Jürgen Klopp has honoured every pledge made at his Liverpool unveiling four years ago on Tuesday, turning doubter to believer (it was singular), creating emotional football, winning a title inside four years and lifting the burden of an illustrious history that had come to feel “like a 20-kilo backpack”. The result of ticking each box, and another problem for Manchester City, is that Liverpool and their manager are left pushing themselves for more.
The Premier League leaders toast the anniversary of Klopp’s appointment on the back of a perfect weekend that included an injury-time winner over Leicester plus defeats for Manchester City, Manchester United and Everton. The eight-point lead generated predictable claims of the league being Liverpool’s to lose – in October – and the inevitable counterargument that some sort of reverse psychology is at work to hex Klopp’s team in their pursuit of a first title for 30 years. The form of both Liverpool and City puts the argument in favour of the believers.
Liverpool are averaging a point more per game than the champions this season. Over the past 30 league games – a reasonable pool to assess with 30 matches of this campaign to play – Klopp’s side have dropped 11 points, winning 25, drawing four and losing once since the 3-1 victory that ended José Mourinho’s reign as United manager last December.
While Pep Guardiola struggles with only one fit central defender, Liverpool beat Leicester with their fourth-choice centre-half, Dejan Lovren, confirming they were correct to make him stay this summer. The club comes first and is stronger for it. The stumble that Manchester City need from Liverpool, and the almost faultless recovery they require to retain the title, looks beyond both at present.
Last season’s margins were so fine that Liverpool had cause to regret a draw that occurred on the first weekend in March, at Everton, for missing out on the championship with a club record 97 points. But not only have Liverpool sustained that punishing level, in contrast to the champions they have improved.
This season’s eight straight victories have again underlined the capacity of Klopp’s team to drag themselves over the line regardless of circumstance, opposition and workload. True, fortune has played a part with a goalkeeping error and penalty decision contributing to the past two wins over Sheffield United and Leicester respectively. But games in which four points were dropped last season – Chelsea away and Leicester at home – have been won with far more convincing performances. The leaders have been immune to the minor lapses that contributed to Manchester City pipping them to the line in May.
Two points were also dropped at Manchester United last term and, with the two clubs rivals only off the pitch at present, and for the foreseeable future, their visit to Old Trafford offers another chance for Liverpool to maintain their progression after the international break. And to equal Manchester City’s record of 18 consecutive top-flight victories from 2017.
Liverpool’s growing maturity has been evident throughout. Losing Alisson for eight weeks to a calf injury could have had serious repercussions for a team with absolute faith in the golden glove winner and Uefa’s reigning goalkeeper of the season. Instead Adrián, the club’s only experienced signing of the summer, has proven an able deputy, give or take the occasional dodgy clearance, and Liverpool’s defence has been relatively undisturbed by the change behind it.
Adrián is likely to hand over the gloves – and a 100% winning record in the league – to Alisson after the international break, with the Brazilian back in full training. Losing a three-goal lead in 21 minutes would also have spread panic through most teams. Liverpool, who conspired to do just that against Salzburg last week, merely steadied themselves after a tactical substitution by the manager and got the job done once more.
Greater maturity, self-belief and consistency are byproducts of becoming European champions in Madrid on 1 June. As the club’s former manager Brendan Rodgers remarked last week before his Anfield return: “What they now have is the confidence of winning. Once you become a winner, that gives you an edge. They have gone close a few times over the last few years in the League Cup, the Europa League and the Champions League final but, actually having won it, that lets them know they can be winners. I think that gives the players great confidence.”
It will not spill into overconfidence with Klopp at the helm. As he illustrated on Friday, when bluntly stating he would rather quit Liverpool than allow himself to be filmed inside the changing room, few managers are more adept at cutting through the hype. With two Club World Cup fixtures in Qatar to squeeze into December’s schedule, the inevitability of injuries, Manchester City’s calibre and the small matter of it only being October, the Liverpool manager will leave title talk to others and treat any questions on the subject with disdain. His message, as always, has been received by the players. As Virgil van Dijk has insisted: “Anything can happen still.”
Liverpool’s experience of the past 29 years cautions against premature celebrations even as they savour the most commanding lead a team have held at this stage of a Premier League season. But this is a Liverpool team that left their backpack in Madrid and are unburdened by the past. Last season they gave Manchester City no margin for error going into their meeting at the Etihad Stadium in January. This year that pressure has come around in autumn.
The Guardian Sport