Tuesday 28 January 2020

Liverpool's procession is picking up pace

If Reds wobble the pressure of 30-year wait will weigh heavy

Jurgen Klopp’s side could be on their way to creating all sorts of records. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty
Jurgen Klopp’s side could be on their way to creating all sorts of records. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty

Jonathan Wilson

Leicester City were second in the table and unbeaten at home, where they had conceded only five goals in nine previous games this season. On Thursday night, Liverpool destroyed them, beating them 4-0 with a performance of awesome authority.

Liverpool's opening 18 games have brought 17 wins and a draw, a start matched in the history of the league only by Manchester City the season before last. At the moment Liverpool are not merely Club World Cup winners, they are actually the best side in the world.

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Is there, then, anything that could stop them winning the title for the first time since 1990?

The performance at Leicester and the way they controlled the second half against Salzburg in the Champions League answered a lot of questions, showing a capacity to manage games that had not always been in evidence this season, but through the late autumn there was a clear sense that Liverpool were not playing quite as well as results suggest.

Opta's charts show that by the start of Thursday's programme they had scored 10.03 goals more than their xG (expected goals), a greater positive disparity than for any other side in the league - although, of course, that may mean nothing more than they have the most clinical forwards.

Less eye-catchingly Jürgen Klopp's side had conceded 2.8 goals fewer than xG would expect, placing them ninth in that chart. Together that means their goal difference is 12.21 better than xG would anticipate; only Leicester outperform their expected goal difference by more.

There have been late winners against Leicester (at home), Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, and a late equaliser against Manchester United. There was a sense of, if not quite clinging on, then being under serious pressure in the latter stages against Chelsea and Brighton.

How serious an issue that is considered to be depends on the extent to which one prioritises data and the underlying picture of how the game is played as opposed to believing in more nebulous concepts such as character. That propensity to keep going, to keep believing and find late goals when required remains beyond the scope of algorithms but Liverpool have it in abundance.

Such patterns have a tendency to become self-fulfilling, as they did for Manchester United's peak Fergie Time season of 1998-99, or Sunderland when they were promoted under Roy Keane in 2006/07: not only do the team seeking a goal come to believe it will come and so attack with more conviction and less sense of desperation, but the other side can come to believe that it will inevitably concede and so drop deeper and deeper.

But still, while certain teams, and particularly those imbued with such a clear sense of mission as Liverpool have this season, do seem to have that gift, it is perhaps not to be relied on.

Then there is the constant worry of injuries. Virgil van Dijk is the biggest concern given the impact he has had over the past two years, and Liverpool without him would look a much more vulnerable side. But he is not the only player who would be extremely difficult to replace.

James Milner and Joe Gomez offer cover in the full-back positions but both are very obviously filling in: the creative threat offered by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson is not only hugely important to how Liverpool attack but unique in world football. Then there are the front three. Divock Origi, Adam Lallana and Xherdan Shaqiri can step up but, again, there is a clear drop-off in level when they play.

That is one of the unusual aspects of this Liverpool (and also true of this Manchester City): while there are a few options in midfield, they do essentially have a first team in a way that had largely gone out of fashion over the past couple of decades. There are clear advantages to that in terms of cohesiveness, both defensive and attacking, but it does make the potential impact of an injury greater.

That may in part explain why both Klopp and Pep Guardiola have been so vociferous in their complaints about the festive programme: the consequences of a key injury for them are probably greater than they have been for previous title challengers. Then again Fabinho seemed essential and Liverpool have actually improved defensively since Jordan Henderson dropped deeper.

But perhaps, if Liverpool's form, which is surely unsustainable, does start to wobble and the gap does start to close, the pressure of those 30 years without a league title will start to be felt. At every turn players and fans will begin to glimpse the spirits of near-misses past - Steven Gerrard slipping, Rafa Benítez reading his list of facts, Gérard Houllier proclaiming his side "10 games from greatness".

Perhaps - although it does not seem very likely, such is the sense of power and self-confidence this Liverpool project. Besides, for Liverpool to come under pressure there needs also to be a credible threat. The recent defeats by City and Liverpool have proved that Leicester are not that. Manchester City, meanwhile, are not the relentless force of the past two seasons.

They may still be capable of thrashing opponents, but their pressing is not quite right, rendering them susceptible to the counter. The return of Aymeric Laporte, scheduled for February, will improve them and should make them challengers for the Champions League but for now City do not look a side capable of reeling off the 10 or 12 straight wins that would be necessary to threaten Liverpool.

Something remarkable will have to happen if this is not to be a procession. All kinds of records are possible. Is this how Liverpool would have wanted it? Would they have preferred the wait to end with something as cathartic as Michael Thomas's goal for Arsenal at Anfield in 1989 or Sergio Agüero's winner against QPR in 2012, or even Steve Bruce's header against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993?

Or is there a self-indulgence in imagining not only victory but the circumstances of victory? Victory, though, this will surely be and, if the second half of the season is essentially a triumphal parade, Liverpool have earned it.

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