The Luis Diaz finish that changed Liverpool’s January plans

Diaz doubled Liverpool’s lead with an angled finish at the Emirates  (Getty Images)
Diaz doubled Liverpool’s lead with an angled finish at the Emirates (Getty Images)

Eventually, Liverpool found their match-winners, even if the first came from a player in white. Without Mohamed Salah for the first time this month, it was a touch off Arsenal defender Jakub Kiwior that ensured the Reds advanced into the FA Cup fourth round and avoided a replay against their title rivals, whose winless run extended to a fourth game. It would have hardly been Jurgen Klopp’s plan - but as Luis Diaz rifled in a late second, it meant Liverpool can now enter a crucial phase of their season without their talisman and leading scorer but bolstered by a big win.

It is Diaz, Darwin Nunez, Cody Gakpo and Diogo Jota who will all need to step up over the next month to cover for the absence of the Egypt captain, as the Reds battle on three fronts in the Premier League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup. Instead, after missed chances, misplaced passes, and a growing sense that Liverpool’s wastefulness was going to cost them, it was Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inswinging corner that was directed past Aaron Ramsdale by the unfortunate Kiwior. If it relaxed Liverpool, Diaz finally brought some composure with a thumping late finish to seal it.

And so the Premier League leaders stayed in the FA Cup, on a night where Arsenal could have been out of sight before Mikel Arteta’s side fizzled out into the same, predictable pattern. And despite this heavyweight clash to end the third-round weekend, there will be much more at stake when Liverpool take a three-point lead into Premier League fixtures against Bournemouth and Chelsea, before returning to the Emirates at the start of next month, with two legs of a Carabao Cup semi-final against Fulham in between. To ease the schedule, Klopp’s side could do with being sharper than this.

Diaz celebrates his goal at the Emirates as Liverpool progressed (Getty Images)
Diaz celebrates his goal at the Emirates as Liverpool progressed (Getty Images)

But perhaps Liverpool will do what they did here and find a way, though Klopp could really do with his forwards showcasing some of Salah’s considerable attacking prowess in the coming weeks, especially of his relentless purpose and decisive brilliance. In Nunez, Diaz and Gakpo, their starting front three at the Emirates, Liverpool still had the elements of speed and directness, but while at times streaming in their own directions. There weren’t the same links or patterns throughout the side that are often brought through Salah’s involvement, at least until introduction of Jota and through his clever touches around the penalty area.

Though there was a sense that, although Liverpool have often played without Salah in the Europa League this season, they were only really starting to figure it out for the first time here, the first time Klopp really had to think hard as he looked to work out the combinations. Diaz started on the left but ended on the right. Nunez was shrugged off by William Saliba when he started centrally so drifted and then finished on the wing. Gakpo began on the right side of midfield before taking up a central position. Liverpool were thoroughly outplayed in the first half but hung on, ensuring they were level for a half time break that changed the momentum of this tie.

Liverpool improved after making a key tactical change at half time (Getty Images)
Liverpool improved after making a key tactical change at half time (Getty Images)

That’s because, after some tinkering and adjustments, it felt like Liverpool found the right combination in the second half with the sheer speed of Diaz and Nunez on the touchlines, pulling wide and initiating the one-on-one duels. The problem, for a while, was neither had the form or confidence to go themselves, and there did not appear to be the connection for them to threaten as a pair. Two moments summed it up: first as Harvey Elliott slipped in Diaz, only for the Colombian’s pass inside to Nunez to be cut out, and then as Nunez raced around the outside of Saliba, only to play his pass behind Diaz.

It threatened to continue a theme, especially for Diaz, a player who often appears to be just as electric as he was when he arrived from Porto two years ago, scampering away from challenges in little bursts and weaves, but who still goes for spells without the final product. Nunez at least consistently gets shots away and finds chances, but Liverpool can’t rely on his return at present - he has one goal for Liverpool in his last 14 games, the misses continuing to pile up. Gakpo has a habit of disappearing and he was brought off for Jota in Liverpool’s double-change before the hour.

It altered Liverpool’s approach and brought some cohesion. At the moment, Jota is the one Liverpool forward who looks the most likely to make something happen, and indeed it was his arrival that gave Liverpool a lot of what they were missing, especially in those little touches around the penalty area, bringing the others into play. He was involved in the move that led to Liverpool’s corner and Kiwior’s own goal, then again as he shimmied and diverted his late assist to Diaz. Liverpool would have advanced regardless, but how everyone - Diaz, Klopp, and Liverpool’s forward line - needed the finish that the Colombian produced into the top corner of Ramsdale’s goal.

Suddenly, Liverpool can attack from the front again.