COME on, admit it. We all panicked just a little bit.
Liverpool 3-0 up and coasting by the coast, only to be pegged back to 3-1 in the 51st minute. Flashbacks of Wissam Ben Yedder and co ruining The Reds’ Champions League celebrations in Seville will have been plentiful as Glenn Murray slammed in Brighton’s ill-gotten penalty.
Then Phil Coutinho did wonderful things and settled all nerves. Always loved that lad you know, even when he was elbowing children and pushing grannies into oncoming traffic to try and force a move to Barcelona.
It’s been a good week for Jürgen Klopp and his boys. On the back of a 3-0 win at Stoke, the Brighton mauling sent The Reds back into the top four, and they’re on the march. To what exactly is unclear, but things are happening. The emphatic 5-1 win at the Amex Stadium appeared to confirm that lessons have been learned, but not just in terms of not ballsing up a three-goal lead.
In recent times Liverpool have had a reputation for dropping silly points against teams they really shouldn’t be dropping them against. Last season in particular it was visible as their nonetheless impressive fourth-place finish in the league still felt like “what might have been” given their impeccable record in games against their fellow top six rivals. It was silly draws and defeats to lesser lights that stopped it from being a better campaign.
The season before, Klopp’s first, it was even more apparent, leading to an eighth-placed finish. The German only took charge in October 2015, but in games against teams outside of the traditional top six (not including Leicester City for obvious reasons that year) they won nine, drew five and lost six. That’s just 32 points from a possible 60.
Then last season they improved and won 17, drew five and lost six, gaining 56 points from a possible 84, but still short of what you would expect to gain from those games.
And that’s the point. You can get 84 points by beating all of the teams you should be beating home and away. That has largely been the secret to Arsenal’s ability to consistently finish in the top four (barring last season). Beating who they should has taken them to Champions League qualification time and again. It has been an inability to beat those who are better than them has stopped them from pushing on and winning titles.
So far this season, Liverpool have played 10 games against non-top six sides, and have won seven and drawn three, with no defeats. That’s 24 points from a possible 30. Another 54 to play for, and on that ratio, would end up taking almost 70 points from those games overall. A significant increase on last season.
Being able to beat the teams below you is a skill, one that every title winner from previous seasons has been able to show consistently, but one that Liverpool have often struggled with. There are signs though that Klopp and his players have figured out how to improve their output in those games.
It’s not just from this season. The tail end of last season saw Liverpool needing points to guarantee their top-four finish, and they fought hard for them in games against the likes of Watford, West Brom, West Ham and Middlesbrough. In fact since their 3-1 defeat at Leicester in February of this year, The Reds have played 20 games against non-top six sides, winning 14, drawing five and losing just once.
That one defeat came at the hands of new Everton boss Sam Allardyce, whose Crystal Palace side left Anfield with all three points thanks to a failure of the home team to mark Christian Benteke at all. As long as whoever plays centre back next week can do a better job than the team did that day, be it Dejan Lovren, Gini Wijnaldum or George Sephton, hopefully The Reds should be fine.
There have still been silly points dropped in games this season. The draw at Watford on the opening day was very avoidable, the draw with Burnley was especially frustrating after having so long to find a winner once Mo Salah had levelled, then Dominic Solanke hitting the bar late on, and the two points dropped at Newcastle felt awful after a brilliant strike from Coutinho was ruled out by the softest of goals off Joselu’s shinpad.
However, since the humbling defeat by Tottenham at Wembley, there has been a resurgence, in particular in the outcomes of those type of games. Liverpool have scored 25 goals in eight games since that defeat, and 18 of those have been plundered in just five games against bottom 14 sides, with at least three scored in all of them.
People might dismiss the idea that praise like this is necessary for beating the teams you should be beating, but the unstoppable Manchester City will tell you after their last three games that winning them is far from simple, even if your superiority is obvious. Pep Guardiola’s side have stumbled over the line in three hard fought, albeit slightly fortunate, 2-1 wins against opposition that Liverpool have recently beaten 3-0, 3-0 and 4-1.
But what is making the difference? The obvious answer is Salah. The Egyptian Ian Callaghan (I prefer it to the clichéd Egyptian Messi) makes a clear difference with his pace, direct running and goals. Even on Saturday when he doesn’t score, his involvement in the second and third goals are simply sumptuous.
He isn’t the whole explanation though. The sheer options that Klopp has at the moment is clearly helping massively. Being able to bring Salah off the bench at Stoke to finish the game off, then having experience like James Milner, Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson to bring on to close games out if need be, and with Adam Lallana only now making his comeback, his options are going to get even stronger.
The counter attacking is devastating sides as well, in particular in away games. Goals scored against West Ham, Stoke and Brighton all involved numbers marauding forward and taking advantage of a slight moment of openness from the home side. It will shortly get to the point where home teams will be afraid to leave their own penalty area for fear of being countered, which should allow Liverpool to control games as they usually do at Anfield.
Even the games at home are starting to become routine. Wins over Huddersfield and Southampton simply involved the Reds biding their time and striking when the opportunities inevitably arose.
It is of course a shame that Liverpool’s record in the games against top six rivals isn’t as impressive as it has been, but then it was never likely to be. The number of points gained from those clashes last season was hugely impressive, but in all honesty, unsustainable. That’s not to say that there can’t be plenty of points won against them in the reverse fixtures though. They just need to avoid dozy defensive lapses and accidentally karate kicking goalies in the face.
However, ask me if I’d rather be great against the best or great against the rest, I’m taking the latter on pure maths. Both ideally, but as I said earlier, you get 84 points for beating the bottom 14 home and away, and just 30 for beating your rivals. Even though you’re also taking points off them, it’s not enough if you’re not doing the job against the lesser lights, and Liverpool are definitely getting better at doing that.
If Klopp’s men can maintain this form then they’ll be sitting pretty by the time they travel to Arsenal in the last game before Christmas, and after seeing the way the Gunners defended (or rather didn’t) against Manchester United on Saturday evening, I’m now really looking forward to that game wondering what Sadio Mane, Salah and co can do against them on a crisp Friday evening at the Emirates. Perhaps the four scored at Anfield in August will seem like a mere warmup.
There are certainly still things for this Liverpool team to improve on, but doesn’t that make it all the more exciting? They’re destroying teams left, right and centre at the moment in spite of weaknesses in the side. Imagine what they’ll be capable of once they address them.
Struggling to think of something to buy a Red in your life for Christmas? My new book, Kloppite: One Man’s Quest to turn Doubters into Believers, looks at Jürgen Klopp’s first two seasons at Anfield and how the bespectacled German set about trying to turn the fortunes of this great club around. Critics have described it as “A football book that is on sale at the moment”. Don’t miss out!
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We’re only 2 points worse off against the top 6 compared to the same fixtures last season – defeats away at Spurs and City replacing draws last time out.
If we swapped the 5 defeats to bottom 14 sides with the 5 wins against top 6 sides last season – we’d not have made the Champions League if everything else stayed equal.
After we dispatch the Russians and the blues. One super-important, the other … well super-important and double bang for your buck with Big big Sam on the sidelines. Well (if) after we win these two games I will be a smug basta*d indeed.
I tend to agree with you though. That series of results towards the end of last season were, Big Sam apart, not only vital but a really good pointer to a manager who was starting to get down and downright pragmatic. It has rolled on and we are rolling along right now. I would be interested in the stats about distance covered etc etc.. but my eyes are telling me we have started to perfect doing just enough rather than trying to overrun (circa start of last season) teams. Anyway it is good now, it is going to look a lot better this day next week.
Allez les rouges
I think a lot has to be said for Klopp. He’s bamboozled the opposition time and time again wtih unpreedictable choices in both personnel and in the system.
They have no idea whether it’ll be 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-2-4, 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. Literally.
And then those lovely options in personnel.
Last season, by contrast, you knew that, injuries permitting, it would be 4-3-3, with the final 6 along the lines of Can, Henderson, Lallana, Mane, Firmino, Coutinho.