BEFORE a ball was kicked, I said Liverpool will win the league this season. As each game has passed — and Liverpool have responded to every obstacle put in front of them (Burnley aside) — I’m merely becoming more and more convinced.
There are a number of reasons for my conviction. It all starts with the fact that Jürgen Klopp arrived last October, not this summer. The German likes his team to play a specific style of football that takes time to learn. It isn’t about sitting deep and trying to pick teams off on the counter. What it is, is a rip-roaring, all-action style that involves players learning their jobs.
Pep Guardiola also likes to play a type of football that takes players a while to learn. So does Antonio Conte, though the Italian is more from the José Mourinho school of defend first and attack later so it will perhaps be a touch easier for Chelsea to pick up points the longer the season goes on.
The Premier League is, as many pundits will tell you, a different beast to other leagues and you can see from the results that both Manchester City and Chelsea have suffered against the likes of Southampton and Swansea that neither manager will have things entirely their own way as the season goes on.
Arsenal are looking strong and impressive but Arsenal always look strong and impressive until November. It will be interesting to see how they cope this month when they face Spurs, Manchester United and Bournemouth, with a tie against Paris St. Germain thrown in. Should they still be keeping up with the pace of the leaders in January they might be worth worrying about, but right now they’re performing pretty much as expected.
That PSG tie is the other reason that I’m not overly concerned by the likes of Arsenal and City. Not that match specifically, obviously, but what it represents — European football. The lack of it for Liverpool is important, as we saw in 2013-14. But it’s also likely to be a factor because the other teams that will be going for the title have to worry about their team. Presuming that both sides make it out of their group — and you can add Spurs to that despite their defeat last night — then there will come a point where balancing the squad becomes an issue.
Will Guardiola play Sergio Aguero in both European and Premier League matches? Will Arsene Wenger do that with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil? If they don’t, is their squad strong enough to cope? What about accumulated fatigue? Obviously teams have won the league while also competing in Europe, so it is possible, but how often have they done so when strong competitors haven’t had the same issue? Normally all of the teams going for the title have the same problems but Liverpool won’t have that this year.
Neither will Chelsea and their form has looked ominous. They have some truly world-class players in their ranks but they’ve only really started to look impressive since Conte switched to three at the back. Didn’t we go on a 12-game unbeaten run with the same formation under Rodgers in 2014-15, only for the wheels to come off when other teams figured it out and he abandoned hope?
Rumours swirled around Stamford Bridge that Roman Abramovich had a late night meeting after we beat Chelsea back in September, asking his directors whether Conte was the right man for the job. Whether those rumours had substance or not, it’s fair to guess that it won’t take much for Chelsea to enter ‘crisis mode’ if they fail to win a couple on the bounce. Also, what if Diego Costa or Eden Hazard get an injury or slip out of form? It’s hardly unthinkable that either of those things could happen. Either way, I don’t think they’re a significantly better team than we are across the board right now and I’d take our front three over theirs any day of the week.
Spurs will be there or thereabouts, but I’m not sure they’ve got enough to challenge seriously. They don’t lose a lot of matches but have they got enough to win them all? The injury to Harry Kane has shown their lack of strength in depth and it will be interesting to see if he returns firing on all cylinders. Mauricio Pochettino is probably the manager I think is most similar to Klopp right now, insomuch as he likes to play a particular type of football that takes time to learn but he’s been there long enough for his players to know it by now.
Add to all of the above the manner in which the Reds are playing their football right now and you can see why I’m so buoyant. I’m also convinced that Klopp has got something up his sleeve for when this current strategy starts to falter. One of Alex Ferguson’s major strengths was knowing when to play some players over others because of form. Right now our front three are on fire and it would be silly to drop any of them for Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi just because they’ve looked good in a cup game.
When Sadio Mané heads off to the African Cup of Nations in January, however, the manager will have a decision to make. Will he try to fit either of our main striking options into the current set-up, or will he abandon this system in favour of a 4-4-2 diamond that will get the best out of Sturridge and Origi? Mané’s made a real difference to our play and he will be a big miss, but not so much that we won’t be able to cope.
Having said all of the above, this piece isn’t actually about Liverpool winning the league this season. Instead, I’m thinking about the future. More importantly, I think Klopp is too.
Something may happen to mean that we don’t win the league this season. I can’t see what it is right now, but dark forces may align to mean that we fall at the final hurdle once again. What is crucial, though, is that if that doesn’t happen it won’t be the end of the world.
Gérard Houllier had one proper tilt at the title in 2001-2 and just missed out with 80 points to Arsenal’s 87. The following year we dropped to fifth with 64 points and then fourth the year after with 60. It felt as though there was the build-up to a title tilt and then things fell away gradually. Eventually, of course, Houllier moved on and Rafa Benitez took his place.
Although Benitez’s Liverpool side finished third in 2005-2006 with an impressive 82 points, Chelsea ran away with the title having notched up 91. We were never really in a title challenge that year. The main run at the Premier League under the Spaniard came in 2008-2009 when we amassed 86 points and lost out to Manchester United and their 90-point total. The following year we slipped down to seventh and 63 points. There’s an argument (that I agree with) that Benitez should have been given at least another year and I sometimes love to muse on the notion of Rafa under a supportive ownership like FSG, but ultimately we went for the title and then fell away.
No-one will need reminding of 2013-14. Eighty-four points. Some of the most exciting attacking football we’ve ever played. Luis Suarez lighting up the league. That slip that led to morons like Stoke fans singing about it, even though it happened against Chelsea and meant Man City won the title. So close and yet so far. The following year? Sixty-two points and sixth.
During the Premier League years, it appears to me that there’s been a pattern for our managers: Gear up for one proper go at winning the title and when it hasn’t happened they’ve lost their way. The team has lost faith and we’ve fallen down the pecking order. So close and yet so far.
Now it feels different. It seems as though Jürgen Klopp is planning not just for now but for the future. Talk of putting the Academy and Melwood together so that the youngsters can work with the senior squad. His use of young players in a sensible and productive way, allowing them to see the path that lies in front of them. His refusal to become too dependent on one player like Sturridge.
It finally feels to me that there is a process taking place that is building up to sustained success, not just one dash for the prize that will see us disappear from the running if it fails.
Liverpool Football Club is a force once more.