There’s an extent to which this match felt like our most important of the season so far, even if not our most challenging. Over the past nine years or so, we haven’t always coped well with the league matches that immediately follow Champions League games. Our record in them hasn’t been particularly spectacular, often dropping points to teams that we’d ordinarily be expected to beat reasonably easily. We’ve also sometimes struggled with the burden of expectation, heading into games having kept X number of clean sheets or having won Y in a row but never Z. Having won our first five games and six in all competitions, we knew that we hadn’t won our first six league games during the Premier League era and had never won our first seven competitive matches across all competitions. That weight of history has ground down previous sides, but would it do so with Jürgen Klopp’s charges?
— Anything Liverpool (@AnythingLFC_) September 22, 2018
There was also that matter of looking at the league games that have followed Champions League outings, though of course we do need to bear in mind that this was a home game. Even so, getting up for a big European game has never been a problem for the club; it’s the more mundane matter of league fixtures that everyone, from players to supporters, have found more difficult to get excited by. So whilst Paris Saint-Germain were obviously always going to be far more difficult for us to make our way past, I always felt that Southampton would tell us more about how the Reds were truly setup to cope with things this term. Of course, the next four games include two against Chelsea, an away trip to Napoli and then the small matter of Manchester City coming to Anfield, so perhaps we’ll have an even clearer notion of what we can achieve at the end of October. For now though, how did things against Saints go?
Are We Learning To Do The Bear Minimum?
Numerous times last season, I wrote about how I thought that Jürgen Klopp was trying to teach his team how to play within themselves and to win games without needing to be at full pelt the whole time. The result was dropped points in matches that we really should have won, against the likes of Everton and West Bromwich Albion in December, as well as the same sides and Stoke City in April. That’s to say nothing of the 1-0 loss we suffered at the hands of Swansea City in January; a total of nine points dropped to relegated sides, plus another four against our constantly under-performing neighbours. Heading into this season, the big question was how on earth Liverpool could possibly make up twenty-five points on Manchester City. My answer was to point to those thirteen points just as a starter, with the three lost at the Etihad without a fight and the eight dropped to Manchester United and Spurs in the four games we played against them also worth bearing in mind.
Just to put this start into context.
Last season it took 11 games for us to get to 18 points and it happened on the 4th November against West Ham.
At which point we were already 11 points behind Man City.
Now how quickly we can get to 35 points? Last year it took 19 games.
— Paul Anderson (@PaulAndo1987) September 22, 2018
In order to do that, however, we’d need to learn to do what the manager wanted from us last time out and win matches without needing to play at full-pelt ever time. The evidence is growing that we’re learning to do precisely that. After all, we’re now six league games in and have maximum points, yet there’s an argument that we still look as though we’re in our pre-season. Every single match to date has finished and the majority of supporters and commentators have declared that we haven’t even got out of third gear. Given that we’ve played a tough set of fixtures during that time and won them all, that’s not to be under-estimated. I keep saying that there are sterner tests to come and the game against City will be huge, but we seem to have figured out a way to win whilst reserving our resources for said tests. Whether or not that can last for the entire season obviously remains to be seen, but it’s about as exciting a start as we could’ve hoped for.
This Is A Serious Football Team
None of that is to downplay how good a team this is, however. Jürgen Klopp has created a football team that can cope with pretty much any challenge that it’s faced with. The balance that he’s struggling to cope with now is less about teaching his players how to win matches and more about ensuring that there’s a fair distribution between attack and defence. If you take the manager at his word than that’s why he took off Xherdan Shaqiri at half-time, with the Reds failing to cope with the change to the system that they hadn’t really practiced much before kick-off. That that is the case and yet we were able to race into a three goal lead before half-time says an awful lot about the squad that the manager has developed. We’re not the slick, well-oiled machine that Pep Guardiola has put together, but we’ve got a grit and steely determination that troubles opposition sides in a different way.
Unbeaten at home in European football for 4 years..Unbeaten at home in Premier League for 17 months..Anfield has become a fortress again. pic.twitter.com/5NkfOjDQAM
— AnfieldUrchin (@AnfieldUrchin) September 19, 2018
The teams that we’ve faced have posed different problems, challenging us in their own unique ways and yet not really causing us any problems at all. The fact that we really haven’t hit our stride yet is a thoroughly exciting prospect, meaning that we’ve got a number of gears to go through before we’re done. This is a side that can seriously be thought of as challengers for every competition that it’s entered into and it’s been far too long since we’ve been able to say that about a Liverpool team. Eight consecutive clean sheets at Anfield isn’t something to be sniffed at for a club that was bring criticised for its defensive weakness just twelve months ago. To put that into some form of context, it’s our sixth longest run in terms of not conceding out home in the league ever. You don’t get that by fluke, though you obviously need a little bit of fortune every now and then. You get it by being a serious football team and we should all be excited.
The Squad Has A Lot Of Strings To Its Bow
A big part of the reason why we should all be excited is that the squad has a depth of talent that we haven’t seen for as long as I can remember. Many people refer to the first-team has being the strongest that we’ve had since the days of Rafa Benitez and I think that’s true. The difference between the two sides, however, is that the rest of the squad in the days of the Spaniard saw far too much of a drop-off from the first eleven. We don’t have quite such a big problem this time around, however. There was a major sense of disappointment when we signed Xherdan Shaqiri this summer, in spite of the fact that Michael Edwards and his team have done more than enough to prove to us all that they know what they’re talking about when out comes to transfers. As if to prove the point, Shaqiri’s first competitive start for the club showed that he’s got so much more to offer than what we saw from him during his time at Stoke.
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) September 22, 2018
I think we’ve all been surprised by his selflessness and his willingness to work, tracking runners and getting back to help out defensively. I think the decision to take him off was more to do with the system not working than anything about his personal performance. Add to that the work of Joel Matip during the game and you can see that we’re far from just a strong eleven this season. I’ve long been a critic of Matip and I’m still not sure that he’s even close to being a regular starter, but for a fourth-choice centre-back he’s a great option to have. He made a big mistake with a poorly hit square pass, but that’s not too bad considering how long he’s been out of action for. It was also so much better to see him play from the start that come on with five to go in that ridiculous substitution that Klopp loves for some bizarre reason. It’s why I think we really can compete on numerous fronts, with the drop-off from the first-team no longer as bad as it was last season.
Salah’s Going To Be Fine
There has been a general feeling that Mohamed Salah has endured a tough start to the season. I’ve been one of the people suggesting as much, pointing to his run-in with the Egyptian Football Association as a reason for the Egyptian King not quite being at the races yet this term. I do think that there’s some truth in that, but I also think that there are other factors at play that have left him metaphorically hamstrung in games to date. After all, opposition research teams will have spent the summer trying to figure out how to stop him and the defenders he’s going up against will be piling everything they’ve got into limiting his movements and causing him problems. Add to that the fact that Roberto Firmino has been struggling for his own form prior to the Tottenham game and you can see how difficult it is for him to repeat his exploits of last season. That said, the underlying numbers suggest that he’s actually not far off being exactly where he was at the same point in the campaign last time out.
41 – Mohamed Salah has been directly involved in 41 goals in 31 games in all competitions for Liverpool at Anfield (30 goals, 11 assists). Comforts. pic.twitter.com/ej829UhTWv
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 22, 2018
When looking at Salah’s ‘poor’ start to the season, it’s important to remember that he’s still getting into good positions and creating loads of decent goal scoring opportunities. That’s the crucial thing when it comes to strikers, for it’s when they drop off the map altogether and opposition defenders don’t need to worry about them that they’re a waste of space. That he got onto the scoresheet was entirely deserved, being alert and intelligent enough to follow up on Shaqiri’s brilliantly struck free-kick to score the sort of goal that not all strikers get on the end of. Having been a little bit worried about Salah prior to the visit of Saints, I’m now convinced that we’ve got nothing to be worried about. The forward won’t repeat his goalscoring exploits of his last campaign, but as long as he keeps getting on the scoresheet at Anfield and our defence remains as solid as it has been so far, we don’t need him to.