The impact of Darwin Nunez was almost immediate. Prior to his appearance in the sixth minute of the second half, Liverpool had been sluggish, often losing to Fulham. Straightforward, fast and hungry, the Uruguayan soon outpaced the promoted team. The player’s first £85m Premier League goal, a smart back heel, came 15 minutes after he entered the field and he also played a part in Mohamed Salah’s goal to save the draw.
This day belonged to another striker. Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored 43 league goals last season and is trying to destroy the reputation of a player who has not reached Premier League class, has scored twice. The first was a signature header and the second was a penalty kick converted from a foul by a deceived, outbound Virgil van Dijk to suggest that the Serb – and Fulham – could belong to the top flight.
It was the first time Fulham had escaped defeat in the first leg of the season in the top flight since winning the promotion, which is a good sign, as is an appreciative home crowd.
A draw in the first leg of the season isn’t a disaster for Liverpool, but Van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold are struggling and an attack blunted before Nunez’s arrival should worry Jurgen Klopp. Jordan Henderson hit the bar in the closing seconds, but it was definitely an escape. “At first the attitude was wrong,” Klopp said.
Problems began from the first seconds, when Mitrovic got the opportunity to shoot past Alisson’s left post. He could have achieved much more, but this would not be his last chance.
From that moment on, Fulham pushed Liverpool into midfield, making their opponents look woozy, distracted, their frustration reflected in Alisson’s angrily clanging into the lower tier of the new Riverside stand.
“The result is ok, I don’t think we deserved more, but the performance has been greatly improved,” Klopp said.
It took Liverpool until the 15th minute to set up a proper attack and Salah’s first shot on goal of the season was a header that went terribly far after he lost his bearings.
Until the drastic change in the second half, Klopp’s selection echoed Bill Shankly’s old “same as last season” idiom, with Roberto Firmino being the most centre-forward and Luis Diaz coming in from the left of the trident. But instead of being well oiled, Liverpool looked rusty.
Marco Silva’s approach to breeding was nothing less than much more successful. Two new signings were presented in the form of Joao Paligny and Andreas Pereira, both in midfield. The continuity has allowed Fulham to try to do to Liverpool what they did to league rivals last season: confuse them. The bold strategy had the desired effect.
“We showed a fantastic organization from start to finish,” Silva said. “Our first half was almost perfect, the way we controlled and worked.”
Joel Matip and Van Dijk were given a heavy workload by Mitrovic, while the offensive pieces of Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold were limited to runs by Bobby Dekordov-Reid and Neeskens Kebano, and the departure of a busy, impressive Pereira.
Pereira started the move to Mitrovic’s first goal before Dekordova-Reid and Kebano sent Kenny Tete a cross from the right. Alexander-Arnold at the back could not answer either the strength of Mitrovic or the goalkeeper’s instincts. Questions would be raised again for the Englishman’s defense, although Silva was happy to pay tribute to his striker.
“Mitro is not just goals, and if anyone thinks it can be forgotten,” Silva said. “The work he did this afternoon for the team, his pressure, his help to midfield and defence, that would have been enough even if he hadn’t scored.”
When Klopp ran to the dressing room at half-time, he had a plethora of problems, which worsened when Thiago Alcantara pulled up with a muscle injury shortly after the restart. Former Fulham player Harvey Elliott arrived and Klopp also chose to introduce Nunez instead of Firmino to make an almost instant impact.
Nunes’ goal was preceded by a similar attempt, which was well reflected by Marek Rodak. A nimble shot from a furious substitute also helped Salah score the Egyptian’s second equalizer, the Egyptian’s sixth in a row, on the opening weekend. Salah’s role in Nunes’ goal also suggested a partnership that could soon send Sadio Mane into history, saving Liverpool from further consolation to avoid defeat.
It was a very interesting secondary classic that left Klopp unsettled and Silva thrilled when the two strikers made their presence known on the Premier League stage.