he just so happened to be heavily linked with Barcelona, and then just before he was reintroduced Mane was sent off at Manchester City, earning him a three-game Premier League ban.
The four had played together for just a handful of minutes in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Sevilla that began their Champions League campaign, but Moscow was to be the first time they were to start a match together.
Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ started together in Moscow in September 2017
Coutinho scored a well-taken goal in a 1-1 draw, and so began a period of 20 matches in which Liverpool scored three goals six times, four goals twice, five goals on two occasions and seven on two more – the Champions League maulings of Spartak and Maribor in which ‘The Fab Four’ accounted for 12 of the 14 goals.
The quartet didn’t play in all of those games together of course, and Liverpool also weren’t that good in plenty of them.
The run included the infamous 4-1 defeat at Tottenham, as well as the 3-3 draws at Sevilla and Arsenal in which the Reds had been 3-0 up in the former and 2-0 up in the latter.
Those results meant that the focus on the four exciting talents – and yes, there were Beatles t-shirts mocked up – slowly began to ebb away when it became clear just how much Liverpool needed a new defender, with Klopp still criticised for not going for a back-up option after he’d missed out on Virgil van Dijk that summer.
Salah, Firmino, Mane and Coutinho were only together for three months
(Image: Offside Sports Photography)
Dejan Lovren had had a nightmare in that Spurs loss, Joe Gomez was really just returning from a long injury absence, Joel Matip was starting to pick up issues and Ragnar Klavan was nothing more than a stop-gap.
Add to that the fact that the reliable right-back Nathaniel Clyne was out for the season, and Alberto Moreno was back in favour over James Milner on the left and there were full-back issues too.
Nineteen-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold was being thrown in at the deep end in place of Clyne and at times it showed, while summer signing Andy Robertson had barely played in the first half of the season as he got up to speed.
Defending was of secondary importance to Liverpool though, as Klopp’s pressing football hit heights it never had before.
Liverpool were full of goals in the 2017/18 season
(Image: LIVERPOOL ECHO)
The Reds were indulging in an open, free-flowing way of playing that meant that when it came to a shootout with their opposition, they would back themselves to outscore whomever they were facing.
Having Coutinho join what would soon be known as ‘The Front Three’ from the No.10 position was helping with that, and it was on the basis of this approach that Liverpool would build when January hit and the Brazilian got his move away.
Van Dijk’s entry through the Melwood revolving door at virtually the same time meant that the defence was shored up immediately, but Liverpool still stuck to the plan that saw one of their midfielders join up with the attack whenever possible.
It was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for a while, with the former Arsenal man particularly impressing in the wins over Manchester City in the Premier League and Champions League, before he suffered his own serious knee injury in the semi-finals against Roma.
Which brings us up to the present day.
Van Dijk’s injury may lead to a change for Liverpool
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The Van Dijk blow is surely the biggest threat to Liverpool’s progress under Klopp that the Reds have faced since Coutinho’s departure, which proved to be something that they could skilfully overcome through astute recruitment and an altered gameplan.
The Dutchman proved pivotal to that approach as he helped spread calm and composure throughout a team that both recruited more superior players and saw the players they had get better and better.
Seasoned Liverpool watchers would tell you that the team was at its most exciting in the 2017/18 season though, often before Van Dijk’s arrival as matches would be stretched and chances would flow at both ends. Salah ended up with 44 goals that season, his first for the Reds, after all.
So with no Van Dijk meaning less control, and an inevitable loss of cool and calm at the back, would Liverpool be better served embracing the chaos again? The Premier League season seems to be going that way, after all.
Gomez and Matip have picked up plenty of experience for the Reds
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Liverpool now have a better goalkeeper and stronger midfield than they did before, while the defenders who are still there and still fit – most importantly Gomez, Matip, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson – are all much better players now.
The Reds have also got an abundance of players who could play in that ‘Coutinho role’ as an addition to the front three as well, with Naby Keita, Curtis Jones, Xherdan Shaqiri and Oxlade-Chamberlain all more than capable enough.
But the real beneficiaries of this change would surely be Takumi Minamino and Diogo Jota.
Klopp – who rarely wastes money – has spent around £50million on the pair in the past year, with their principle job being to supplement the attackers.
Neither man has made a Premier League start yet this season, but their ability to play either behind the attackers or as one of them is something that will be invaluable should Klopp let his Reds off the leash.
Minamino could be used more often by Liverpool as they seek to add attacking power
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The form of Firmino means that there is a genuine question over the Brazilian’s current spot in the team, but he could even find himself as the withdrawn player – the ‘Coutinho’ – as Minamino or Jota play ahead of him. The possibilities seem endless.
Liverpool have spent so long learning how to control matches, and the seemingly endless array of one-goal wins were what powered them to the title last season.
But no Van Dijk means that the centre of their defence is now going to be a lot closer in ability to the teams they are facing, so relying upon that could prove costly.
Better to go on the attack then, add another player to the starting XI who is a genuine goal threat and go back to 2017 in order to keep things on track for a successful future.
Will Liverpool win the Premier League again? Have your say in the comments below
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