Sunday 25 August 2019

Jack Pitt-Brooke: 'Liverpool are showing that the pursuit of glory doesn’t always depend on perfection'

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (second right) celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game with team-mates during the Premier League match at St Mary's Stadium, Southampton.
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (second right) celebrates scoring his side's second goal of the game with team-mates during the Premier League match at St Mary's Stadium, Southampton.

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Does it matter that Liverpool are not playing well?

Football is about performance, but only up to a point, and far less when there are five games left in the most exciting title race for a generation.

Quality and level certainly tell over a 38-game season but when you cut the data set this short all that matters is getting over the line each remaining time. That is what has made the last few weeks so thrilling. Manchester City have maintained their standards, playing more or less the same way – Swansea aside – and winning game after game after game. There has not been much excitement to it, or tension, aside from the late turnarounds at Swansea or Schalke, or the penalty shoot-out win against Chelsea at Wembley.

But Liverpool has been a different and far more exciting story. You cannot blame them for not playing with that same robotic control and repetition of City; they are playing a different game. Jurgen Klopp was asked about performance levels after last night’s game and shrugged that his team cannot be expected to play like City do.

All they can do is keep finding ways to win - and that has been the standout story of the last month. They had four draws out of six, a run that cost them their lead. But since then they have won four straight in the league. In three of those they have been locked at 1-1 with 10 minutes left. At Craven Cottage they had thrown their lead away, letting Fulham in after a bizarre mix-up between Virgil van Dijk and Allison. Against Spurs they had lost their footing against a Tottenham fightback, even conceding chances to go 2-1 down. And last night they had started poorly, conceded the first goal to Southampton, and had to fight back into the game.

In all three games it felt as if Liverpool’s costly run of draws might continue. In all three games Liverpool did not play especially well. Not that much better than they had done against Leicester, West Ham, Manchester United or Everton. Any of those three could have set quite naturally in that grouping: the draws that cost Liverpool the league.

But all three times – Fulham, Spurs, Southampton – Liverpool found a late winner. And if the Craven Cottage penalty was a gift, and the Toby Alderweireld own-goal a freak, then last night’s Mohamed Salah winner was all about deadly clinicism. Running from inside his own half, running into more space than Liverpool had all game, he sped away from his opponents, swerved and found the bottom corner.

It was a moment just as thrilling as any on this wild ride of a season, like Divock Origi against Everton, or Alderweireld last week. And it was a moment, like those two, that generated its own energy.

Because there is one line of argument that says City play to a higher standard than Liverpool, that they do not need late winners, and that their superior level will tell in the end. That Liverpool’s results are currently better than their performances deserve and that that will eventually catch up with them. Or even that to keep winning like this – late on, by the skin of their teeth, having not performed as they had hoped – is so tiring that it will eventually deplete their reserves.

But maybe that is all nonsense. Because the way Liverpool are winning games might be even more valuable – and self-sustaining – than how City are playing right now. No they do not have the same totalising control but with every late winner they are generating more belief, energy and momentum than they would ever do with a routine 2-0 stroll. Three times they have flirted with the possibility of failure and then broken City’s hearts with their success. They are acquiring an aura like an old Manchester United team, of a side who can never be beaten. And City – almost impeccably perfect all season – must wonder what they must do to shake them off.

Who knows what this will mean for the title race. There is no point trying to predict it. City could well show the same consistency they have shown for months, win their last six, and retain the title. But if they break, it will cost them, and it would not have done if Liverpool had drawn one of these last three. They have had more pressure exerted on their title defence than they ever expected. And these dramatic, frantic, last gasp Liverpool wins might be starting to wear them down.

Independent News Service

The Left Wing: The 'hell' of World Cup training camp, Ireland's half-back dilemma and All Blacks uncertainty

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport