Jürgen Klopp had seen enough. With almost an hour played at San Siro, Internazionale cutting his team to ribbons and the home crowd buoyant, the Liverpool manager retreated to his bench in dim spirits. There were a few seconds of discussion with his coaches. Training tops were peeled off, tactical instructions issued, last-minute warm-ups executed. And then, the flourish: a triple substitution in the 59th minute.
Off came Sadio Mané, Fabinho and Harvey Elliott. Diogo Jota had already gone off injured at half‑time. It was Klopp’s inimitable way of telling his players that he wasn’t angry, just disappointed.
Jordan Henderson bounded on to the pitch clapping furiously, captain’s armband stretched over his biceps, with all the coiled energy of the five-a-side player who’s come straight from the office and had to run the last half-mile from the bus stop. Luis Díaz trotted on and immediately looked threatening. Naby Keïta grappled, pressed, plugged gaps. In the space of a few minutes Klopp had entirely transformed the feel of his Liverpool side: more grizzled, more skittish.
The simple conclusion to draw would be that Klopp’s substitutions won a game that was drifting away from Liverpool. In reality, it was a little more subtle than that. The bold and brave Inter continued to create plenty of problems for a good while afterwards. Roberto Firmino’s opening goal on 75 minutes – a classic near-post flicked header – might just as easily have been scored by Jota as well. And for all the changes in midfield and attack, it was really in defence – where Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konaté were superb – that this game was won and lost.
The first 70 minutes had been almost unbearably taut, a thrilling arm-wrestle between two teams with remarkably similar league records this season: second place with 54 points from 24 games. And for all the portents of an easy night for Liverpool – you have to assume Simone Inzaghi knew exactly what he was doing when he said Liverpool were the team he wanted to avoid – Inter had come to eat. They hunted down Liverpool’s back four and forced them to cough up possession time and again, enjoying two clear chances through the superb Hakan Calhanoglu and Lautaro Martínez.
San Siro was shrouded in mist and flags on a chilly night, giving the whole game a heraldic, folkloric quality. There were brilliant duels taking place all over the pitch: Trent Alexander-Arnold against Ivan Perisic; Alessandro Bastoni against Mo Salah; Edin Dzeko against Van Dijk, the sort of tussle that gets dads of a certain age all misty-eyed and reminiscent about “when men were men”. Arturo Vidal, meanwhile, was taking on anyone he could find: roaming all over midfield, getting into scraps, haranguing the Polish referee, still the unruliest 34‑year‑old teenager in world football.
There were plenty of brief little panics but not much in the way of clear chances or notable needle. Part of the problem was that for all their bravery on the ball, Inter lacked the real pace to trouble Liverpool on the counter-attack. Martínez made plenty of clever peeling runs into the channel, and Calhanoglu was a wonderful creative force in midfield, but too often the final pass, the decisive run, the little touch of quality was missing. For all the noise and fury, seasoned Liverpool watchers will tell you that when you have them on the ropes, you really need to make them suffer. Because of what they can do next.
This, then, was the real value of Klopp’s triple substitution: it was a show of strength, forcing Inter to combat new angles and new tactics just as the relentless physicality of the game was beginning to tell on an aging team. In a way, it was Klopp toying with Inzaghi. Here, try our new £50m winger. Here, try a Champions League-winning captain. Here, try the £60m midfielder we can afford to keep on the bench. Who have you got? Matteo Darmian? Oh. Oh dear.
Factor in the players who didn’t even make it on to the pitch here – Joël Matip, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Takumi Minamino – and you can see why Liverpool fans are getting increasingly excited about the squad they have assembled. It used to be the case that once you got past Liverpool’s first XI the drop in quality was stark. Now they have enviable depth, competition for places, a bench that feels like a genuine weapon. Nowhere was this more evident than here, when the game was open and Inter were rampant and then all of a sudden were 2-0 down.
How to snuff out a Champions League tie in eight minutes. Naturally Inter will have a good go at Anfield next month, and there was more than enough here to commend Inzaghi’s work this season. But in hindsight the even contest that existed here for 75 minutes was little more than a chimera, an illusion of parity that eventually shook out exactly as we had all predicted. In front of a fervid home crowd, Inter threw their very best at a sub-par opponent. It still wasn’t remotely enough.