THERE’S a line about how Liverpool can be successful in the Premier League that goes like this: beat the lesser sides and you can win the thing. At the very least, it will go a long way to getting you top four.
It’s a strategy that has served Arsenal well for years — and there’s a lot to be said for it. But there’s an unwanted offshoot to the theory: that you almost treat big games as a bonus. That beating the teams you should beat is the basis for what you’re doing and matches against ‘big clubs’ with big money are something else entirely.
It suggests we shouldn’t really expect anything when we play Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United or Manchester City. And in the cold hard world of facts and figures, the theory holds water, and not just because of Arsenal.
I’ve seen the 2013-14 season referenced as more evidence for this approach. Because, after all, we beat sides we should be beating comfortably throughout that campaign, scoring three at Sunderland in September, three against Palace, four against West Brom in October and the same against Fulham in November.
On it went: five v Norwich and four v West Ham in December, five at Stoke and four at home v Everton in January, six at Cardiff in March.
Great times. But Liverpool’s unexpected title challenge that season didn’t just come off the back of being flat-track bullies. We beat Manchester United home and away. We battered Arsenal at Anfield. We beat City there, too. And Chelsea… well we all know what happened there.
The idea that Liverpool should adopt a strategy — even recruit on the basis of — beating the average sides isn’t an enjoyable discussion in many ways. It has a defeatist element to it.
Liverpool should aim to beat everyone. That should be the mindset. Because the minute you start to think about anything else you’re sowing doubts in the minds of the collective, of players and fans.
As we travelled down to the game on Saturday, talk turned to the inevitable — predictions, how you saw it going. The consensus was we’d take a draw. When it emerged that Liverpool were lining up without a recognised striker in the line-up, the worry was that team and manager were thinking that way, too.
There’s an element of emotional scarring with how things have gone for Liverpool in recent times. It’s why Jürgen Klopp has talked of turning people from doubters to believers. Think about last season on the road. Second game in, the Reds were well beaten at City. A 3-0 at Spurs offered hope.
But from then on, in the ‘big’ games away from home, there was little to shout about. Manchester United undeservedly beat us 3-0 at their place, we drew at Everton, we were battered at Arsenal and we drew at Chelsea.
The season ended with that disgraceful result at Stoke in Steven Gerrard’s last game for the club. Belief and confidence were nowhere to be seen in Liverpool’s play. The Reds lacked fight, lacked bottle, lacked nous. It wasn’t the club we know and love.
It’s only been three weeks, but we saw belief and confidence inspired by Jürgen Klopp on Saturday. We saw fight, bottle, and nous — on the pitch from the players and off it from the manager. This, this is Liverpool.
It wasn’t like that all game. There were still mistakes. Individual performances could be better. The early goal had the feel of ‘oh no, not again’ about it. But it was there by the end. It meant something to go there and do that. And all the better that it stuck the knife in on Jose Mourinho. No beating chests or shushing of fans now, eh?
But back to us. You could see it in the celebrations. It was a big moment for players and fans. We’re believing. They’re believing.
On the way out of the ground, as chants of “going down” were aimed at the few Chelsea fans that stayed for the final whistle, I glanced at my phone to see a picture of the players in the dressing room on the BBC live footie blog. Beaming smiles, hugs, celebrations. The miserable arse manning the blog had added a comment along the lines of “What’s all that about, they haven’t won a trophy”.
They don’t get it. And they don’t have to. No, they haven’t won a trophy but that result could be a catalyst for one. We’ve been starved of the feeling of a big result for too long. It’s the first away win since August. Now we’ve tasted it surely there will be a desperation for more. This is what the cold statistical analysis can’t put down on paper. Team togetherness, confidence, belief and a collective spirit of the clenched fist between players and fans can take you a long way — way beyond where you should go based on crunching the numbers. That’s something Liverpool can do. And we’ve seen many times before that single results and one-off performances can inspire so much more afterwards.
Gary McAllister’s name is still sung with gusto because of his derby goal. That moment in that one game lifted everyone and look where the club went from there, three trophies in one season. A great time to be a Liverpool fan.
Olympiakos in 2004 is another. There are plenty more examples.
Too soon? Getting carried away? Well apart from getting carried away being half the fun, compare and contrast how Liverpool performed at Manchester United in September to how they performed at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Then we saw a side devoid of confidence, managed by a man no longer backing himself. It was meek, depressing to watch. A club rolling over to a rival. Players going through the motions in a tactical system that didn’t suit.
In London, we saw the opposite. A plan that initially went out the window with the Ramires goal against yet Liverpool stayed calm, played themselves into the game, dominated it in every respect — possession, attempts on goal, corners — and won convincingly.
Beating the champions in their own backyard regardless of their problems is never, ever a result to be sniffed at. There have already been attempts to turn all the analysis into everything that Chelsea did wrong but make no mistake, Liverpool did plenty right.
Beating the also-rans in the league is a sound strategy. But you’re never going to get the lift, in the dressing room and in the stands, that bossing a club and a set of fans that question your credentials at every turn gives.
“Remember when Coutinho scored two at Stamford Bridge, Klopp gave that fella on the Chelsea bench some and Benteke finished it off?”
That could well be a conversation you’ll have in times to come. No-one will be talking about beating Bournemouth.
It’s only the start for the manager, and he was right to swat away the title question in the post-match press conference. But with big players still to return in Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge, and with the opportunity offered by the transfer window come January, what is wrong with daring to dream?
As Klopp said himself: “We can do much better than today. Much, much better.”
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