IS Liverpool’s match this weekend the club’s most important for 25 years? Probably not, if we’re being honest. AC Milan in the Champions League final at the Ataturk Stadium possibly outweighs Hull at home. Yet, to some extent, it feels huge.
The Reds’ season so far would be almost perfect but for that 2-0 loss to Burnley back in August. Having outplayed Arsenal in their own backyard in the first game of the season, the trip to Turf Moor should have seen Liverpool pick up a routine win. Instead, we were 1-0 down within two minutes and the rest of the match was an exercise in frustration.
That the Clarets have since gone on to pick up just one point, and concede eight goals, in four games in all competitions merely compounds our misery. The reality is that Hull is exactly the sort of team we seem to have struggled against under Jürgen Klopp.
The big boys aren’t all that much of a problem, as this tweet from Dan Kennett suggests:
Klopp vs Chelsea, City, United, Arsenal and Spurs:
P14 W6 D7 L1
And 6 of the goals conceded in 2 games vs Arsenal #lfc
— Dan Kennett (@DanKennett) September 16, 2016
When we look at last season, it seems reasonably obvious where our problems lay. A 3-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was followed up by ‘that fucking loss against Crystal Palace’, to quote the manager. The 6-1 League Cup win over Saints preceded a 2-0 loss to Newcastle. A 2-2 home draw against West Brom was bad enough, but we then lost 3-0 to Watford. That’s 11 points that would have seen us finish above Tottenham in third place, level on points with Arsenal.
Of course football doesn’t work quite as simply as that, but it’s definitely fair to suggest that Klopp’s men struggled to perform against the so called ‘lesser’ teams in the Premier League. That’s what makes the game against Hull so important. Right now we have a huge amount of momentum behind our play. Plenty of people will tell you that momentum in football isn’t a real thing, and that’s probably true. But it’s definitely beneficial from a psychological point of view.
It feels to me that Liverpool have struggled to beat the weaker teams in the league on a consistent basis, for as long as I’ve been watching us play. Let’s consider three seasons when the Reds came within touching distance of that elusive Premier League title; 2001-2002, 2008-2009 and 2013-2014.
Under Gerard Houllier, Liverpool — who had won the treble the season before — were considered to be outside favourites for the league. Two games into the new season and a 2-1 loss to Bolton Wanderers put a dampener on things before a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa at Anfield had people pulling their hair out. In December we lost 4-0 to a pre-Roman Abramovich Chelsea and also lost to Southampton and Spurs. The only ‘big’ team we lost to, however, was Arsenal; something we did both home and away that season. We took four points from the Ev and six from Manchester United.
In 2008-2009 it was a similar story. Many Liverpool fans point to the relentlessness of United in that campaign and they’re right to do so. After all, between drawing with Spurs on the 13th of December and losing to us on the 14th of March they won eleven games back to back. Fulham beat them the week after we did and they then won eight of their last nine. We weren’t too shabby ourselves that season, yet we drew with teams we really should have been beating. Aston Villa, Stoke (twice), Fulham, West Ham, Hull, Everton, Wigan and Manchester City (before the oil money kicked in, properly) all took a point from us in matches we should have won.
The 2013-2014 season has similar hallmarks. A draw away to Swansea City in September was followed up by a home loss to Southampton. Back-to-back losses against City and Chelsea were perhaps a tad more understandable, but a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa at Anfield and a 1-1 draw against West Brom at the Hawthorns saw four vital points dropped. We also all remember how we started December: With a 3-1 loss away at who? Hull City. Two ‘title challenge’ seasons in row have seen us drop crucial points to this season’s opponents.
Both Manchester United, in 2008-2009, and Manchester City, in 2013-2014, were relentless in their league performances and Liverpool were unlucky to miss out on the title in all three of the seasons I’ve just discussed. Houllier’s side amassed 80 points, the winning amount the year before. Rafa Benitez’s side got 86 — the winning amount the year after. Brendan Rodgers’s men got 84, a total that would have won the league in nine out of the 24 Premier League seasons that there have been.
However, the truth is, that relentlessness is exactly what you need if you want to win the title. In the history of the Premier League only one team has lasted an entire campaign without losing a single game, so points will be dropped. The only question is who you drop them to and how often you do it. If we look back in May and Hull was the outlier then it’s safe to bet that we’ll be in the mix. If it’s a common theme then it’s more than likely that we’ll be struggling to scrape the top four, no matter how well we deal with the ‘top’ teams.
As things stand, it’s only really Liverpool fans who are talking about the Reds being possible title contenders, and even that is with an acceptance that the league is City’s to throw away. Having so brutally dispatched the defending Premier League champions and then produced a professional display to embarrass Chelsea, some non-Merseyside voices are starting to take us a little bit more seriously. Some bookies even have us as second-favourites for the league.
Anything other than a resounding win over the Tigers will see our odds extend and teams that employ the ‘low block’ confident that they’ll be able to thwart us. If we batter them, though, it will be quite a different story. Manchester United used to have teams beaten before the match had even kicked off. A cynical person might suggest that was because of Alex Ferguson’s influence over referees, but a more level-headed one would tell you it’s because the opposition knew that they would score. They just knew it. No amount of sitting deep or ‘parking the bus’ would stop them from steamrolling the dross.
Liverpool are starting to cultivate a similar reputation. Consider this quote from Nemanja Matic before our match last Friday: “Tonight will be a very hard game against a great team…They have a lot of quality. I’m sure it will be a hard game”. Most players say similar things before matches, of course, yet it’s interesting that Matic focused on Liverpool’s quality rather than his own team’s.
If we put in a decent performance against Hull, and follow it up with a similar win against Swansea City the week after, then teams like West Ham, Stoke and Sunderland, who have struggled to get going this season, will be absolutely dreading coming up against us. We’ll also have the confidence to know that we can beat the sides in the bottom half of the table, and that in itself will give our players confidence.
Klopp’s biggest task isn’t getting his players to be up for the fight against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. It’s ensuring that a mental block doesn’t develop against the lower teams in the league in order to allow us to amass a decent points total. If we give points away to the likes of Hull and Swansea then it could well seem as though our struggles are systematic. Win these two on the bounce and then beat United, however, and it might — just might — finally be our year.