There was widespread bemusement around Anfield upon the announcement that Adam Lallana would be starting a must-win Premier League game against Burnley.
With Liverpool having squandered their advantage in the title race to Manchester City – and with the reigning champions gaining three more points on Saturday night against Watford – the margin of error for the Reds is zero. Even at that, they still need snookers.
Lallana, who hasn’t scored or assisted in any Premier League game since the last day of the 2016-17 season, would be few fans’ pick to start in the advanced midfield slot. But with Xherdan Shaqiri out of favour with Jurgen Klopp and Naby Keita still to truly convince that he can be trusted to carry that burden, the manager turned to Lallana.
“We had a complete training week and actually that’s how it is,” Klopp told BT Sport beforehand.
“If you have five sessions a week, everybody can show up and Adam was exceptional during the week. So, in a situation where you think a little bit how you can adjust one or two things, it’s smart.
“He trained well for a while already but this week was especially well – that’s the reason why he starts.”
It was only his fourth start of the league season – the fifth in all competitions – but his inclusion solidified an attack which – Watford and Bournemouth apart – had been struggling to put teams away in 2019.
Four draws in six – including two scoreless – opened the door for City and Pep Guardiola’s team needed no second invitation to reclaim top spot.
Where Guardiola can interchange the likes of Leroy Sane, Riyad Mahrez, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and David Silva, Klopp has far fewer weapons at his disposal.
And it has been proven in the past few weeks – not least against Everton last Sunday – that when the supply lines dry up, Liverpool’s all-star forward line malfunctions.
Lallana over the course of the last eight games can help bring another dimension to Liverpool’s play. While his contributions on the ball were clever and creative at times against Burnley, it was when becoming the first line of the press that Lallana did his best work.
No player regained possession more for Liverpool during Lallana’s time on the field nor made more tackles and it was his brave interception off a Burnley clearance which helped put Sadio Mane in for the crucial second goal.
Liverpool had conceded first again here, and it is curious that of their 16 Premier League goals against this season, six have been the first goal of the game. The corner swung in by Ashley Westwood probably should not have stood given that James Tarkowski was impeding Alisson. But Liverpool had to get on with it.
Roberto Firmino bundled home a close-range equaliser at the end of a move involving Lallana further back – proving you can’t measure everything with goals and assists – and the second came at a crucial juncture.
Lallana’s charge down of Jack Cork’s clearance meant the ball broke to Mohamed Salah in the box. A tackle on him meant the ball was nudged into the path of Mane, who scored yet again at home in the Premier League this calendar year.
Firmino’s second quelled the Burnley threat and capped what was a glorious afternoon for the Brazilian. Those were his first goals since Crystal Palace back in January and will come as a welcome boost for a player who has been under scrutiny at various points this season.
What Firmino does is hard to quantify solely in terms of his goal output. He played well overall here, dropping into midfield to win the ball and instigate attacks.
Liverpool’s traditional attacking trident under Klopp – with Mane wide left, Salah wide right and Firmino through the centre – hasn’t always been apparent this season as the manager seeks to find other solutions which are not so easy to predict.
But in this shape Liverpool look and feel better, and provide more of a threat too. Salah’s raids down on Tom Heaton may not have provided a goal for himself but caused plenty of damage nonetheless.
This was a very solid display from the Reds – despite Johann Gudmondsson and Mane (for his second) exchanging injury time goals for a final 4-2 scoreline – who recovered well from an unjust beginning to dominate.
And at the heart of it was Lallana, a maligned player who on the day earned a standing ovation from the Kop and a warm hug from Klopp.
It might not be enough; the title is in City’s hands after all. But if he can give Liverpool that extra surge required down the home stretch, then this game will be regarded as a very happy return.