Perhaps, if we really stretched ourselves, we could envisage ways in which this evening could have gone even better for Liverpool than in reality. An Alisson hat-trick. A performance so uplifting that it instantly cured Virgil van Dijk’s knee injury. Takumi Minamino rising from the bench to announce he had invented a vaccine for Covid-19. But we’re clutching at straws here. The grins and chuckles at full time said it all: this was Liverpool’s Christmas, and in the traditional rather than the Tier 3 lockdown sense.
The wildness of the scoreline will encourage a hasty reassessment of their opposition: a team who for all their feverish advance billing ended this game a disjointed and disenchanted rabble. But good teams don’t disintegrate in a vacuum. It wasn’t of their own volition that Atalanta lost the ability to string two passes together. Instead, they were hustled and hunted, shoved off their game by perhaps the best opposition they will ever have come up against.
Famously, Gian Piero Gasperini likes his teams to go man-to-man – for markers to follow their targets all over the pitch, for defenders to win their individual battles, for attacking players to dribble and improvise.
We see now how this suited a Liverpool team that has long been accustomed to doing the same, that is well used to playing against a back three, that boasted superior individual talents who are drilled to rotate and dovetail to the point where it is almost second nature.
On the right flank, Trent Alexander-Arnold made Johan Mojica look like the callow Champions League debutant that he was. On the left, Andy Robertson consistently outfoxed Hans Hateboer by occasionally swerving inside and running into the open half-spaces. And up front, Diogo Jota spent the evening soft-pedalling through the nightmares of José Luis Palomino: toying with him, outpacing him, outfoxing him, beating him and then stopping and then beating him again, just because he could.
Naturally, it was Jota’s hat-trick that caught the eye, a marvellous and yet curiously delicate thing, three goals that seemed to come almost out of nothing, conjured into existence by his imagination alone. Above all, many of Jota’s recent goals convey this sense of pure economy, of exactly the right run and exactly the right touch and exactly the right finish paced at exactly the right weight, and not a scintilla of wastage in the process.
Genius? Or simply a run of outstanding form, a player utterly in tune with the game, and his game? Only time will tell. But what we can say for now is that Jota offers what Roberto Firmino has so often lacked in recent weeks: the pace and the sharpness and the alertness and the confidence to lurk on the shoulder of the last man and offer a through-ball option.
One of the reasons Liverpool have occasionally looked so leaden in attack of late is Firmino’s tendency to come short and play simple passes, which usually means Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané tucking in to support. By contrast, as Jota outpaced Palomino to score his first goal, Salah was tight to the right touchline, Mané wide on the left, stretching Atalanta open like the mozzarella on a pizza. Firmino remains a supreme attacking talent and an invaluable asset. But a short period on the sidelines to recharge his game might not be the worst thing for him right now.
But this match was about more than Jota. Curtis Jones had come in for some criticism after the 2-1 win against West Ham for playing too many simple passes. Well, how about a first-time pass from deep inside your own penalty area, curling 50 yards straight into the path of Salah for your first ever Champions League assist? Jones was superb in the centre of Liverpool’s midfield, as was Rhys Williams in the centre of defence, albeit with little of note required of him. Neco Williams came on as a late substitute and immediately produced a vital clearance. All three are still 19 years old.
The great teams remake themselves from a position of strength. They experiment and push themselves and find new angles, new shapes, new mysteries. That, perhaps, will be the next challenge for Atalanta, who will surely learn lessons from this mauling.
For Liverpool, meanwhile, this felt like more than a triumph. Winning 5-0 with the old gang: yes, this too would have been fine. But as Jones purred in midfield and Jota ran riot up front, it felt like the first real look at what the next Liverpool might look like.