The wheels are shaking in Liverpool’s Premier League title race

Chris Henderson, 05 February 2019

We’ve been here before.

If last Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Leicester City showed that Liverpool’s title charge looked vulnerable, then their abject display against West Ham showed that the wheels are well and truly shaking.

Jamie Carragher talked at length on Monday Night Football about Liverpool’s kind fixture list when compared with Manchester City’s, and their chance of glory still lies in their own hands, but there are serious question marks about Liverpool’s longevity in this title race.

Within two weeks, Liverpool’s seven point lead over Manchester City has become three. If City beat Everton on Wednesday night, they will knock Liverpool off top spot. Things are looking increasingly ominous.

A record season

Firstly, it goes without saying that so far this season, Liverpool have been near flawless. The sheer tenacity in their play is what sets them apart. With everyone fit, the side feels well-balanced and inherently unselfish. Gung-ho and fancy-free in attack but anchored in the right places.

Liverpool currently have one of the most complete defensive units the Premier League has ever seen

While the plaudits rain down on the inimitable presence of Virgil Van Dijk and the shrewd summer signing of Alisson, Andrew Robertson is my vote for Player of the Season so far.

Add to that the rapid development of Trent Alexander-Arnold and the fact that Van Dijk improves any player alongside him and you have one of the most complete defensive units the Premier League has ever seen.

In the engine room, the importance of Gini Wijnaldum to the team’s play is still grossly underrated in most circles. Jordan Henderson will most likely spend his entire career being, in one form or another, undervalued. He’s the sort of player, like Michael Carrick for example, whose worth only truly shines when they’re no longer in the team. The absence of both Wijnaldum and Henderson on Monday night looked deeply concerning, even before kick off.

Much has already been said about the dynamic attacking options available to Jurgen Klopp. The trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah have competition from Xherdan Shaqiri, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana among many others.

That all sounds really positive, but it feels like the tide is turning.

Worrying signs

Serious question marks persist about the reliability of Liverpool’s back-up options when members of the first team are either unavailable or don’t perform.

Liverpool’s starting line-up at the London Stadium looked considerably weaker than in previous weeks. James Milner started as a makeshift right-back, up against arguably West Ham’s most effective player this season in Felipe Anderson. Milner did an amicable job but it feels unnecessarily temporary, especially considering Nathaniel Clyne was allowed to join Bournemouth on loan only a few weeks ago.

Adam Lallana, while also being a tireless runner, offers cutting-edge to the side but is often wasteful and inefficient in possession.

Naby Keita and Fabinho both floundered for large parts of the game. It was arguably Firmino’s worst performance in a Liverpool shirt. Salah was anonymous, like almost all of his teammates.

What pressure?

After the match, the Liverpool players, as well as the Sky Sports team, did their best to play down the supposed pressure that Liverpool are under.

“It’s all about preparation and focus, all this talk about pressure doesn’t really make a difference”

Jurgen Klopp made sensible comments about Liverpool’s recent history in the Premier League being irrelevant, “We do what we can do, and that’s it.”

Prior to England’s Six Nations opener against Ireland on Saturday, Jonny Wilkinson echoed the view that ‘pressure’ is a complete nonsense to professional athletes, “It’s all about preparation and focus, all this talk about pressure doesn’t really make a difference.”

After the 1-1 draw on Monday night, Carragher even claimed that it “wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world” if Liverpool lost their lead at the top and became the chasers in second place, convincing absolutely nobody, presumably including himself.

The long-term flaws of gegenpressing

Klopp’s insistence on gegenpressing, or counter-pressing, raises key concerns about the long-term effects on the players over the course of the season.

The advantages of gegenpressing are obvious and many. It’s fairly simple – it allows Liverpool to attack when the opposition is not properly in a defensive stance. This forces the play wide and can lead to defensive errors either by simply losing the ball or forcing the play backwards to teammates who are located in more dangerous areas.

This is not to overplay the common narrative of Liverpool potentially ‘letting it slip,’ but merely to point out the severe warning signs in Liverpool’s chance of claiming the title

The principal is a good one, not least the psychological edge gained over opposition, where even a millisecond of hesitation in possession can be pounced upon. But the teething issues remain.

The rewards of this style of play are manifold, but stamina and squad depth are key. On a macro level, can a Klopp side ever win the Premier League without the much-vaunted Christmas break to give the players a much-needed rest heading into the new calendar year?

Few would argue that this is their best chance of title glory since the inception of the Premier League, but the memories of 2014 threaten to hang over Anfield like a dark cloud.

This is not to overplay the common narrative of Liverpool potentially ‘letting it slip,’ but merely to point out the severe warning signs in Liverpool’s chance of claiming the title.

Liverpool are still in charge of their own destiny. 13 games remain, and they are three points clear at the top. Right now though, Manchester City have both the superior goal difference and, crucially, the psychological edge.

We’ve been here before.

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Chris is the founder of The Football Brief. He runs our regular series and can usually be found waxing lyrical about Blackburn Rovers and R9.

By |2019-02-06T15:55:41+00:00February 5th, 2019|

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