Liverpool efficient, if not convincing, in controversial victory at Stoke City
STOKE, England -- Three quick thoughts from Liverpool's 3-0 Premier League win over Stoke at the bet365 Stadium on Wednesday.
1. Liverpool get efficient but controversial win
This will not go down as a classic Liverpool performance, like some of the brilliant, slicing victories of the season so far, but it was a terrifically efficient one. A 3-0 win over a Stoke side who were utterly dreadful might be the minimum you can expect, but on a bitingly cold night in the Midlands, it will do nicely.
The goals came from Sadio Mane in the first half and a Mohamed Salah brace after he came on as substitute. Liverpool will play much better at points this season, but this was a victory achieved without many alarms or surprises.
Jurgen Klopp mixed up his team, making six changes from the weekend, with Salah, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho all given rests. Dominic Solanke, the young England striker signed from Chelsea in the summer, started his first Premier League game for Liverpool, playing in a formation that you could call a 4-2-4 or a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-3-1. Whatever the specifics, it was very attacking.
Despite that, the game was very tight initially, but Liverpool took the lead in slightly controversial circumstances. The Stoke fans seemed to think that Joe Gomez failed to keep the ball in on the right byline -- replays, though not 100 percent conclusive, suggested they might have been right -- but play was waved on. Gomez cut the ball back, Solanke produced a neat flick, and Mane delicately dinked the ball home.
Mark Hughes looked aghast on the touchline, but he might want to have a word with his defenders before complaining about the referee, so slack was their marking on the edge of the 6-yard box.
The fury over that decision paled in comparison to one not long before half-time. Mame Biram Diouf got free on the edge of the box, and Simon Mignolet rushed out and chopped him down at the shin, but only a yellow card was issued. Given that Diouf, had he not been fouled, would've found himself in front of an open goal, Martin Atkinson's decision not to send him off was thoroughly baffling.
The second half followed a similar pattern, with Liverpool the better team but by no means outstanding, and in fact Stoke probably had the better chances, notably one that Joe Allen hit way over from a promising position.
Klopp brought on Salah and James Milner, and though the latter looked like he had his boots on the wrong feet, the former sealed the victory. Mane danced around Ryan Shawcross with slightly embarrassing ease on the right and flipped over a lovely cross, and Salah lashed a brilliant volley into the net.
The same man made it three not long afterward, with a mistake by Erik Pieters putting him clean through on goal, and he tucked confidently home for his 12th league goal of the season. The stadium quickly emptied, and Liverpool rejoiced.
2. Klopp's rotations necessary in fixture pileup
Klopp has certainly been creative with his starting XIs the past couple of games. Resting Mane for the weekend's draw with Chelsea seemed slightly eccentric, as did putting Salah on the bench for this one. In all, he made six changes, undoubtedly a gamble for a side that have showed worrying inconsistency this season and can't take any opponent for granted.
But Klopp's rotation policy is one born from necessity rather than some sort of philosophical choice. Liverpool have nine games from now until Jan. 1, having played seven in the past month. The demands placed on Liverpool's players by his ultra-energetic style mean that expecting the same players to dutifully turn out two or three times a week and produce the same level of performance simply isn't realistic.
It's why Liverpool have stockpiled attacking talent the past couple of years. Salah, Solanke and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were all signed in the summer to complement an already healthy number of forward-thinking players.
Klopp's absolute insistence on keeping Daniel Sturridge seemed a little odd, given his fitness record, but when the demands of being asked to play in every game are not made on his fragile body, the England striker can be a valuable option, and Liverpool need plenty of options.
Top-level football is a squad game these days, with only those who are both lucky and not involved in European competition furnished with the luxury of a settled team. Liverpool have been neither of these things, so Klopp's chopping and changing is ostensibly be curious but also entirely necessary.
3. Stoke hampered by their own errors
Hughes is not a manager who tends to take bad decisions against his team very well. His face often seems set to an expression of permanent befuddlement, not comprehending that the fates and planets have aligned against him and that some malignant force (or simply referees) have wronged him.
Of course, in some instances he is entirely justified: Atkinson's decision not to send Mignolet off was the sort that made you briefly wonder if the rule had been changed, and there was some mysterious FIFA directive that states that an open goal doesn't constitute a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Equally, Mane's opener might easily have been disallowed.
And yet, Hughes might be better advised to concentrate his unhappiness at his own players than the officials. The ball might well have been out of play before Mane's goal, but that doesn't excuse the way the Stoke defence gave the forward enough space to pick his spot.
Nor does it explain the assorted chances that Stoke wasted, notably one from Allen that he hoofed way over the bar from around 10 yards out after holes opened in the Liverpool defence.
It's easy, and indeed very tempting, to point the finger at something beyond your control when things don't go to plan, but there's a reason that Stoke are troublingly close to the relegation zone and have won only three times all season, and it isn't all because of officialdom.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.