Three things to watch in Liverpool's first leg against Atalanta

Liverpool remain top contenders in both the Premier League and Europa League, but they've looked far from unbeatable- let's talk about some positive signs they need to show this Thursday.
Manchester United v Liverpool FC - Premier League
Manchester United v Liverpool FC - Premier League / Michael Regan/GettyImages

After yet another disappointing draw against Manchester United, it's clear that there needs to be a few changes to Liverpool's approach and performances going forward. The Reds have shown flashes of championship-caliber football, but the consistency has not been there.

At this stage of the season in both domestic and European competition, there's little room for error, so let's talk about some of the shortcomings Liverpool will need to have shored up for their Europa League Quarterfinal tie with Atalanta.

Composure in front of the net

Why not start with this one? If you've watched Liverpool this season, most specifically in recent weeks, you knew for sure that it was going to be included.

This issue has been most on display in Liverpool's two Premier League matchups with Manchester United; across those fixtures, the Reds racked up 62 total shots including 15 on target, and accumulated 6.05 xG, but they scored just twice and drew both matches.

In the most recent outing, Liverpool created a whopping seven big chances- and scored just two of them.

Even against Sheffield United, a match in which Liverpool held the highest possession percentage in Premier League history (since 2003 when the data began being tracked), the Reds only scored three goals, the first of which was highly fluky, and the last of which was simply icing on the cake in the 90th minute.

Hopefully, the impending return of Diogo Jota, surely the most clinical finisher in the squad, will at least partially remedy this issue, but the ball can't be at his feet every possession, and even more relevantly in the immediate term, he won't be ready to go against Atalanta.

Starters like Darwin Nunez and Luis Díaz have been great in terms of pushing pace and creating chances, but their instincts in front of the net need to improve, while even Mo Salah has had an uncharacteristic finishing slump at the worst time.

To keep pushing for both the Premier League and Europa League titles, Liverpool will need to consistently start turning their dominant performances into points.

That will certainly require better finishing from Salah, Nunez and Díaz as each makes their case to remain in the starting lineup after the return of Jota. They'll be up against an Atalanta side that generally does not let opponents outperform xG, so every chance will be quite valuable.

Focused defending and back-line passing

This isn't nearly as much of an epidemic as the finishing issue, but Liverpool have had quite the tough time keeping clean sheets.

In fact, the last one in any competition was on March 2nd, and the Reds have played seven matches since then. Of course, a clean sheet isn't a requirement against a side like Atalanta, especially in a two-legged tie, but there's a particular type of goal Liverpool will need to avoid in this match and beyond.

That would be a goal that is caused by a mental lapse, due to carelessness or inattention. Getting beaten by a great play is perfectly understandable, but giving away goals doesn't work out well in the long run.

It's already cost Liverpool multiple times this year, including a combined howler from Alisson and Virgil van Dijk of all people, which granted Arsenal the lead in a huge match.

More recently, impressive youngster Jarell Quansah, deviated from his usual standard of mature play with a dreadful pass that allowed Manchester United back into a game Liverpool were thoroughly dominating.

When you've fought hard to play a winning game, giving your opponent a free chance to get back on level terms or pull ahead is unforgivable.

This is yet another way the Reds have wasted performances that have been largely top-notch, and cannot be a factor on Thursday as they look to establish themselves in the first leg at home.

Gian Piero Gasperini's side is characterized by a very opportunistic brand of football; expect them to take full advantage if Liverpool present them with the chance to do so.

Continued midfield dominance

While the front line has continuously wasted chances and the defense throws the occasional shocking mistake into the mix, Liverpool's midfield has been the team's greatest strength.

This would have been unthinkable in just about any other year of the Klopp era, but this off-season's total overhaul of the position has paid off tremendously.

Alexis Mac Allister and Wataru Endō have been rightfully praised as heroes, while Dominik Szoboszlai has done an excellent job with possession and playmaking even as his finishing has been subpar.

Harvey Elliott has chipped in well when needed, and Curtis Jones is on his way back to a consistent role as well as he regains health. The only question is how long the weary legs of these oft-used stars can continue putting in strong shifts.

The good news is that help appears to be on the way. Promising youngster Stefan Bajcetic is back in training, as is Trent Alexander-Arnold, who could be on the way up to the midfield on an occasional basis due in part to the excellent play of his backup at right back, Conor Bradley.

With more lineup rotation and in-match substitution on the table, Klopp should be able to keep that top-choice midfield of Mac Allister-Endō-Szoboszlai fresh and ready to use in the biggest moments.

The match against Atalanta should be one of those days where the big three newcomers are trotted out, and they should find plenty of success against a squad that ranks below average in Serie A when it comes to average possession rate.