Liverpool Are ‘Bottling It’ Because Of Our ‘Weak Squad’. Aren’t We?

The problem with being involved in a title race without having won the big prize for nearly thirty years is that none of us know how to react. Go to Anfield for the Bournemouth match and you’ll see that the old heads are just as willing to let nerves affect them as younger ones. The atmosphere for the Leicester match should have been rocking, but instead it was nervy almost from the get-go. We have no idea how to handle being in our best position to win the title since the last time we actually won the top-flight, so heads are going all over the place. The mad thing is, there’s still about a third of the season to go. People referring to this as the ‘run-in’ are putting more pressure on than there really should be at this stage. Had we won all thirteen of our opening fixtures nobody would be saying that was the title sewn up, so it shouldn’t be lost because we drew our fifteenth and fourteenth remaining games.

There are also plenty of people happily ignoring that Manchester City and Tottenham are both going at a pace rarely seen from teams in second and third place in the Premier League. At the same point last season, Manchester City drew with Burnley at Turf Moor but nobody was throwing their toys out of the pram in the City support-base because they were thirteen points clear. Had they been on 62 points at the end of the game, as well are now, they’d still have been six points clear of Manchester United and feeling comfortable. To give it some context, we have more points than the Red Devils did at this points in 1993-1994, when they went on to amass the most points of Alex Ferguson’s career at the club, yet some are reacting like it’s a team that that has lost five on the bounce rather than drawn two. This Liverpool team has set an incredible pace and has been unfortunate that two other sides have kept up with it. There’s still a long way to go, so why are people reacting as they are?

’Bottling It’? Don’t Be So Ridiculous

At the time of writing, Liverpool are only behind Manchester City last season and Chelsea in both 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 in terms of starts to a season. We’re better than Manchester United in 2012-2013, when they were nine points clear of City at the same point in the campaign. We’re better than Arsenal’s Invincibles, who had one point less than us and were five points clear of United after twenty-five games. To really drill the point home, we’re two points better off than Chelsea were in 2016-2017 when the eventually won it with 93 points. At the same stage that season, Antonio Conte’s side were eight points clear of Manchester City.

The point that I’m trying to make is that we are playing at a level that is close to unprecedented and are seeing our lead slip away at the top not because we’re ‘bottling it’ but because the chasing pack are going at an insane rate incomparable to pretty much any other season since football was invented in 1992. The idea that we’re ‘bottling it’ is laughable to say the least. It is entirely possible that we could finish the season with 93 points, which is a tally that would have won the league in pretty much any other season apart from last year, and miss out on the title because of the rate that City and Spurs are going at. You don’t ‘bottle’ something by doing it better than any other side bar one or two.

The Squad Is ‘Weak’

This is something that I think is an interesting take and is one that I at least have a little bit more sympathy for. The reality is that there are deficiencies in our squad. I do not think, for example, that we should be looking at a bench that contains Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge any more, nor should we have Adam Lallana in the starting line-up. I’ve got nothing against any of them and I was one of Lallana’s fiercest proponents when Jürgen Klopp first arrived at the club. I have also always been an advocate of Daniel Sturridge and think the narrative that he is ‘lazy’ is moronic bordering on racist. Yet it’s also true that they look like yesterday’s men when put into this Liverpool team, with Lallana slowing every attack down and Sturridge’s pace no longer an attribute.

For me, though, it’s the defence where questions seriously need to be asked. I spent the summer screaming for us to sort our centre-back situation out and I was widely shouted down. ‘We have four centre-backs, why buy another for them to spend the majority of the season on the bench?’ was one of the replies I received. ‘Matip’s a perfectly good fourth-choice’ was another. However, the problem as I saw it was that we were heading into a season with a twenty-one-year-old as our part of our first-choice pairing, being backed up by two players in Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip who had what could best be described as ‘patchy’ injury histories. Add into that the Croatian’s exploits in the World Cup and the serious injury in Gomez’s past and Matip was never likely to be ‘just’ a fourth-choice centre-back.

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I was never advocating for the club to keep all of them and go out and buy a fifth defender. What I was saying was that Gomez has a history of serious injury, has missed numerous games since returning from that injury with other niggles and problems and was essentially supposed to be both one half of our first-choice centre-back pairing and our right-back cover. We were asking his body to go through immense strain at a still relatively young age and then depending on two injury prone defenders to be available as cover should either he or Virgil van Dijk pick up an injury or a suspension. There would, of course, have been no guarantee that another defender would have been available had they come in in the summer, but one without a history of missing games regularly would have been more likely to be available.

I’m also not sure I buy into the narrative that bringing another defender in would have curtailed Gomez’s development. Jürgen Klopp is a manager who likes a horses for courses approach, so between playing right-back and in the middle of the defence depending on the game, injuries and suspensions, I think the former Charlton man would have got plenty of minutes but without the necessity to push his body too far, too fast. The exact nature of the injuries that have ruled out Matip, Lovren and Gomez at times this season weren’t predictable, but the fact that they would miss chunks of games most certainly was. You can probably add Trent Alexander-Arnold into that, too, because the right-back is also young, with a developing body that is being put under huge amount of stress and strain with the game time that’s being asked of him.

All Is Doomed. The Title Is City’s To Lose

There’s one reading of my squad assessment that says that we’re doomed. Some will doubtless read it and think that I’m being unfair on the club, that even Manchester City use centre-backs and midfielders as cover for their fullbacks at times. There’s probably some truth in that, in all honesty. I have no desire whatsoever to sit here and slate the club. There are plenty of mitigating factors for what’s going on at the moment, not least of which is an unfortunate coincidence of timing of injuries and illness hitting the squad. According to reports, James Milner was so unwell yesterday that he travelled separately to the rest of the team but couldn’t miss the game because our options were so limited. I do think that the club should’ve done more to deal with the defence in the summer and I’m also concerned by Klopp’s faith in players that don’t necessarily deserve it, but even with all of that in mind we’re still setting a pace that would have seen us as clear leaders in pretty much any other campaign.

It’s an absolute nonsense to suggest that the title race is over. We sit three points clear of Manchester City and even when they beat Everton they’ll only be ahead of us on goal difference whilst we’ll have a game in hand. There are plenty of twists and turns left before the season is over. You’d have thought when Pep Guardiola’s side lost to Crystal Palace that he’d have laid down a marker to say that didn’t happen again, but they lost to Leicester City. Certainly the loss to the Foxes will have seen a line drawn in the sand, only for them to lose to Newcastle United. I am far from convinced that they won’t drop any more points this season, so the idea that the title is theirs to lose isn’t one that I buy in to.

The reality is that most of us spend every season saying that all we’d like is for the club to be involved in a title race at the end of the campaign. Here we are three points clear at the top with thirteen games remaining and loads of the fanbase have decided it’s a time to be miserable. We might not win the league, but it’s looking very likely that this will be the best points tally amassed by any Liverpool team in the Premier League era. Draws with teams like West Ham and Leicester City would be respectable most of the time, but the feeling of desperately needing to win every game means it’s too much for some people to handle. If you’re going to Anfield on Saturday don’t take nerves with you, take a sense of enjoyment. You might be feeling let down, but this is the best team you’ve watched since 1992. Let’s spend the last half a dozen games saying thank you.

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