Thursday 27 June 2019

Simon Hughes: 'Greatness beckons for Reds'

Mean defence gives Klopp’s Anfield marvels growing sense of invincibility

Alisson: Liverpool have joint best defensive record in Premier League history. That does not happen without a capable goalkeeper. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Alisson: Liverpool have joint best defensive record in Premier League history. That does not happen without a capable goalkeeper. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Simon Hughes

This is an era in football when the underappreciation of a moment, a period or a person involved is recognised and suddenly, there is room for overstatement to travel far.

Maybe nowhere more so is this likely to be found than in Liverpool, not least because this is where a manager was brought in because it was believed he would be able to harness the emotion of the club and the city, but also because of the yearning that exists there, and the time that has passed since the delivery of inner-most desires.

It is fair to say these are unprecedented months in Liverpool's modern history because of the way they have risen to the summit of the Premier League.

The way they are winning games; the way they are recovering from set-backs, the way substitutes are impacting outcomes when the pressure is really on - like when Roberto Firmino punished Paris Saint-Germain as the clock ticked down, like when Divock Origi emerged from the shadows to play a defining role in the Merseyside derby, like Xherdan Shaqiri did yesterday against Manchester United, just three minutes after he'd been introduced.

It feels significant that Liverpool have made the third best start to any Premier League campaign - the best came only last season by Manchester City.

Liverpool will have to break new ground to prove themselves as the very best but it should also encourage that they are already on the brink of doing that in some crucial departments.

Sadio Mane scores Liverpool’s first goal at Anfield. Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images
Sadio Mane scores Liverpool’s first goal at Anfield. Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

As Jurgen Klopp rammed his fist into the night air and the Kop roared, Alisson Becker bear-hugged Shaqiri, kissing the crown of his head repeatedly.

Without Shaqiri's intervention, it may have finished 1-1 and the story would have been about the goalkeeper, whose first-half mistake had allowed United to equalise.

Alisson should have gathered Romelu Lukaku's cross easily having dived out from the goal but it squirmed from his hands, bouncing off his knee and into the path of Jesse Lingard.

It was bad enough for Liverpool that their dominance over United had been almost absolute until that point and dramatically the score did not reflect that, but it also because it checked their confidence and the purpose in their stride disappeared.

There has been a sense of invincibility about Liverpool this season because of the way they have defended, with Alisson introducing the same calmness and authority to his position as Virgil van Dijk upon his arrival.

Suddenly, even Van Dijk wasn't quite himself, hesitating whether to meet Lukaku in challenges or whether to let him receive the ball and then try and pounce.

In front of Van Dijk, others - Firmino particularly - were less certain about what they were doing as well and the energy was sucked out of Anfield for final 15 minutes of the first half.

Perhaps it was fortunate that the mistake came then rather than after the break.

There was time for Liverpool to get it out of their system and recharge. By the end, the mood had transformed completely.

Van Dijk and Alisson were casting glances at one another, smiles on their face.

In the wind and the rain, United's players with their heads bowed sloped away, knowing that they have delivered the club's worst start to a season in 26 years.

By comparison, this has been Liverpool's best start in the corresponding period.

The new ground instead relates to Alisson because after 17 games, Liverpool have the joint best defensive record of any team in Premier League history. That does not happen without a capable goalkeeper.

Liverpool are indeed level with the 2005/'06 Chelsea side managed by Jose Mourinho at his sternest, one that finished the previous season as champions having conceded a record low of 15 goals, one that would lift the title again in the campaign in question having let in just seven more.

The trouble with assessing Liverpool's progress is that positive conclusions usually relate to its own distant past, rather than other places where the ultimate has more recently been achieved.

To appreciate where Liverpool are at presently, maybe comparisons can be made with the Arsenal side that went unbeaten in 2003/'04.

While Liverpool have dropped points from a winning position only once this season, only six in total have been lost through three draws but those draws have come against their closest rivals, which has meant those with the same aspirations have not gained a true advantage at Liverpool's expense.

The week before Christmas in 2003, Arsenal had drawn six games, one of them with United, but the others with Portsmouth, with Fulham, with Charlton Athletic, with Leicester City and with Blackburn Rovers.

The manner with which they ended up winning the title meant it did not feel like there had ever been a drain in energy but their Champions League campaign did suffer and there is also a sort of relationship with the progression Liverpool have recently made in that competition.

Internazionale went to Highbury and won convincingly and, when Arsenal went to Kiev, they deserved to lose.

These results meant that qualification was not sealed until the final fixture, though that trivial matter and the questions asked then about their abilities were forgotten by the time what felt like the impossible was realised.

This is where Liverpool are treading at the moment and this makes it different to the campaigns when they have gone close enough to ending their wait in the past.

With City the formidable object now chasing them, however, it is likely that Liverpool will have to be record-breakers in more way than just one or even two should the trophy that has eluded them for so long be gathered in May. (© Independent News Service)

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