How Liverpool are donning different faces as they fight to fulfill Premier League title dream
Jurgen Klopp’s side might not be at their very best, but he may as well borrow that Bill Shankly zinger: ‘Ay, here we are with problems at the top of the league’
There are the stats: Liverpool failed to keep a clean sheet for a 12th consecutive game, their worst run since 1998. And the only league encounter Jurgen Klopp’s side have won by more than a one-goal margin since mid-September came against the defending champions Manchester City three weeks ago.
There are the accusations: the Merseysiders are “playing with fire,” have “got lucky with results” and “aren’t as good as they were last season.”
There are the ridiculous conspiracies, largely centered around VAR, but they don’t deserve airtime.
And then there is the league table, which has Liverpool perched eight points clear at the top - 11 out of reach of City. There is a zero in the defeats column, despite them already lining up against Arsenal, Leicester, Tottenham and Manchester City at Anfield as well as Chelsea away.
Sure, after 14 matches last season, Klopp’s rearguard had only been breached five times in contrast to the 12 goals they’ve let in this term, which is still the second best in the division. More importantly, Liverpool are four points up on their tally from the same stage last season and have matched City’s haul at this juncture of their 100-mark campaign in 2017-18.
This is not to say that they are operating at their optimum nor that any criticism is unfounded, but Klopp may as well borrow that Bill Shankly zinger: “Ay, here we are with problems at the top of the league.”
Klopp witnessed his side conjure yet another way to win on Saturday after Alisson’s needless red card for handling the ball outside his area on 74 minutes left them a man down against lively Brighton. Liverpool were 2-0 up at that point, the scoreline kept respectable by the excellent Mat Ryan in the visitors’ goal at Anfield, but Graham Potter’s men were a nuisance throughout.
The closing minutes, as has become custom for the leaders, were tight and tense. Adrian came on and while he was still orchestrating his wall, referee Martin Atkinson allowed Lewis Dunk to take a quick free kick that was rolled into the bottom corner. The Spaniard then saved an Aaron Mooy shot and made a fast recovery after fumbling a Pascal Gross header.
“My man of the match today is Adrian, coming on in a game like this and having that knock of the free kick,” Klopp said of the man who will now be between the sticks for Wednesday’s Merseyside derby. “I want to read something about that situation. It is incredible. An ice-cold keeper getting his gloves ready and then… [mimes whistle]. That is our life. Then being in the game to make two saves. He saved our lives and I am happy for him he can play the derby.”
Liverpool have played three taxing fixtures in seven days - a 2-1 win at Crystal Palace, the home draw against Napoli in the Champions League, where Fabinho suffered ankle ligament damage, and the 2-1 victory over Brighton at Anfield. The schedule will now only intensify during December, beginning with the hosting of Everton on Wednesday.
“In the period we have now, you have to use your fresh moments, and then in other moments you have to fight, which we did,” Klopp reflected. “Recovery starts in your mind, you have to want to recover. We try everything to keep the boys fresh with the right food and treatment to go again in the derby.”
Liverpool will be missing a crucial trio from their defensive spine against Everton with Alisson serving his one-game suspension, Fabinho out for up to eight weeks and Joel Matip still nursing a knee injury. The club may have to endure rather than enjoy that clash and the nine that follow this month.
Klopp will take comfort in the fact Liverpool have repeatedly shown powers of recovery and resilience to match their offensive talents. A team that was once defined by their attacking blurs that could marmalise opponents in a matter of minutes are now capable of doing whatever is necessary to win.
“We develop together,” Klopp said. “I am not so silly that I say I only want to see a football game where I only see that ‘blitz’ football and all the rest I do not want to see.
“The reason we did that [focused on attacking prowess first] was to implement some very important things like how to press, counter-attack and use situations when we win the ball, which we still do.
“But of course now, especially in the last one and a half years, a lot of teams sit back. Not Brighton - they didn’t, but a lot teams do so we have to play around that wall.”
Liverpool’s goals on Saturday were born out of set-pieces, in which they are the division’s specialists. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s double delivery and Virgil van Dijk’s brace of headers took their tally from deadball situations to 40 since the start of last season - the highest by some distance in the league. Liverpool have also netted 10 more headers (29) than any other side. Since the beginning of 2018-19, no player has matched Alexander-Arnold for top-flight assists (17) and no defender has bagged more goals than Van Dijk (7).
Liverpool are now unbeaten in 31 Premier League games, with 14 wins on the spin at Anfield. How have they managed to do that?
“There are different ways to score a goal,” Klopp said. “There are different ways to control a game. There are different ways to finish a game off. A couple of them we showed already. A couple more we will show.”