VILLA PARK, Birmingham — Liverpool got back to winning ways in style on Sunday, romping to a 6-0 victory at relegation favourites Aston Villa in a performance of all-round quality, with the contribution of their attacking trident of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Daniel Sturridge hogging the headlines.
"The theory goes had this trio been fit for selection for most of the season—or for even half the number of games in which they’ve been missing—Liverpool would be pursuing a top-four position rather than striving for consistency in mid-table," the Telegraph's Chris Bascombe evaluated, encapsulating the feeling of the away support.
The travelling fans were rousing in their vocal backing throughout, buoyed by this attacking might.
In Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge, Jurgen Klopp has a trio of top-level forward options, and in this overwhelming victory at Villa Park, they hinted at a strong finish to the 2015/16 campaign.
Naturally, it was far from a three-man show on Sunday afternoon, with six different goalscorers and a steadfast clean sheet printed into the record books, serving as evidence of a solid, all-round team performance.
Lining his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Klopp made nine changes to the side that lost 2-1 to West Ham United in Tuesday night's FA Cup fourth-round replay, with only Coutinho and Simon Mignolet keeping their places in the starting lineup.
This saw Kolo Toure fielded alongside Mamadou Sakho at centre-back, flanked by first-choice full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno and shielded by a two-man midfield unit of Jordan Henderson and Emre Can.
Joining Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge in a fluid attacking line was vice-captain James Milner, whose industry and guile on the right wing provided Liverpool with the impetus to overrun Remi Garde's Villans.
Pressing high, holding a compact defensive line and flooding forward in numbers, the Reds overcame a congested start to gain dominance of the fixture, with Villa centre-back Joleon Lescott taking to Twitter after the game to apologise for his side's "lack of commitment for the 90 minutes."
Coutinho's sumptuous delivery from the left wing gave Liverpool their first of the afternoon, with Sturridge finding space behind a worryingly off-form Lescott to nod beyond Mark Bunn to make it 1-0, before Milner's free-kick from the same area bounced past the former Norwich City goalkeeper nine minutes later to give the Reds a comfortable lead.
Heading into the break at 2-0, Klopp will have encouraged his side to continue their impressive work, and he was rewarded with further goals from Can, substitute Divock Origi, Clyne and Toure.
"That’s the best thing: I can’t tell who scored the goals!" Klopp told reporters after the game. "Clyney and Daniel and Divock with his first touch. That’s perfect!"
Toure, speaking to the Liverpool Echo's James Pearce following his first goal in five years, echoed this sentiment, lauded his side's "perfect" performance, saying "that’s what the manager wants: everyone being part of the game. When we attack, we all go forward, and we all have to defend too."
As Toure continued his post-match appraisal, he turned the focus to the decisive contributions of Coutinho and Sturridge, who were making their second appearances back in the first team after missing much of 2016 through injury:
Just look at the first goal.
Coutinho cross, Sturridge scored. First chance for us, first goal. They make the difference. They are both top players and we are really happy to have them.
We have a great squad. We just need to repeat that type of performance.
Though, as the 34-year-old points out, Liverpool have the squad capable of producing slick, attacking displays such as this Villa Park thrashing, what has been missing for much of 2015/16 is star quality.
In Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge, Klopp is now able to call upon a trio of genuine match-winners.
Coutinho, operating in his typical role on the left flank, spent the majority of his 66 minutes on the field drifting inside, closer to his natural No. 10 position, and produced a stunning performance of true creative zeal.
The Brazilian laid on two goals for his team-mates, providing Origi with a simple, side-footed finish for the Belgian's first touch of the game on 63 minutes by playing an inch-perfect ball through the Villa defence.
An hour-long highlight reel, Coutinho's display was complete with flicks, tricks and no-look passes, with the former Inter Milan midfielder looking back to his best after a muted run of form before suffering a hamstring injury in January—and much of this is due to the support of his compatriot, Firmino.
Dropping back into an attacking-midfield role on the return of Sturridge, Firmino floated in the hole behind Villa's midfield, pressing Lescott and Jores Okore back and dovetailing brilliantly with Klopp's No. 15.
Firmino made the most key passes of any player, with three, but it was his work rate and intensity that were most valuable; the 24-year-old provided the grit to match Sturridge's flair.
After a promising display off the bench in the defeat to West Ham in the FA Cup, Sturridge made his first start of the year at Villa Park, leading the line as a floating, off-the-shoulder centre-forward.
The England international has been the subject to much speculation throughout 2015/16, as injury issues persisted and dubious claims—via Sami Mokbel and Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail—hinted that he was looking to leave the club "over his fury at criticism questioning his desire to play for the club."
These reports, of course, have proved to be unfounded, and an exceptional display—full of pace, movement and a much-needed predatory instinct—on Sunday served to compound this.
Klopp described Sturridge as a "real striker" after the game, perhaps indicating what Liverpool had been missing in his absence.
Remarkably, given the fluency and efficiency of their attacking work, this was the first time supporters had seen Coutinho, Firmino and Sturridge together in a Liverpool lineup.
As Bascombe highlighted, the absence of Sturridge—and the wavering fitness and form of Coutinho and Firmino—has undermined Liverpool's push for a top-four finish in the Premier League this season; during his post-match debrief, the Telegraph reporter continued to gush over the England international's influence on Klopp's side:
It does not matter how many different ways you try to describe it, Liverpool are a different team when Sturridge is on the pitch.
They’ve tried several personnel, numerous formations and a couple of managers this season—the difference between poor performances and excellent displays needs no significant analysis.
Sturridge played, everyone around him was better.
In Sturridge, Liverpool have a world-class centre-forward whose talents outbalance the frustration of his injury problems. Now, having approached the former Chelsea striker's recovery with patience, Klopp is seemingly reaping the benefits.
"We can only speak about this when he's available. Today was brilliant, you saw he was not too happy when we took him off," Klopp continued to tell reporters, praising Sturridge's contribution.
"It made sense to take him out. It was okay, it was perfect for him. Hopefully he's available for the next game too."
The German should continue to take a cautious slant on Sturridge's reintroduction to the first team, but as he proved on Sunday afternoon, he is the centre-forward Liverpool must build around—and in Coutinho and Firmino, he has the perfect supporting cast.
Thursday night's trip to take on FC Augsburg in the UEFA Europa League provides Klopp with his next opportunity to witness this attacking trio gel into a cohesive, accomplished unit—expect them to continue to fire.
Statistics via WhoScored.com, all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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