In the end everything came together for Liverpool but this was a strange way to win three points, as Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino came off the bench to breathe fresh life into a team who had been sleepwalking towards defeat. On another day they would be called inspired substitutions, yet the reality is Jürgen Klopp’s hand was forced during an afternoon when Liverpool were indebted to Simon Mignolet for some inspired goalkeeping.
With Liverpool trailing to Jonathan Walters’s first-half goal and playing without cohesion or threat, Klopp felt he had no option but to withdraw the 17-year-old Ben Woodburn, who had been given his first Premier League start, and the 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold, to give his team a chance of winning and maintaining their pursuit of a top-four finish.
Coutinho and Firmino came on in the teenagers’ place and straight away Liverpool were unrecognisable from the team who toiled so badly in the first half. It was Coutinho’s neat finish that brought Liverpool level and two minutes later Firmino scored a goal of the highest quality to put Klopp’s team ahead, raising questions about whether either of the Brazilians could have started.
Klopp addressed the issue afterwards, making it clear that playing either from the beginning would have been too big a risk, and acknowledged the contribution of Mignolet, who made two excellent saves at critical times. The first prevented Charlie Adam from doubling Stoke’s lead early in the second half and the second, coming just after Firmino had thumped a bouncing ball over the head of Lee Grant, was a candidate for save of the season, the Belgian scrambling across his line to deny Saido Berahino.
“We needed Simon Mignolet, he made two outstanding saves,” Klopp said. “The second one was the best I’ve ever seen. The save of the day, the month, the year – well-deserved for him. He’s had a lot of criticism in his Liverpool career, so to show this … sometimes these are the moments you need as a player.”
As for Coutinho and Firmino, Klopp justified his decision to leave them out of his starting XI by pointing to the figures he had received from Liverpool’s sports science department, saying “this was the moment when each alarm clock was ringing for both”. Ideally he would not have played them for longer than half an hour but that plan went out of the window at half-time.
“I had a difficult decision to make because it was not clear Roberto and Phil would be ready for 45 minutes,” Klopp said. “After the last game, Roberto, who is a guy who usually never says anything about how he feels, said: ‘I’m really done.’ It was clear that if we tried to bring him through 90 minutes it would cause us real problems. Phil lost three kilos in the last few days [owing to illness]. At the hotel this morning he said he was fine but we knew he would have low energy levels.”
The entire Liverpool team looked flat in the first half and Klopp’s disappointment at conceding just before the interval was compounded by the fact he felt Mike Dean, the referee, should have given the visitors a penalty moments earlier when Erik Pieters hacked at Woodburn’s heels.
Dean waved play on and Xherdan Shaqiri broke away on the left, skipped around Ragnar Klavan, who was playing on the left of a three-man central defence, and delivered an inch-perfect cross for the unmarked Walters to head home from inside the six-yard box. Adam should have scored from a similar position early in the second half but Mignolet managed to smother his shot and the significance of that moment would soon become clear.
Liverpool had started to attack with more conviction and it was no surprise when Coutinho steered the ball into the bottom corner from 10 yards out to equalise. Stoke were still reeling two minutes later when Georginio Wijnaldum’s lofted pass from deep invited Firmino to run beyond the Stoke defence. The Brazilian let the ball bounce once before striking a wonderful 25-yard shot that flashed over Grant.
Stoke could – and probably should – have salvaged something from the match but Mignolet made that breathtaking save to deny Berahino, condemning Mark Hughes’ side to a fourth successive defeat and leaving the manager to reflect on what might have been. “We needed to take our chances and capitalise when we were on top,” he said.