In his first press conference as Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp had said that the club should be competing for titles within a few years – may be four. While his first season did not bring any joy in the league, it did bring two cup finals for the Reds, albeit they lost both of them. Last season, there were no cup finals, but Liverpool were second in the league around Christmas and there was hope of a title run at least. That did not materialize but a fourth-place finish – highest in three seasons – was more than acceptable, especially it came with a return to Champions League.
Competing in the Champions League is becoming rarer for Liverpool by each season. It must be a weird feeling for the fans of the five times European champions, but in the last decade, Liverpool have spent more number of seasons out of Europe’s premier competition than in it. Thus, they must be hoping that Jurgen Klopp can lead Liverpool to at least more regular participation in the Champions League, if not more.
It is under such optimism that Liverpool started their season. The fans hoped that their ebullient manager will take the side where they feel they deserve to be – at the top of the perch. But the start to the season has been one where Liverpool have experienced extreme highs and extreme lows within a few days of each other.
The summer transfer window began brightly as Liverpool quickly added Mohamed Salah, Dominic Solanke and Andrew Robertson to their ranks. All three of them got the time to settle into the squad and played a few friendlies as well. But Liverpool’s summer was dominated by two incomplete transfer sagas, not the stories that reached their fruition.
Barcelona made Philippe Coutinho their primary target after Neymar’s big money move to PSG. But Liverpool were adamant that they did not want to sell. The player himself went through the entire cycle of getting flattered by the connection, to being interested in joining the Catalan club, to throwing a fit at Liverpool’s rejection of the offer, to reintegrating back into the squad and starting several games for Liverpool.
As the Reds thwarted offer after offer from Barcelona, they also found themselves embroiled in another transfer saga but from the other end. Liverpool had identified Virgil van Dijk as their primary transfer target this summer, but Southampton declined to budge to the Reds’ offers. In fact, the Saints shamed Liverpool for tapping up their defender.
Amidst the unending speculation about Coutinho’s and van Dijk’s transfers, Liverpool sold the long ignored Mamadou Sakho to Crystal Palace and also signed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal. The quietly and smartly done deals for Salah, Robertson, Solanke and Oxlade-Chamberlain are in stark contrast with the long drawn out and eventually unsuccessful transfer sagas of Coutinho and van Dijk.
ON THE FIELD
Liverpool had a busy start to the season as in addition to the regular league and domestic cup games, they also needed a playoff tie to ensure participation in Champions League group stages. This busy start was punctuated by three international breaks, the third of which is the current one.
The way the Reds started their busy season indicated that they had not changed too much from last season as they promptly dropped two points in injury time against Watford. But they quickly ran up some impressive victories against Hoffenheim (playoffs), Crystal Palace and Arsenal to keep the hopes of their supporters up.
However, after the first international break, the Reds’ form took a turn for the worse. They lost in the trip to Etihad by five goals for the first time in a really long time. What followed the Manchester City game was a flurry of draws that sunk any dreams that Liverpool fans had of a title run this season. Liverpool also crashed out of the League Cup at the hands of Leicester City.
After the second international break, the Reds’ form improved – they beat Maribor 7-0 in Slovenia – their highest away victory in Europe and they also won a few games in the League. But even this period had a major trough as Liverpool received a 4-1 hiding at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
All this while, in the Champions League Liverpool stayed unbeaten and on course for at least a second position in Group E. They drew against Sevilla at home and against Spartk Moscow but the wins against Maribor have lifted them up.
This timeline indicates the kinds of extremes that Liverpool has gone through in this brief period since the start of the season. An attack led by Mohamed Salah has been the driver of everything good that has happened so far with Liverpool and a defense lacking any cohesion has been the reason for most of the reverses that Liverpool have endured so far. An xG of 23.59 and xGA of 14.27 do not completely reflect how rampant and rapid have Liverpool been in attack and how limp and insipid they have been in the defense. These divergent performances from attack and defense represent the two extremes for Liverpool on the field.
THE ROAD TO CHRISTMAS
Although Liverpool have played four of the other five top-six contenders, in the 10 matches up to Christmas they will face Chelsea and Arsenal away (return leg). They are also yet to play their fierce Merseyside rivals Everton, who are downbeat this season but could always be difficult to beat. In Europe, the Reds are yet to visit Sevilla and host Spartak Moscow. The Sevilla game could prove to be a challenge, but Reds should be able to reach the Round of 16 easily.
Overall, Liverpool’s run up to Christmas is not as difficult as it is for some others such as Manchester United, but it is also not too easy either. Liverpool’s top worry will be the pace at which these games are flying at them. On top of that is the worrying form that Liverpool have shown against top teams. This makes it very interesting to see how Klopp responds to it in terms of team rotation, as well as tactics.
ClubElo predicts that Liverpool will finish sixth with 70 points, while FiveThirtyEight.com predicts that Liverpool will finish fifth with 73 points. Both these are regression from last year’s results and Klopp would want more. Optimistic Reds’ fans start every season believing that this is going to be their year but their own dichotomous form and excellent form from the Manchester clubs, especially City, has put an early end to that thought this season. If Klopp can ensure that his team beat the bottom half clubs well and they eke out a few good results against their top-six peers, then he might be able to beat both these predictions and finish in line with last season’s results. Perhaps Liverpool can put up a brave chase of the title after all.