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Kicking off the 2013/14 English Premier League season, Liverpool secured their first win of the new campaign. The victory came in their first game against Stoke City on Saturday, courtesy of both Daniel Sturridge’s sublime 25-yard strike and Simon Mignolet’s thrilling double save right at the death.
In the process, the Reds finally ended their opening-day hoodoo: This was Liverpool’s first opening-day home win in 12 years, and while it was done in style, it wasn’t without its fair share of drama.
But Brendan Rodgers will have been delighted to see his new signings come through the game in fine form, and he’ll have been happy to end the first week of league action with three points and a clean sheet.
Here are six things we learned from Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Stoke. Enjoy and let us know your views in the comments below.
Kolo Toure: One of the Best Signings of the Summer
Let’s start with the individuals, and one of the standout performers on Saturday was Liverpool’s new No. 4, Kolo Touré.
Slotting seamlessly into the heart of the Reds defence, Touré was at his imperious best, closing down attacks, moving the ball purposefully and committing whole-hearted tackles. More importantly, he ensured that the retired Jamie Carragher wasn’t a big miss.
His presence alongside Daniel Agger ensured that the high defensive line was a success, and allowed full-backs Glen Johnson and José Enrique to bomb down their respective flanks at will.
On the attacking side, there was also his scintillating charge up-field on an attack that he instigated; he ended up inside the box as an unorthodox forward option as Daniel Sturridge opted to shoot.
And if it weren’t for the crossbar at the Anfield Road end, Touré would’ve opened his Reds account on his debut from a first-half Steven Gerrard corner.
Add his wealth of experience and the fact that he’s clearly already gained the trust of his manager and teammates, and Touré represents a fine addition to Brendan Rodgers’ squad.
At a total transfer cost of zero, Kolo Touré, who joined Liverpool on a free from Manchester City, might turn out to be one of the best signings in the whole of the summer transfer window.
Jordan Henderson Fully Deserves Brendan Rodgers’ Faith
Throughout preseason, Joe Allen earned rave reviews from his manager, colleagues and fans alike for his hard work and improved showings compared to last season, and was widely expected to have forced his way into first-team contention in one of the advanced midfield positions.
So it came as something of a surprise that Jordan Henderson was the one chosen to start alongside Philippe Coutinho and Iago Aspas behind lone striker Daniel Sturridge on Saturday.
Perhaps this was a decision taken with the opposition in consideration: After all, Joe Allen’s form went downhill after he nearly suffered humiliation against the towering Marouane Fellaini in the Merseyside derby against Everton last year.
But Henderson’s performance proved that it was much more than that. In a performance showing plenty of energy, hard work, useful movement and goal threat, the No. 14 was one of the most impressive Liverpool players on the pitch.
And if he had shown a bit more composure in a one-on-one against AsmirBegović, or curled his shot just an inch closer to bounce in off the woodwork instead of back out, Henderson would have notched the goal that his performance deserved.
A far cry from his status last year as a makeweight in a player-plus-cash deal to Fulham for Clint Dempsey, and from his reputation as yet another big-money flop from the Damien Comolli-Kenny Dalglish era.
It seems that even Brendan Rodgers has been won over by the enthusiastic and professional Henderson. If he keeps up his form and confidence, any new attacking signing—and Luis Suarez—might face a fight to take his place from Henderson.
Await Lucas and Daniel Sturridge’s Return to Full Fitness
There was a period last season when Liverpool looked just a bit too lightweight in the center of midfield: Following Lucas’ enforced absence due to injury, Joe Allen, who was carrying a shoulder injury, had to deputize in a defensive midfield role that ultimately became the undoing of his early promising reputation.
And even when Lucas returned to the first-team fold, he was nowhere near the Lucas that Anfield had come to know and love.
Too many times he was found wanting in the midfield, seemingly having lost his pace, acceleration and tackling nous due to lack of match practice. And his absence of mind and body was to blame for one of the most embarrassing goals Liverpool conceded last season—a simple stroll through the middle of the park by Southampton’s Jay Rodriguez.
Fast forward a few months, and Lucas has seemingly returned. His tackling and positioning were much improved against Stoke, and even if he still had the tendency to commit a needless foul or to be just slightly too reactive, the defensive midfield area became much less of a liability.
Leading the line was another player stepping up his return to full fitness.
Daniel Sturridge, who had only made his first-team comeback in a preseason friendly a week prior against Celtic, scored two goals in a behind-closed-doors midweek friendly against Newcastle United. He also fired in the winner on Saturday with a rather sumptuous strike from 25 yards out.
There was still room for improvement: Sturridge’s movement, pace and strength still seemed a bit rusty, but a Sturridge on his way back to full fitness still proved the difference on the day.
A few weeks down the line, Brendan Rodgers could well have a fully fit Lucas and Sturridge in his side. That would be a massive boost to the team, judging from Saturday’s display.
Simon Mignolet Passes His First Test
It’s never easy for a goalkeeper making his home debut at Anfield, especially a new first-choice keeper.
For the best part of eight seasons there has been one main man between the sticks. That man was Pepe Reina, who signed for the Reds in the summer of 2005. He has since departed on loan to Napoli.
Simon Mignolet certainly had the hearts of most Liverpool fans in their mouths as his early flap at a deep cross allowed Robert Huth to hit the bar with a fierce volley.
A solid flying save from Jonathan Walters later, and Mignolet soon rediscovered his confidence, and never looked back.
And he passed his Anfield test with flying colors as he became Liverpool’s first-ever goalkeeper to save a penalty on his debut. His stop from Walters’ last-gasp spot-kick was as thrilling as it was important, and his instinctive save from the follow-up ensured that the Reds would end the day with three points instead of one.
A special mention to Mignolet’s opposite number, Asmir Begović, who, barring a fine match-winning strike from Daniel Sturridge, kept Liverpool at bay time and again with a series of excellent stops.
That Liverpool were linked with both Mignolet and Begovićc this summer will have been encouraging in hindsight to Liverpool fans: Both showed their undoubted quality on Saturday and either would have represented fine signings by Brendan Rodgers.
A Nervy Win That Should Become Routine
As usual, Liverpool’s opening goal was met with a series of attacks from the opposition in response.
Last season, the period immediately following the Reds taking the lead was the period that Liverpool were the most vulnerable to conceding a goal.
Against a physical Stoke City side, Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for worrying that the equalizer would come immediately—or indeed would arrive inevitably as Begović represented a one-man wall preventing the home team from extending their lead.
Sure enough, Daniel Agger obliged with a handball inside his own penalty area, and Brendan Rodgers had Simon Mignolet to thank for saving the day: The fevered celebrations from his outfield colleagues in the immediate aftermath were a sight to behold.
But as the game wore on and became increasingly nervy, it looked more and more like the type of game that Liverpool would have thrown away last season.
Instead, they held on to preserve the narrow one-goal lead, and in the process ensured that this season’s start—unlike last year’s 0-3 capitulation against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns—would ultimately be an encouraging one.
With the first potential banana skin out of the way, Rodgers needs to ensure that this mentality persists in his young side. Their attention must now turn to transforming those narrow leads into routine wins.
A Result That Bodes Well for the Future
It is precisely the end result that may shift the expectation from an inevitable dropping of points to a routine three points on the board.
A young and technical Liverpool side, especially one playing a higher defensive line, had always been susceptible to a physically dominant team: Stoke’s 3-1 win over the Reds just over half a year ago was testament to this.
If the relentless and eye-pleasing attacking can be turned into three points, and if the dominance in possession and shots on goal can be translated into match-winning goals, then Brendan Rodgers will have added the all-important end result onto his formula.
With the arrival of Coutinho and Sturridge, Liverpool have had to rely less on the talismanic Luis Suarez, and if Iago Aspas and company provide further upgrades to Rodgers’ squad options, this could be a Reds side that has access to further victories.
Perhaps it is too early to draw definitive conclusions for the season to come from their opening game, but it’s clear that the signs at Anfield were encouraging.
Now for the hard part—ensuring that they can sustain this for 38 games over the course of a season, starting with a visit to Villa Park this coming Saturday.
As Rodgers will remember well, a certain Christian Benteke tormented them at Anfield last December.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.