Why Liverpool Are The New Champions Elect

Were he to get the chance, Jurgen Klopp wouldn’t have written the script any better than it’s currently playing out for his Liverpool side this season.

An unbeaten start to the season? Check.

Top of the pile? Check.

Points ahead of defending champions? Seven!

You won’t be getting any prizes for guessing it’s Liverpool’s best ever start to a Premier League season.

The Reds failed to take maximum points in just three of their 19 games so far. That those three came against Chelsea, Arsenal and – pointedly – defending Champions Manchester City, reflects not only an ability to turn up when expected but also downright mental resolve.

It’s not entirely new to see teams, not least, Liverpool, leading in the Premier League after Christmas eventually ‘bottle it’ by May.

Norwich in 1992/93, Kevin Keegan’s gifted Newcastle in 95/96, Manchester United in 97/98, Aston Villa in 98/99, Leeds United in 99/00, Arsenal in 2007/2008  and critically, Liverpool in 08/09 and 13/14 were some of the occasions when teams relinquished healthy Christmas advantage to miss out on the title. 

The fact Liverpool have led at Christmas and failed to win the title on three occasions (the most by any Premier League club) in the Premier League era has been a cause for scepticism about their title credentials among pundits.

Even their fans are only cautiously optimistic. They’d remember how they’ve tread this road three times before, and how it led to heartbreak each time.

No two teams are the same though and a critical juxtaposition is needed to determine whether this Liverpool side possess any kind of similitude to any of the old bottlers

The 2013/2014 season was arguably the closest Liverpool had gotten to winning the Premier League in nearly three decades. Brendan Rodgers side played swashbuckling football throughout that campaign. 

The  Irishman alternated between a fluid 4-2-1-2-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formation with his forward-minded midfield players, and attackers encouraged to constantly press the opposition into conceding possession while the defenders keep their shape by staying close to the deep-lying midfielder.

Perhaps, the most impressive quality of that team was the regular telepathic interplays between its front duo of Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez, popularly dubbed ‘SAS’, with Daniel Sturridge’s offensive awareness and clinical finishes acting as the icing on the resulting cake.

One of your safest bet that season was Liverpool scoring irrespective of the opposition. It’s not surprising they surpassed the 100-goal mark in the league alone.

The team wasn’t without its Achilles heel – the defence. Whereas Rodgers men were a constant threat going forward, they always looked vulnerable at the back.

As difficult as it may look in theory, teams succeeded in exploiting the space between the No 10 and the deep-lying midfielder, it meant that teams consciously target the lines between Liverpool’s press.

Sterling was very integral to unlocking opposition defence through his artifice but often forgets his defensive duty in Rodgers system.

Coutinho was more about what he could do with the ball too, and wouldn’t duly cover for Johnson either. The centrebacks are mostly susceptible to counter attacks as either Gerrard or Henderson couldn’t cover all the grounds.

It meant Sakho and Skrtel or whoever is playing centrally has to be comfortable on the ball and very clever with their decision making.

To cut the long story short, Liverpool ended up scoring an average of 2.65 goals (101 in total) in the league that season, but let in an astounding average of 1.31 goals.

As a matter of fact, among the sides that finished in the ‘Top 6’ that season, only Tottenham conceded more (51) than the 50 goals Liverpool allowed.

Their closest challenger, Manchester City, were averaging as much as them (102) in terms of scoring but kept a decent goal difference by conceding just 37 (the 2nd best that season).

It meant they were under pressure in the title run-in. Scoring was no longer enough, only securing maximum points in every game, against every opponent would do and despite going on the longest winning run (11) and longest unbeaten run (16) in the campaign, it was in the final 3 games that their season finally unravelled.

Despite beating City 3-2 with four games to go that season, Liverpool would go on to win only two of their last 4, losing at home to Chelsea and drawing at Crystal Palace. The Palace game epitomised everything Liverpool were during the season.

Exciting to watch, menacing in attacks but prone to capitulation out of sheer carelessness. Had Liverpool conceded less enough, they wouldn’t have needed to throw caution in wind against the Eagles.

Their healthy 3-0 lead after 55 minutes would have been savoured, and possibly consolidated upon, but No! Pressure is a bloody mongrel! It transformed Liverpool into an Oliver Twist that night and the rest is history.

Klopp’s Liverpool wouldn’t be faced with such conundrum at any point this season. They’ve in fact told us already that they’d take a draw if a win is not within sight.

That’s not to say winning and winning well isn’t the objective, but what we’ve seen with this Liverpool team is another side to ‘gegen-pressing’. It can be termed as ‘calculated pressing’, they press when it mattered and in the areas where they could hurt their enemies with very few passes.

They received a lot of praises for their energy level and high tempo football, for fearlessly harassing opponents as far as the opposition’s final third. But it seems such pressing have come in measured quantity this season. Games against Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City reflects that already.

In those matches, we saw a Liverpool side willing to concede possession as long as it’s nowhere their half, looking to exploit the pace of Mane and Salah and the tactical intelligence and selflessness of Firmino to drop deep into the blind areas for the more pacy players to shine.

They were the first side to show that Man City can be stopped, after all, limiting Pep Guardiola’s men to very few opportunities; although they didn’t create much either.

There have been some slice of luck to some of their results with Mahrez losing a late penalty in their scoreless draw to City and Salah appearing slightly offside while putting them ahead at Bournemouth, but it’s hard to argue any side can go through an entire season without a few swings of lucky/unlucky events taking place.

Liverpool’s most significant improvement have come in the defence. The addition of Virgil Van Dijk to the side has brought with it a positive feel and a form of leadership at the back and it’s no coincidence that Liverpool have conceded the least goals (7) this season. How Rodgers would have loved to have had the Dutchman during his tenure!

Teams have found it tougher to carve Liverpool’s defence open despite Liverpool not being in the top three for average possession. What has been key is their frugality with the ball. 

While one of the downsides to Liverpool’s high tempo tactics is fatigue at the decisive end of the campaign, the depth across all departments of the squad could give them that significant leap that they lacked in their previous title campaign.

Fabinho has slotted seamlessly into their midfield after missing out on matches early in the season, Xherdan Shaqiri came from the bench against United to alter the flow of the match and turn a draw into a win. But for some rare occasions of overconfidence, Allison is proving his class already. This is just not the Liverpool we used to know.

One attribute of this current Liverpool team that is often underemphasized is their unwavering calmness and game management. Claiming maximum points at Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Leicester, Watford, Bournemouth, Wolves aren’t particularly as easy as Liverpool had made them look this season.

During their last title collapse in 13/14, the table toppers changed hands 25 times, mirroring how relatively inconsistent the title challengers were, It has only changed 5 times this season, with Klopp’s men always in and around the top 3 throughout those changes. It’d come as a shock if it changes up to even 15 times more.

Cynics would say, and rightly so, that the league is a marathon, that the ‘bottler’ monkey isn’t totally off Liverpool’s back.

Liverpool would respond though, that they are exactly where they’d hoped to be when the season started. And maybe this Liverpool side is different.