Anyone seeking a perfect definition of the word “formidable” need look no further than a film of the day Mohamed Salah scored his 100th Liga Premier goal and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool made their title ambitions plain. Yet for all Fabinho’s midfield omnipotence, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s uplifting interpretation of the right-back role and Sadio Mané’s attacking quality, a pronounced sense of fragility permeated the mild West Yorkshire air.
In a second-half instant 18-year-old Harvey Elliott morphed from a young midfielder looking very much at home alongside Fabinho and Thiago Alcântara to a fearful teenager nursing a painfully dislocated left ankle.
By the time Leeds were reduced to 10 men after Pascal Struijk’s dismissal for a dangerous, if unintentionally harmful, challenge on Elliott, Marcelo Bielsa’s team were already heading for a defeat which leaves them still seeking their first league win of the season.
While there was much to admire about Leeds’ attacking courage and bloody-minded refusal to fold in the face of superior opponents, there was also far too much cheap forfeiting of possession on the part of a home side whose visit to Newcastle on Friday night has now assumed unexpected importance.
Deep down, home fans probably feared the worst when, with a first-time swipe of his left foot, Salah reached that scoring milestone, the Egyptian arriving in precisely the right place at the right time to arrow Alexander-Arnold’s near-post cross beyond Illan Meslier.
That cameo served as a rebuke to those Leeds fans who had delighted in serenading Alexander-Arnold with choruses comparing him unfavourably with Kyle Walker. That ditty stuck in their throats as Joël Matip surged out of central defence before exchanging passes with Salah and playing in the right-back.
It represented one in a series of bad moments for Bielsa’s former Barcelona left-back Junior Firpo but, until then, a thrillingly helter-skelter first half had been fairly even. Indeed before Salah’s goal, the irrepressible Kalvin Phillips briefly, deceptively, enjoyed the better of his duel with Thiago, dispossessing the Spain midfielder and initiating counterattacks on a couple of potentially pivotal moments.
With Fabinho required to watch his step after a booking for a late foul on Rodrigo, Klopp not only looked incandescent with the officials for that yellow card but a little anxious.
He need not have been. Fabinho would emerge as one of the game’s outstanding individuals and Liverpool swiftly assumed control, pressing brilliantly and sidelining Phillips. They would have doubled their advantage had Salah not been a yard offside as Thiago headed home his gorgeous chipped cross.
If Leeds were relieved to see that effort disallowed, Bielsa’s problems were mounting. Quite apart from Liam Cooper treading a fine line after collecting an early booking for fouling Mané, Diego Llorente hobbled off, hamstrung, and Alisson was underworked in goal.
Admittedly at that point Meslier was not exactly under constant bombardment but the way in which Matip and Virgil van Dijk – exuding reassurance with every interception – succeeded in second-guessing Patrick Bamford’s every attacking manoeuvre boded badly for the home manager.
Indeed the new half had barely begun before Leeds fell further behind. Despite Struijk, on for Llorente, preventing a goal courtesy of a wondrous tackle on Salah, Liverpool scored from the ensuing corner.
When Cooper and co failed to clear that set piece, Van Dijk was able to direct a header into the path of Fabinho, who lashed the ball home at the second attempt.
Liverpool’s joy turned to shock and sorrow after Struijk’s tackle on Elliott. Caught by the accelerating defender as he raced into the Leeds half, Elliott collapsed in evident agony, leaving Salah covering his eyes and clearly fearing the worst after seeing how grotesquely the joint was distorted.
After protracted treatment Elliott was stretchered off, bravely raising his hands to clap the Liverpool fans. By then Struijk had departed, a VAR review having confirmed Craig Pawson’s initial instinct to send him off.
From certain angles the challenge looked benign and well before the final whistle Pawson’s ears must have been ringing with the critical chants of “Who’s the scouser in the black?” from home supporters. They were briefly distracted by Daniel James’s debut but making his bow from the bench as part of a 10-man team will not have been exactly what the Wales winger had in mind as he arrived from Manchester United for £25m on deadline day. James’s day will come but this was not it.
Granted Bamford might have reduced the deficit by scoring, audaciously, from the halfway line but Alisson was alert to the danger and Bielsa’s backline proved powerless to prevent a third goal following their ruthless dissection at the feet of Jordan Henderson and Thiago.
That combination enabled Mané to turn Cooper and shoot low, and unerringly, into the bottom corner. By then Elliott was in hospital and Elland Road had received a sobering reminder that the line between formidable and fragile can all too easily become blurred.