It is difficult to fathom the emotions that Jürgen Klopp experienced when, most likely, he observed Manchester City’s win against Newcastle last Saturday. While he may have been excited to witness what could be considered the top match of the season, he likely also felt a sense of familiarity as City dominated with their impressive and unyielding performance.
Many teams have struggled against Manchester City’s well-funded success with Pep Guardiola as their manager, but none have experienced the disappointment quite like Liverpool. This was especially evident in the 2018-19 and 2021-22 seasons, during which they accumulated impressive point totals of 97 and 92 respectively, yet still fell short of winning the title. In the one season they did emerge victorious, 2019-20, the pandemic caused a strange and unsettling atmosphere when Liverpool finally lifted the trophy.
Although it was a victory, it marked the end of a 30-year drought and Liverpool now has the opportunity to become champions once more. After their break, they will face Bournemouth on Sunday afternoon as the top team in the Premier League with less than half of the season left to play. While their sights are set on the ultimate prize, there is a looming worry as Manchester City trails them by only two points and has won their last six games across all competitions. Additionally, Kevin De Bruyne has returned from injury and Erling Haaland is expected to come back soon. This poses a significant threat for Klopp and his team.
Liverpool’s current performance is not on par with their past years when they were competing with City for the title. However, this is not a criticism as their previous standards were exceptional. It is commendable that they are in a position to potentially win the title and three other trophies in mid-January, especially after a difficult season. Despite predictions that the Klopp era was coming to an end, the German coach has revitalized his team’s personnel, drive, and focus, restarting their success. They have been consistently strong, winning 13 out of 20 league matches and only losing once to Tottenham.
The key factor in Liverpool’s success has been the contributions of their four core players: Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Mohamed Salah. All four were part of the 2019-20 title-winning team and have consistently delivered top-level performances. Salah stands out in particular, with 18 goals and nine assists in 27 appearances across all competitions. However, his absence due to Africa Cup of Nations duty is a setback for Liverpool, especially with the hamstring injury he sustained while playing for Egypt against Ghana on Thursday. Manager Jurgen Klopp described it as a surprise and expressed concern for Salah’s well-being. Fortunately, there is some good news as the Egyptian Football Association reported that Salah is expected to only miss the next two games for his country and potentially the last-16 match if they advance.
Unfortunately, Alexander-Arnold is currently sidelined due to a knee injury. However, he is anticipated to make a speedy recovery and resume his role as a vital playmaker for the team, utilizing his impressive passing skills from a position that combines elements of a full-back and midfielder. As for Van Dijk, he has reclaimed his dominant role as a center-back powerhouse, while Alisson continues to showcase his exceptional talents as a goalkeeper. It is safe to say that the Brazilian is unrivaled in his position, not just in the country but possibly even in the entire world.
Overall, Liverpool has excelled in both their defensive and offensive performance. The trio of Van Dijk, Alisson, and Konaté, along with Gomez and Quansah, have been crucial in maintaining the league’s best defense. Matip’s unfortunate knee injury during the Fulham match last month has left a void, but all five forwards – Salah, Núñez, Jota, Díaz, and Gakpo – have contributed to the team’s success. Out of the 31 games played this season, only five have not seen a goal from at least one of these players. If one player doesn’t score, another will step up to make an impact.
Talking about Liverpool’s offense would not be complete without acknowledging Núñez, who is known for polarizing opinions among fans like no other player in the team’s history. However, it is undeniable that the Uruguayan has been making a significant impact with his tireless efforts and strategic, selfless movements on the field – currently ranking fifth in the league for non-penalty expected goals and assisted goals with a total of 12.8. If the 24-year-old can improve his finishing and convert more of his opportunities, it could potentially be the key factor in securing Liverpool the title.
The midfield may be their downfall. The team has struggled to find the right balance since they failed to adequately replace Fabinho during the summer transfer window. This has resulted in Alexis Mac Allister mainly playing as a defensive midfielder since his move from Brighton in June. However, this is not his strongest position and it has been evident in his performances this season. This could continue to be a problem in the future. Another new addition, Dominik Szoboszlai, had a strong start with Liverpool but has recently experienced a decline in form. Similarly, Ryan Gravenberch, who joined from Bayern Munich in September, has only shown occasional moments of brilliance.
Reworded: With that being said, it is evident that Liverpool’s midfield is currently displaying a remarkable level of athleticism, aggression, quality, and cohesion that was greatly lacking in the previous year. A major contributor to this improvement is 22-year-old Curtis Jones, who has become a dependable player with a pass completion rate of 91.6% this season. He is also often the one who initiates Liverpool’s pressing game. While it may be too early to label the youngster from Toxteth as a leader in Klopp’s team, he is certainly making strides towards that role.
Wataru Endo’s presence in midfield has greatly contributed to Liverpool’s improvement, despite initially struggling after joining from Stuttgart in August. He appeared to be the solution to their No. 6 dilemma, but his departure for the Asian Cup interrupted this progress. His absence, along with that of Salah and several other injured players, has come at a difficult time for Klopp as they face tough opponents in the upcoming matches. After playing Bournemouth, they will host in-form Chelsea and then travel to Arsenal, both of whom are also vying for the title. In addition, they must navigate a Carabao Cup semi-final against Fulham and an FA Cup fourth-round tie against Norwich. The next two weeks will be a demanding and crucial period for Liverpool, potentially determining their chances at the title, especially since Manchester City has a comparatively easier schedule during the same timeframe.
Fortunately, Andrew Robertson is nearing his return after suffering a shoulder injury in mid-October. Additionally, there seems to be more flexibility in terms of losing points this season due to the heightened competitiveness of the league. City is currently on track to finish with 82 points, although their tendency to go on extended winning streaks in the latter half of seasons indicates they may end up with a higher total.
Liverpool’s only option is to continue winning their matches, especially the one against City at Anfield in March. Currently, they are performing well, as Klopp has not only strengthened the team but also rotated players to prevent exhaustion, a factor that may have contributed to their previous disappointment in competing for four trophies this late in the season. Prior to this weekend, only eight Liverpool players had played over 1,000 minutes in the league this season, fewer than their title rivals: City (11), Aston Villa (10), Arsenal (10), and Tottenham (10).
The first of those remain the team to beat, however, and Liverpool know that better than anyone. In regards to bad omens they only have to remember their final-day fixtures in the 2018-19 and 2021-22 seasons. In both cases it was Wolves at home. Liverpool’s final-day fixture this season? Wolves at home.