Watching Liverpool this season is much like returning to an old movie you’ve seen dozens of times before, the sort that pops up every Saturday night on ITV2. You know what’s going to happen, the plot twist is no surprise, but you can’t help but watch it again and again.
The protagonist of the story differs but the outcome is the same. It usually starts with Liverpool going 1-0 down – this was the 15th time this season that has happened – and nearly always ends with the Reds fighting back to triumph.
Jurgen Klopp’s side have lost just three of those 15 games – two were relatively meaningless Europa League away ties, the other was after a VAR shambles at Tottenham that saw Luis Diaz denied a perfectly legitimate goal amid a cock-up at Stockley Park.
This match started the same, with Liverpool going a goal behind in a first half that ended with complaints of sloppiness in defence and a lack of creativity in attack. But second-half strikes from Curtis Jones and substitute Cody Gakpo cancelled out Willian’s opener.
Klopp has denied the suggestion that his self-dubbed Mentality Monsters are back – but it is hard to argue any more. Whether it be the starting XI or those off the bench – Liverpool have scored 15 goals from substitutes this season – these players don’t know when they are beaten.
Neither team were at their best, with both often giving the ball away cheaply. Ultimately, like in their FA Cup win at Arsenal on Sunday, Klopp’s mid-game tactical switches won the match, with Darwin Nunez getting two assists and the other, Gakpo, scoring the winner.
Fulham boss Marco Silva, whose side now have an uphill battle in the return leg at Craven Cottage in a fortnight, was left frustrated at how his side capitulated after Jones equalised, with just two minutes and 40 seconds between the goals. It felt like deja vu for the Portuguese boss.
That three-minute spell at least bettered the 81 seconds that separated Liverpool’s equaliser and match-winner in the Premier League game here a month ago, which finished 4-3 despite Fulham leading 3-2 going into the 87th minute.
The Cottagers’ approach differed somewhat from that December defeat, which saw them attack Liverpool with no fear and gain confidence they could record a smash-and-grab scalp. This was more of a night designed to sit back and frustrate their opponents.
And that plan worked, especially in the early stages as the Anfield crowd grew irked by Fulham’s time-wasting, whether it be Bernd Leno taking an age with goal kicks, or players elongating time on the floor after fouls. Some may call it cheating, others would call it smart game management.
Klopp was visibly stressed as he held his head in his hands after a debatable refereeing decision, while the Kop was furious as Virgil van Dijk was given a soft yellow card. But Liverpool were often guilty of their own downfall as passes went astray and attacks petered out.
But despite their domination of possession, 69 per cent in the first half, Liverpool created little in an attacking sense, with Leno’s only save in the opening 45 minutes being from a Jones long shot. Fulham barely attacked either but they took their chance when it came.
The opening was aided significantly by an off-balance Van Dijk skewing a headed clearance straight to Andreas Pereira, plus young full back Conor Bradley slipping over. Pereira danced into the penalty area and fed Willian, who drove a powerful shot into the goal.
Liverpool were, of course, without four of their five-man leadership group, with vice-captain and creator-in-chief Trent Alexander-Arnold joining Andy Robertson on the injury list, top scorer Mohamed Salah away with Egypt and goalkeeper Alisson Becker on the bench.
Kelleher had been handed a vote of confidence as Liverpool’s goalkeeper in the Carabao Cup – and Europa League – and might have done better with Willian’s goal which saw him beaten at his near post. But he had little to do thereafter, with much of the play at the other end.
His opposite number Leno did not have much to do until after the hour mark, with Ryan Gravenberch pulling a shot wide and Diogo Jota getting his feet tangled up when a long shot from Harvey Elliott deflected into his path.
Leno, though, was helpless on 69 minutes as Jones picked up the ball on the edge of the penalty area and saw a shot deflect off Tosin Adarabioyo. Hardly a show of creative genius, but the pass was Nunez’s ninth assist of the season.
He soon went into double figures, with Liverpool’s next attack seeing the Uruguayan No 9 find space on the left of the penalty box and drill a cross into the path of fellow substitute Gakpo, who fired into the back of the net. At the click of the fingers, the game was turned on its head.
Nunez deserved a goal for his efforts, and Klopp admitted after the match: ‘You cannot be more unlucky than him in the finishing situation.’ He was referring to two chances that were well saved by Leno, one with acrobatics and one perhaps luck as a shot was fired straight at him.
Many have suspected that the slow starts will eventually catch up with Liverpool. But here we are in mid-January, with the Reds top of the Premier League, still in the FA Cup and the Europa League, and now with one foot in the Carabao Cup final.