For Liverpool to stand any chance of bringing the Manchester City juggernaut to a halt in the Premier League, the consensus has been to improve their record against the so-called ‘smaller’ teams, particularly at home. Otherwise, the Reds can forget about a first league title in twenty-nine years.
In that case, Sunday was the perfect start. Liverpool swept aside West Ham United 4-0 at Anfield to move to the top of the table, with the Reds far too quick and clever for their sluggish and disjointed opponents.
Admittedly, Manuel Pellegrini did field five debutants at the weekend, and it will take time for West Ham to settle together and build an effective side, but once they do the Hammers should finish comfortably inside the top ten.
For Liverpool, it’s one down and thirty-seven more to go. If only the season could finish now!
In recent years Liverpool have struggled against the sides outside the top six, particularly those fighting against relegation. One particular example would be when the Reds brilliantly triumphed away to Arsenal at the start of the 2016/17 season, winning 4-3 at the Emirates, before going down to Burnley 2-0 the following week.
However, whereas the above was a recurring trend for Jürgen Klopp, last season the emphasis did shift slightly.
Liverpool were unbeaten in the league last season at Anfield, the only side to achieve such a record for 2017/18, one even centurions Manchester City could not match.
However, seven of those nineteen unbeaten home matches were draws, meaning overall Liverpool’s home record for points was behind the likes of City and even Arsenal.
Those draws were immediately put down to Liverpool’s traditional Achilles’ heel of failing to break down stubborn defences, who pack ten men behind the ball and defend their own penalty box with their lives, denying any space in behind for Liverpool’s devastating front three.
Liverpool did still have issues with these sides at home, slipping up against Stoke City, Burnley and West Bromwich Albion.
However, Liverpool actually dropped more points at home to their rivals in big matches, with Chelsea stealing a point at the death, Manchester United boring everyone to death with their ultimately successful tactics, Tottenham Hotspur earning a deserved draw in an undeserved manner and Wayne Rooney scoring his first goal in a Merseyside Derby to ensure Everton also shared the spoils at Anfield.
Liverpool’s record against their fellow ‘Big Six’ sides was far less encouraging last season when compared with Klopp’s early years at the club. Klopp’s Reds had only lost one match against a Big Six rival before the start of last season, against Manchester United at Anfield in January 2016, barely a few months into the German’s reign. Yet Klopp’s proud record turned on its head away from home.
No home away from home
Manchester City thrashed a ten-men Liverpool side 5-0 at the Etihad; Tottenham produced an equally dominant performance against a full-strength Liverpool team to win 4-1 at Wembley; the Reds barely scraped a draw at the Emirates against Arsenal, falling 3-2 behind after blowing a two goal advantage; Manchester United punished a poor Liverpool with a clinical, if unimpressive 2-1 victory at Old Trafford; finally Chelsea took advantage of a tired Liverpool who had just reached the Champions League final to win 1-0 at Stamford Bridge.
Liverpool managed to win thrilling matches against Arsenal and City at Anfield, but overall they only managed ten points from a possible thirty against the Big Six, half of the twenty-point haul they achieved in 2016/17.
If the Reds want to finally reclaim a long-awaited league title, then they cannot be so charitable against their rivals at home, and need to rediscover their unbeaten touch on their travels.
All round, Liverpool have to improve this season to challenge City. Even if Pep Guardiola’s defending champions do not reach 100 points again this season, then they will almost certainly reach 90. Liverpool have never achieved such a total in the Premier League era, with their best effort being 86 points during their runners-up finish in 2009.
Therefore, Klopp will need to find an unprecedented level of consistently for Liverpool in the Premier League if they are to get anywhere close to the blue half of Manchester, let alone before worrying about any other potential title rivals. Pep’s City are a tough act to follow, but Liverpool have their best squad in the history of the Premier League and can match them stride for stride.
Should the title race remain close in the spring, Manchester City’s Champions League aspirations could take over and present an opportunity for the Reds to finally end their title drought.
Yet in order to have any chance, Liverpool must register big results against their rivals alongside routine wins over the rest of the division.