What a difference a week makes, hey? When Virgil van Dijk’s shot looked like it was going to disappear into the ether, we were about to slip five points behind Manchester City and it seemed as though Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut would continue on their unstoppable defence of the title. Then Jordan Pickford inexplicably stopped the ball from going out for a goal-kick, Divock Origi headed it in and we remained within touching distance. All seemed lost once more when Jack Cork gave Burnley a 1-0 lead at Turf Moor, only for the Reds to remember they’re a boss attacking side and win 3-1 away at a ground that we’ve previously struggled at. That win felt as though it kick-started something in our muscle memory and we looked back to our best at Bournemouth, putting four past Eddie Howe’s side a few hours before City would go on to lose 2-0 at Stamford Bridge to leave us top of the league for at least a week.
As VVD’s volley against Everton looked like it was sailing over the bar, Liverpool were going four points behind City and title hopes looked bleak.
Then it was going to be five points when Cork put Burnley ahead on Wednesday.
Three days later the Reds were top. I love football.
— Henry Jackson (@HenryJackson87) December 10, 2018
Whilst the supporters of our rivals will be making mocking suggestions that we’re acting as though we’ve won the title in December, we should make sure that we acknowledge just how impressive it is that we’re sitting on the top of the Premier League table. Manchester City have been electric so far this season, dismissing teams for fun and going at an incredible pace that it’s felt as though we’ve been barely keeping up with. To hit the top spot when it feels as though we’ve barely played well all season prior to our trip to the Vitality Stadium and when up against Guardiola’s side is genuinely worth celebrating. Football has to be about more than just winning trophies or else Goodison Park would empty every week. You have to enjoy the journey and, whether we win the league or not, this one has been thrilling so far. The question right now is, do Liverpool have a squad capable of winning the title this year?
The First Fifteen Is Excellent
In the modern day game, there are two different ways of looking at a squad of players. The first eleven and the most commonly used substitutes can be thought of as a separate entity to the players who are asked to come in every now and then to cover for them due to injury and fatigue. When discussing Liverpools current crop, it’s entirely fair to say that the first fifteen or so players are top-notch. Here’s the list of players that I’m talking about:
- Alisson Becker
- Trent Alexander-Arnold
- Joe Gomez
- Virgil van Dijk
- Andy Robertson
- Dejan Lovren
- Jordan Henderson
- Naby Keita
- James Milner
- Gini Wijnaldum
- Xherdan Shaqiri
- Roberto Firmino
- Sadio Mané
- Mo Salah
In comparison to every other Premier League side with the exception of Man City, I think Jürgen Klopp has got a really decent set of lads to choose from on a regular basis. I’m more than aware of the fact that not everyone thinks that the likes of Jordan Henderson and Dejan Lovren should fit into the bracket of ‘excellent’ and I have my own reservations about the long-term use of James Milner, but when all is said and done it is clear that the manager rates all of them, making discussion somewhat pointless.
I’m more than willing to have a discussion about the pedestrian nature of the midfield at times, especially when the chosen trio is that of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum. Yet the workmanlike nature of their play means that it’s a useful one to be able to select in certain games. The fact that we’re top of the league in arguably the most competitive top-flight season ever reflects as much. It’s also important to acknowledge the transformative effect on our defence of the presence of both Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker; two colossi that would walk into practically any team on the planet. They’ve given us a stability we can build from and the knowledge that if we score then, more often than not, we’ll win the game.
#secondcaptains would it be a good idea for Liverpool to make a January Tino Asprulla type signing for the run in given Man City’s squad depth? pic.twitter.com/MWaJ8i5H7A
— paul meade (@atguardsixsix) December 9, 2018
Add to them the impressive form of Joe Gomez before the injury he picked up at Turf Moor and you can see that we’re almost as exciting at the back as we are going forward. It is that front three that remains one of the best in Europe, however, in spite of the slow start they’ve endured thus far in the campaign. I was delighted to see Roberto Firmino getting back to his best against Bournemouth, given the extent to which he’s the fulcrum of our attack; when he plays well they all seem to play well. He’s seemingly struggled to adapt to the new deeper role that the manager has wanted him to play, leaving many of us frustrated with his performances. If we are to win the league then we need him to be at his very best for pretty much the rest of the season.
In summary, though, the first team is filled with quality players and match winners. Yes, we could improve on all but a few of the players, but isn’t that true of any team? Pep Guardiola has City playing incredible football, but I’m quite sure he’d bite your hand off for Mo Salah if he was offered him and we all know that they wanted van Dijk last summer. It’s not about whether or not better players are out there, it’s about the tune that the manager is getting out of the players that he’s got. Klopp isn’t quite producing arias just yet, but he’s not far off.
It’s In The Wider Squad Where The Weaknesses Appear
I think it’s a really interesting topic to debate, the one regarding how deep and talented your squad should be. For me, the biggest area of weakness in the wider Liverpool squad is when it comes to the defence. It isn’t so much the ability of the players we have, despite what some people might think. After all, Dejan Lovren might not be fancied by a large swathe of Reds but he was the only centre-back who appeared in both the Champions League and World Cup finals; the suggestion that he’s completely useless is moronic. The problem with Lovren isn’t his ability, therefore, but his availability. He’s a player that seems to love a couple of matches off injured, whether because of a muscle strain or some sort of bug that’s doing the rounds. If he wasn’t a Premier League centre-back then he’d probably be one of those kids that has to live his life inside a hermetically sealed bubble.
People need to start putting some respect on Joel Matip’s name
Fine he’s a bit passive, but he’s significantly better than that Croatian clown, both defensively and on-the-ball
— Raj Chohan (@rajsinghchohan) December 9, 2018
I spent the majority of the summer saying that we needed to strengthen our defence but was widely shouted down by people who asked me how good I wanted our fourth and fifth choice centre-backs to be. The answer I gave was that I have no problem with our current crop’s ability but I’d like them to be a little bit more dependable. I’m not convinced by Joel Matip as a centre-back, especially not against attackers that are willing to bully him, but he’s another one who seems to pick up injuries on a regular basis. The result is that we currently find ourselves one injury away from having to either play the likes of Fabinho out of position or else put twenty-one-year-old Nathaniel Phillips at centre-back. Not an idea situation and one that was entirely avoidable.
I think the midfield is well-stocked, though I personally feel as though this team has moved on from Adam Lallana and don’t see what he brings to the side when he plays. The trouble lies when you look at the players who sit on the rung below our first-choice selections in the final third. We have one of if not the best attacks in the Premier League in terms of both talent and reliability, with none of Mané, Salah and Firmino regularly missing for more than one or two games. When they either do drop out or need a rest, however, the players that are asked to come in to replace them simply aren’t up scratch. Daniel Sturridge has the ability to play a brilliant pass and is still talented enough to score a blinder or two, yet he looks so far off the pace when he replaces Firmino that it’s a little bit worrying to me. It now feels as though he’s remaining in the squad for reasons of nostalgia more than suitability.
Klopp: “If somebody told me 15 years ago I could change seven positions and have a line-up like that, I would have said it was not possible.
“We do it because we can do it, because we have to do it in two or three cases, and because we can do it because we have these boys.”#LFC
— Neil Jones (@neiljonesgoal) December 5, 2018
We all wanted a statue build of Divock Origi after the Merseyside derby, but the reality is that he’s not really good enough to be looked upon as a long-term option and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him depart in January. I am a bigger fan of Dominic Solanke than most people, yet it’s unquestionable that he’s fallen down the pecking order in the last few months. For all of his ability, he needs to find a way to translate that into being a useful part of the first team if he’s to have a future at Anfield. The other name regularly bandied about our attack is discussed is Rhian Brewster, but it’s little more than a hope that he’ll be able to translate his youth form into the first-team. The reality might be entirely different for him, to say nothing of the fact that he’s still injured.
The answer to the question about whether or not our squad is good enough depends on another answer to a different question: how many fronts do we want to compete on? We’re out of the League Cup now, but we’re still in the FA Cup and, at least until tomorrow night, the Champions League. Do we want to try to win a treble? If so then I’m not convinced that this squad has the depth of quality and reliability to be able to do that. If we simply want to go for the Premier League title and are happy to shake hands on Jürgen Klopp using his squad in Europe and the FA Cup then I believe we would be able to take City all the way.
The problem is that the manager is never going to do that and, even if he does, certain parts of his squad aren’t good enough should injuries strike. Right now we’re riding high, but I’m worried that we might come crashing down if we have to watch Simon Mignolet play in goal or Virgil van Dijk picks up an inury. That’s why it’s crucial to enjoy every moment of success we have this season as we have no idea when it might end. We all want to win the league, but so does Pep Guardiola and his financially doped side has the depth to cope with more losses to key positions than ours. Fortune with injuries will be just as important as the skill of the players in our first-team if we’re to finally end our wait for a title.