Oh yes, you can definitely come again. This was, frankly, a bonkers game of football. At 5.30pm Michael Oliver blew the starting whistle on Liverpool’s defence of their Premier League title. At which point, enter: the Bielsa zone.

In that opening half-hour the hands of the clock seemed to spin, the sun turned a shade of purple, the birds above Anfield flew backward through the sky.

Meanwhile Liverpool and Leeds hurled themselves into something that resembled a high-pressure opening-day Premier League fixture. But infused, on this occasion, with a dreamlike quality, football on the moon played out with a ball made of marzipan, on grass that seemed to undulate with psychedelic possibilities.

Jürgen Klopp will be grateful for the enduring vim of Mohamed Salah, who had nine shots at goal, scored a hat-trick in a 4-3 win and would no doubt be happy to play in this kind of freewheeling game of sprints every week. Klopp will also hope Virgil van Dijk was simply caught cold by the Leeds swarm. The Premier League’s outstanding defender looked as frazzled as he has at any time in a Liverpool shirt.

Understandably so during an opening period where the tight, streamlined thing that is elite club football seemed to collapse a little, to pose a constant series of unanswered questions. Mainly things like: is this also available in tablet form? Do I just hook it straight into my veins? And can we do it all again straight afterwards?

That start, then. “We play every game the same way,” Bielsa had said before kick-off, registering a rare minus score on the mind games-ometer but speaking as always with a disarming honesty.

All very well. But in the opening seconds it was tempting to wonder if Bielsa had actually seen Liverpool play. Do they get Sky in Yorkshire? Is there any kind of access to Match of the Day? Perhaps not. Leeds went chasing straight away, surging upfield in packs, leaving strange empty spaces behind for Liverpool to explore.

With three minutes gone the champions had a penalty. The ball bounced up off Robin Koch’s leg on to his arm. It seemed unfair, harsh, unsporting and thus safely within the current rules on handball. Salah put it away.

Leeds didn’t take a breath. Still running hard, still pressing hard, they had the ball in the net shortly afterwards only to see the offside flag raised. This wasn’t the thing though. The thing was Leeds had three white shirts by the Liverpool penalty spot.

With 13 minutes gone they were level. Kalvin Phillips was given time by Liverpool’s midfield to float a sublime pass to Jack Harrison. He skipped past Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez then drilled a shot into the corner, a goal of such fearless certainty it made you wonder why people don’t always glide past England defenders and plant the ball past the right hand of the best goalkeeper in the world. What are we all doing with our lives anyway?

So it went on. Steadily Liverpool began to find the weak spots behind the white shirts, adjusting to this slightly wild reconfiguring of the rules of footballing space.

With 20 minutes gone Koch was blocked as he tried to track the run of Van Dijk at a corner, and turned to see his man levitating above the grass with time to consider the day, the moment, the weirdness of the empty red plastic space behind the goal, before butting the ball into the corner of the net.

More? Yes, you can have more. With 29 minutes gone it was 2-2, this time via a horrendously casual piece of defending from Van Dijk, who attempted a highlights-reel flick-pass as the ball dropped over his shoulder. He scuffed it to Patrick Bamford, who scored.

There were other moments in between – so, so many moments – including one occasion where the ball was chipped into an empty Leeds net from 30 yards, only for an offside flag to reassert some sense of flustered decorum.

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Both teams drew breath. That freewheeling start settled into what was merely a very good game of football. Salah made it 3-2. Mateusz Klich equalised. Salah won it with a penalty at the death.

What to make of all this? Most obviously there is a kind of glory in Bielsa announcing himself like this to the Premier League: an ideologue, a barrel-squatting zealot, dishing up a masterclass in his own vision of movement and team play.

For Liverpool there will be some concerns: the fragility at the heart of the defence (they have three clean sheets in 17 games) and the wonkiness of Roberto Firmino’s finishing. But Klopp is unlikely to dwell too long on either. This was in many ways a one-off, a match to win, somehow, while taking the bruises. Best of all, after a painful summer, it gave us that opening half-hour and a shot of pure sporting pleasure.

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source: theguardian.com


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