IT’S a poor league this year. You hear that a lot. Or you hear that it was a poor competition a few years back, perhaps. A highly subjective relativism often delivered as if pure fact. I admit, the call always baffles me. I never understand the starting point. A poor league. Compared to what? To who, when? How do we get a good league last year, and a bad league this year? Do the two or three first-teamers that most sides recruit each summer fundamentally shift the balance? Is it the delta in ability between the newly promoted and relegated sides?
What is a poor league? Is it one where one or two teams streak away from the rest? Is it the type where the top six can’t sort themselves out, allowing a team like Leicester to do the improbable? Is it one where the best sides seem light-years ahead of the middle to bottom placed teams? If the league is too competitive is it a sign of strength in depth or weakness at the summit?
Is the strength of our competition measured out in Champions League quarter-final contestants? If three of our four qualifiers make the last eight, and then one gets to the final or wins the thing, does this mean our league is strong? Bayern Munich are usually there or thereabouts. Paris St Germain too. The big Spanish three are usually nailed on for the last eight in recent seasons. Are all these outfits the products of strong leagues? Not many would make that case for the German and French leagues.
Jürgen Klopp said recently that there are no bad teams in the Premier League. Instinctively we know what he means by this. He’s talking about how very competitive the top flight in England is, and more or less always has been. The bottom can beat the top. It is not a seismic shock if second placed Arsenal draw at home to relegation fodder Middlesbrough. Does this make Boro a good side, though? In European terms? Does it make our Premier League a strong league? Regardless, it seems like this has always been the way of things in England.
I’m not really sure how we make sense of any of it or ever reach comfortable conclusions. This season, there is something of a consensus that natural order is being re-asserted. At least to a point. The top four now (Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea) Is populated with forces one would expect to see around those positions come May 2017. Tottenham are fifth, Everton next, and Manchester United – they of the £200m plus summer transfer expenditure – are languishing in seventh. If the latter can invest as heavily as they have, be led by an elite level manager such as Jose Mourinho, and still not break the top positions, what does this say about the quality of our league?
Last season, Liverpool finished behind or around Stoke, Southampton and West Ham, and Leicester City. Liverpool had an expensive squad, reached the League Cup and Europa League finals and were – for three-quarters of 2015/2016 – managed by the much celebrated Jürgen Klopp. They finished ahead of Chelsea but, again, couldn’t breach the top four positions. That felt like a tough league. The experience, undoubtedly, formed Klopp’s view that the competition featured ‘no bad teams’.
Fast forward past a summer recess and into Autumn, and nearly a quarter of the new campaign completed, and there appears to be something of a new balance to the contest. Familiar faces at the top of the pile, but where now are the Leicesters, the Stokes, the West Hams and the Southamptons?
What I’m trying to do here is to make sense of Crystal Palace. All of the above, the labouring of the enquiry, is a product of an obsessing over every new challenge this season’s Reds face. This way madness lies. I know this, but it won’t stop me. I, you, we, smell blood. League title winning blood. I know I last smelt it after we beat Manchester City 3-2 at Anfield in the April of 2014. I’d sensed we were on to something a few times during the course of that incredible year, but there was a profound confidence that this could be it – that the 24-year wait was about to be over – in the wake of that dramatic win over City. Shame about then. Shame about us.
Prior to 2013/14, I don’t think we were ever truly on course to win a league title in any of the post 1989/90 seasons. We walked the walk in 2008/2009, but we were chasing a Manchester United side that could pick combinations of peak Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. We gave them a proper run for their money but, upon reflection, we were always destined to pull up short.
There’s an awful long way to go this time, but being joint top at the quarter-way mark augurs well. Being joint top at the quarter-way mark, having played less home games than all our main rivals, and having completed more of our toughest fixtures than all of our main rivals, augurs better.
I like that we have ebbed and dipped a bit, looked frustrated at times, but always found a way to win games. I love the fact that we look like we could thrash a team four or five nil at any moment, even more. The season is still an infant one, so each new fixture appears to represent a very specific and new kind of challenge. This is why I’m obsessing about the quality in our league. I badly want us to win at Crystal Palace. I badly need to prepare myself for the game against them. I need to understand if they’re ‘any good’ or not.
Palace finished mid-table last term in a league that’s mid-rankers looked to be of higher quality than usual. There was us, for starters, and Chelsea and Everton. The Crystal Palaces of this world were able to spend £30m on a star striker in the summer. A star striker we thought was our panacea just 12 months earlier. The times they are a changin’. Middle rankers spend big dough now. Whether or not this is improving the quality of our league, or truly making it such that there are genuinely ‘no bad teams’, only a full campaign will tell us.
This is all really just an ode to my anxiety. If you’ve read this column before then I’m trusting you are a fellow traveller. These things. These things I can’t get out of my head are bugging you as incessantly as they are bugging me. Another weekend’s fate hangs in the balance. Another week lived and counted out in injury updates, manager’s press conferences and statistics about Christian Benteke goals against teams that have an L in their name.
Let Saturday come that bit sooner. Let battle commence and let’s be released from this cycle. Sometimes, I feel I’m just wishing my life away.
Let’s dwell no longer on the Palace. Let’s park Alan Pardew. Bench Benteke. If the Reds want to be the mightiest Reds then Palace aren’t going to stop them being so. I nudged the lad next to me at Swansea a few weeks ago as we surveyed the wreckage of a poor first-half performance by Liverpool. One nil down and barely a shot in anger. ‘If we’re made of the right stuff, if we truly are champions elect, we turn this round. We barnstorm these into the ground second-half’. Is what I said to the lad next to me. And so we did. Scored two goals. Threatened a few more. Comprehensively did a number on Swansea and swaggered off with the three points.
In my head, I’m repeating the mantra – if we’re good enough to win this league we don’t get checked now by makeweights, like Palace. We turn up. We win. We go home.
Klopp’s team picks itself these days. Well nearly. There is an established first 11 order, but outside, banging on the door with an increasing sense of entitlement are Emre Can, Danny Sturridge and Divock Origi. All three know for a solid fact that they would not weaken this table-topping Liverpool side. Additionally, there are others who will feel they are just slightly better form away from claiming a first team birth. Their number would include Simon Mignolet, Alberto Moreno and Ragnar Klavan.
The six listed here could hypothetically be dropped in this weekend without outsiders being able to tell that they weren’t seeing the Liverpool A team. This is a mark of the progress being made. This is the mark of a strong Liverpool. Stronger by the week than all that this league, for richer or for poorer, can throw at it.
The Palace storming red 11:
Karius; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Coutinho, Mane, Firmino.