Carlos Baleba battles with Mohamed Salah for the ball
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Carlos Baleba finished his first Premier League start in tatters. The 19-year-old had given everything to Brighton’s cause, and in the final minutes, he could be seen bent double, gasping for breath, telling his goalkeeper to keep hold of the ball for a few seconds longer, like a man begging for mercy.
By this point, he looked a little disheveled, with his socks fallen down and shorts rolled up. His final act was to chop down Liverpool’s galloping Ryan Gravenberch, for which he was rightly booked. And when the whistle blew on this wild 2-2 draw, he dropped to the grass in relief and stretched out the cramp coursing through his legs.
Baleba hobbled over to shake the hands of various Liverpool players, most of whom wouldn’t have known anything about this Cameroonian teenager before their team meeting on Friday. But after a performance full of energy, guile, skill, outrageous confidence and physical dominance in midfield – one that sapped his body dry – they do now.
Ask people inside Brighton who will be the next diamond in the rough, the player who will be sold for five times their asking price after doing wondrous things on this Amex Stadium pitch, then you might be pointed to Kaoru Mitoma or Evan Ferguson, Mahmoud Dahoud or Joao Pedro. But those really in the know will point to Baleba.
That includes the manager, Roberto De Zerbi, who said without hesitation on Baleba’s signing this summer: “He will be the future of the club.” If that sounded like hyperbole, there was enough evidence in this 100-minute sample to suggest the Italian is right, as he has tended to be about most things in his short Brighton career. After a Carabao Cup start and a couple of league appearances off the bench, De Zerbi showed enormous faith in Baleba with this full Premier League debut against Liverpool, and that faith was repaid in spades.
This was Baleba’s kind of match, stretched and full of holes, with little fires popping up all over the pitch that needed putting out. As the defensive shield, he rushed to cover off counter-attacks and snuff out threatening direct balls. He stood in front of his back four checking over his shoulder for Mohamed Salah’s movement, and then cut out the through ball when it came. When Lewis Dunk pressed so high up the pitch that he left a void in Brighton’s defence, Baleba instinctively slotted back and filled the space.
In possession, he was calm and composed and occasionally he injected little jolts of energy, like early in the first half, in his own half, where he threw in a stepover before charging away from Liverpool’s midfield and setting Brighton’s attacking players away as the crowd urged him on. Or a few minutes after Brighton had scored their first goal, when he dribbled through the centre of the pitch from the halfway line, jinked away from a defender on the edge of Liverpool’s box and hit his shot just wide.
Carlos Baleba drives away from Liverpool’s Ryan Gravenberch
Baleba was a source of calm in what was a wild game. The first half could have been the subject of an art installation simply titled: ‘Get rid’. All three goals were the result of kamikaze passing at the back that went disastrously wrong, enough to boil the blood of proper football men everywhere.
First, it was Virgil van Dijk plodding a pass to Alexis Mac Allister, which Brighton’s Simon Adingra (like Baleba, the 21-year-old winger was exceptional) stole and quickly swept past an out-of-position Alisson Becker for Brighton’s opener. Liverpool hit back with two goals of their own, first when Dunk misplaced a pass and Salah finished off a flowing counterattack, and then just before the break when Pascal Gross lost the ball in his own box and hauled down Dominik Szoboszlai, and Salah scored from the penalty spot.
Brighton went into the break 2-1 up, so it was a compliment to the Baleba-Gross partnership when Jurgen Klopp brought on Ryan Gravenberch at half-time to stabilise Liverpool’s overrun midfield. It worked, and for a period Liverpool took control, but they failed to score a third and Brighton went hunting for an equaliser, which came late through Dunk’s close-range volley. Baleba never stopped, and his defensive nous regularly kept counter-attacks at bay.
“I have to congratulate the club on finding two more amazing players, in Adingra and Baleba,” De Zerbi said after the game. “Baleba is very young and I think this club needs the characteristics of Baleba. He is a great replacement for Caicedo. But we can’t forget Ansu Fati, Mahmoud Dahoud, Joao Pedro.” In other words, there is plenty more where that came from.
Why give Baleba his first start now? “I gave him the right steps. He played a part of the game with Bournemouth, played 70 minutes in Stamford Bridge [in the League Cup] in a big stadium. I gave him time to understand the new style of play, the timing of when to receive the ball, the right line of passing: our idea. It is not so easy [to learn] because our style, in the defensive phase we can change depending on the opponent, our build-up play can change.
“He’s very young, a very good player with incredible potential, and he can be one of the most important midfielders in Europe in the future.”
De Zerbi believes. And after this performance, we’re all Balebas now.
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