THIS one has come around again a bit swiftly for my tastes. The “game of the season” could have waited a bit. You can stick your Tottenham Hotspur best 11 and ye “champions elect” Manchester United up your arseholes. You can push champions Chelsea up there with them while you’re at it. The best two football teams in Britain are Manchester City and Liverpool. And I’m up for boxing with anyone who disagrees with this statement.
City, with all that filthy loot, have a roster that teams across the generations would kill for. Liverpool’s assets aren’t as obviously plenteous as theirs, but The Reds are the better football team. Liverpool finished a couple of points shy of City last season, but the sides respective third and fourth places don’t relay the full story. The Mancs will argue they had a European campaign to accommodate while Liverpool could concentrate solely on their league position. This is true, but last year’s model of Liverpool had all manner of injury problems and did not have the spare parts to fix themselves up with when key men were forced to cry off.
Remember the side Jürgen Klopp was forced to start with at Stoke in April? The Liverpool manager had no choice but to go with a back three and a midfield four of Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can. The former two as wing backs. Then there was that front three. Ben Woodburn, at 17, on one side, 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold on the other. The struggling 22-year-old Divock Origi ploughing vain furrows ahead of them. Makes a fan shiver just recalling that team.
And this was a side that was expected to rock up at grounds across the country and pick up points needed to stay in touch with Manchester City and their endless array of options. When City were weakened they were forced to slum it by recalling “world’s best striker” Sergio Aguero, multiple title-winner Yaya Toure or by alternating between £50million wonderkids Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane. The lads Liverpool were bringing in, by contrast, are either not at the club anymore or now struggling to make the bench on recent matchdays.
Things are different now. Klopp recognised that he had a fantastic first 11 but little substance beyond that. There has been much media and fan focus on Liverpool’s weaknesses in defence, and the club tried and failed to remedy those this summer. The facts show that Liverpool took 43 points during the first half of the campaign’s 19 games. Liverpool conceded 20 goals in that period, but scored 46 times. The injury-plagued second part of the season saw Liverpool pick up 10 points less (33) and score 14 times less (32). But here’s the really interesting bit – The Reds, despite being far from the point-getting, goal-scoring force of nature they had been in the first part of the season, conceded just two more goals (22).
The Liverpool team that topped the Premier League for more weeks than any other side before Christmas 2016 was a team that let in about a goal every game, but compensated for that by scoring not far off three in reply. The team of the season’s first half had a system that worked. It would give you a chance (often from a set piece) but it would tear you apart in return. If the defence was a problem it was also part of the solution. A really satisfactory solution. It is not a stretch to say that had Klopp been able to pick the same sides in winter/spring 2017 than he had been able to in summer/autumn 2016 then Liverpool might well have finished the 2016-17 season having conceded around 40 goals, scored over 90 goals and amassed towards 90 points. Liverpool would’ve given ultimate champions Chelsea a real run for their money.
What changed then in the second part of the season was not that Liverpool became increasingly defensively vulnerable. They stayed at the same level of vulnerability that they had been at prior to the Christmas halfway mark. That goal-a-game conceding rate was manageable. What wasn’t sustainable though was continuing to score goals with such gay abandon. The awesome foursome of Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane were to start a match together just five times in the final 19 games. They had shared the pitch 12 times in the first 19. There were games in the run in where the manager struggled to get more than one of them in his side at a time. When these four main men started it rained goals for Liverpool. Without them, drought.
The summer’s recruitment focus from most quarters outside of the club though was on defence. The wisdom was that Liverpool are weak at the back. The Reds became favourites to sign the man mountain Virgil van Dijk. His signing was seen as the cure to all defensive ills. Klopp and his inner sanctum also strongly felt that the Dutchman would improve the side. Fortunately, more importantly, they also recognised that the drop off in goals when any one of Mane, Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana were absent was the bigger issue. Occasionally vulnerable in defence Liverpool may be, but the bigger test was solving the drop off in goal-scoring potency.
To this end Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Dom Solanke were signed. Naby Keita was targeted too, and it is a relief that, despite the failure to secure him for the current season, he will be a Red for 2018-19.
The work in the summer has meant that Liverpool have been able to start the current season with four wins and 14 goals from five games despite being without Lallana and Coutinho. The form of Mane, Firmino and new man Salah has ensured that. Of course Liverpool have also shipped five goals in five games. It’s what this Liverpool do and it isn’t a bad thing when it is simultaneously a platform for all-out attack.
Liverpool go to Manchester City’s lair this weekend with nothing to fear. City can of course beat Liverpool. In theory they should be able to beat anybody. They don’t though. They aren’t the force against the best that Liverpool are. Liverpool savour playing the best. Unbeaten against the top seven last season, The Reds were last taken in 90 minutes by a big side when United smashed and grabbed a 1-0 at Anfield over 18 months ago. They have been the only big team to beat Liverpool in over two seasons.
Normally it is courtesy to speculate on the starting 11 that the manager might select. Bin that. Klopp goes same again. The lads that tore Arsenal apart surely get a crack at City. Let’s talk about Liverpool’s bench. Let’s walk around the riches at the Liverpool manager’s disposal. Kicking their heels, slumped back in those mad subs chairs, like kids pretending to be racing drivers, might be such luminaries as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Milner, to say nothing of precocious talent like Alexander-Arnold or Solanke. It’s been years since we knew a Liverpool substitutes selection that strong.
Feel optimistic about Liverpool again. Try it. There is so much to savour, so much reason for great expectation. The squad has breadth and depth. The team has put points on the board already. Signals have been sent out to rivals at home and in Europe. The Champions League awaits. The world is ours. The Reds are coming up that hill.
The predicted 11: Mignolet; Gomez, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Can; Mane, Salah, Firmino.
Kick off: 12pm on Sky Sports
Referee: Jonathan Moss
Odds: Manchester City 9-1-, Draw 3-1, Liverpool 10-3