The Season So Far
Liverpool’s 2018-19 has been a historic season, with the Reds hitting heights never before seen in the club’s long and glorious history. It could well end in a Premier League and Champions League double, but by the same token the Reds could finish the season empty-handed. History will judge this Liverpool team harshly if they end the season without having won something, but to overlook this team’s consistency and their genuine awesomeness is to do them a disservice. Regardless of whether they win anything or not, this is already one of the great Premier League teams.
While it’s true that this season hasn’t produced as many thrashings or as many standout moments as last season, Liverpool have added the defensive steel and the winning mentality that they previously lacked and the effect has been a marked upturn in consistency. They get the job done and they get three points one way or another, just like Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and José Mourinho’s Chelsea did at their peaks.
The discussions about whether Liverpool have the ‘bottle’ needed to get over the line have become inescapable, but to talk about this team in those terms is fundamentally wrong and almost offensive in its irrelevance. They are on course for the third highest points total in English football history — if that’s not enough to win the title, it’ll be more because of Man City’s own ridiculous level of performance than Liverpool’s lack of guts.
There’s no secret to Liverpool’s success — they have simply signed or developed world-class players to replace the duds in their starting line-up. Figures of fun Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius have been replaced by Alisson Becker; terminally stupid Alberto Moreno has been permanently relegated to the bench by Andy Robertson, now the best left-back in the league by a distance; Dejan Lovren is now all-but a memory, the mighty Virgil van Dijk now commanding matches from the back. They have preserved their world-class attack (for now) and, importantly, added depth in midfield.
That’s not to say they’ve bought their success, however. None of this would have worked out as it has were it not for the magnificent coaching of Jürgen Klopp. His work on the training ground is evidently more rounded than it was at the peak of his gegenpressing years at Borussia Dortmund and thus Liverpool have been close to unbeatable. They may always play with the same shape and the same basic ideas, but they have numerous angles of attack and an equal variety of pressing strategies. If Plan A doesn’t work, they can go to Plan B, Plan C and Plan D before the game is out. Full credit to Klopp for his own evolution as a manager.
The Season Ahead
This is arguably the toughest Premier League fixture Liverpool have left, and without meaning to cause offence, this Chelsea side is not exactly an obdurate opponent away to other big sides. It’s possible, even probable, that Liverpool take maximum points between now and the end of the season, and with Man City still to play Tottenham and Manchester United, that should be enough to see the 29-year wait for league glory ended.
At the same time, they’re in a commanding position in the Champions League and no-one will be surprised if they end up in their second final in two years. Of course, cup competitions are far harder to predict than the league and one-off events — or a tiny man named Lionel — could easily torpedo Liverpool’s progress in the semifinals.
In any case, non-Liverpool fans in the UK should probably invest in earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones just in case.
Over the last couple of seasons Liverpool have maintained the same basic system while admirably diversifying their tactics.
The intense, vertical, pressing 4-3-3 remains in place, with the front three swapping positions at will while overlapping full-backs and midfield runners come from deep. The sitting midfielder stills controls the tempo, orchestrates attacks and hits long diagonals from deep to move the opposition block around. The centre-backs are still tasked with backing up the press, playing a tight, man-to-man style and winning duels – something Van Dijk has enabled them to do much more effectively.
Apart from that, as we wrote earlier in the season, Liverpool have learned many more of the “automations” they needed to achieve a higher peak of performance, as well as learning to switch shapes and angles to beat opponents set up to stop them. They’re more than capable of starting in a high-pressing 4-3-3, dropping off to a semi-pressing 4-3-3, and then to a 4-2-3-1, and then back to 4-3-3, all while maintaining an impressive level of cohesion and collective understanding.
While previous Liverpool sides were awesome up front but had a very obvious glass jaw, this one has nothing of the sort. If Chelsea are to get anything from this game, they’re going to have to do something incredible.
Liverpool’s attack is as close to unstoppable as it gets. It may be possible to keep one or two of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané quiet for ninety minutes, but together they always manage to find a way through. Dropping deep and denying space in behind is one solution, but all three are better in the air than one imagines and Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are excellent crossers of the ball, while their one-touch interplay in front of the box can open up any defence.
While Salah has had a rough couple of months, it’s a huge stretch to say he’s had a bad season. It speaks volumes of the season he had in 2017-18 that he’s faced enormous criticism for having only delivered 18 goals and 7 assists in the league so far this season. Eden Hazard, the Saint of Stamford Bridge and this summer’s Galáctico signing at the Bernabéu, has two fewer goals. Oh, to be as bad as Mo Salah.
As good as they are with the ball, they’re even better without it. Their pressing remains as good as ever but they’re now capable of sitting off and sucking teams up the pitch, knowing that they have the individual quality to play man-to-man with any team, and with Alisson and Van Dijk organising their teammates it’s very difficult for teams to play through them. Incredibly, Van Dijk still hasn’t been beaten by an attacker this season. No team has conceded fewer goals and only Manchester City have allowed fewer expected goals against. The Reds are 37 unbeaten at home and it will surely become 38 on Sunday.
Arguably most impressive of all has been Liverpool’s capacity to benefit from calamitous goalkeeping errors and refereeing decisions. Whenever they’ve needed saving this season, the opposition goalkeeper has given them a goal, or the referee has given them a penalty or allowed an illegal goal to stand. No other side can so reliably rely on a twelfth man to save them.
The only real weakness to be found at Anfield these days is the emotion of the occasion. With 29 years of hurt very probably about to end, the fans’ expectation is higher than ever before, which creates undue pressure on the players. Of course, this excess of emotion led to Liverpool’s literal downfall in their last title push — failure to control it this time could do the same.
Liverpool should play their strongest eleven, but with so many in-form midfielders it’s hard to say what their strongest eleven actually is.
It’s possible that Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi keep their places in Maurizio Sarri’s starting XI, with Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovačić, Willian and Pedro having played in Prague on Thursday night.
Liverpool will get revenge for 2014 and surely wrap up their 19th domestic title in the coming weeks. A cathartic 3-0 win, piling even more pressure on Sarri.