5 factors that will determine whether Liverpool really can win the Premier League
Three games, three wins, three clean sheets. Liverpool’s start to the season, combined with the quality of their additions in the summer transfer window, has only served to cement the idea that the Reds are Manchester City's main threat this season.
Despite what rival fans often claim about Liverpool supporters repeatedly saying “this is our year”, no fan in their right mind has predicted a title challenge since perhaps the summer of 2008, when Rafa Benitez’s side went on to finish second and lost just twice that season.
The other time Liverpool finished second in recent times, 2013/14, they won their opening three games but were relatively off the pace until the latter half of the season when 11 wins in a row catapulted them into contention. It was a stoppage-time win at Fulham in February when Reds fans actually started to think they could genuinely challenge.
This season, Jurgen Klopp’s third full campaign in charge at Anfield, already feels different. Unlike 2013/14, when it was only in the latter stages where each game felt like a cup final, it seems that every match now is already viewed as such. Whether Liverpool really can push Manchester City all the way, and therefore end their 29-year wait for a league title, will depend on several key factors.
1. Who goes furthest in the Champions League
Arguably, if you offered Manchester City fans the choice of winning the Premier League or the Champions League, they’d take the European title. For Liverpool, it would be vice-versa. City need to win the Champions League to truly put themselves among Europe’s elite, while Liverpool need to end their domestic league trophy drought.
Both clubs will expect to progress from their respective Champions League groups, although Liverpool’s certainly looks more difficult with PSG and Napoli representing tough opposition. What happens from there on is a bit of a lottery but what could prove key to the destination of the Premier League title is which of these two clubs go furthest in Europe and put their resources into that competition.
Will Pep Guardiola prioritise Champions League games over league ones once it comes to spring 2019? It seems likely, with City’s owners desperate to take that next step as a big club.
According to a study by ESPN, Liverpool were the unluckiest team in the Premier League in 2017/18, losing 12 points due to perceived ‘wrong’ decisions. That would have still left them 10 points behind City, but without European distractions they would likely have closed that gap further.
The Reds were awarded just three penalties, compared to eight the season before. A few more favourable refereeing decisions and that luck balancing out over the season would aid Liverpool’s cause.
Another area that luck plays a large part in is injuries. Take the cruel knee damage to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a freak injury that wasn't caused by anything that the club could control (such as training methods). Luck with injuries, especially keeping key men through the spine of the side available, will be crucial for Liverpool. Any team that wins the league or any major trophy needs some luck along the way.
3. Whether Man City can repeat
While referee decisions and injuries are largely out of their own hands, another factor that’s completely out of Liverpool’s control is whether Manchester City can reproduce their unprecedented form of last season.
A record winning run, a record points total, no major injuries; City’s 2017/18 season, you would think, is very unlikely to be repeated. Already, the Citizens have lost Kevin De Bruyne to an injury, and backup keeper Claudio Bravo for the duration of 2018/19. A lot of their key men were also involved in the latter stages of the World Cup, which could have a long-term effect.
4. Marginal gains
On paper, Liverpool and City have pretty well-matched first XIs, with City having the better overall squad depth. Using that depth to its maximum will play a role in deciding the title.
In a bid to narrow the gap, though, Klopp has sought the so-called marginal gains, even going as far as appointing a part-time throw-in coach. He won’t necessarily be working on the technique of the throw itself, but more the receiving angles, the speed of distribution and how to minimise errors from such set-plays. It’s said that in the post-season analysis conducted by Klopp and his staff, they found that the team was often squandering possession from such situations.
Using the improved distribution from Alisson and the speed of Naby Keita on the counter-attack can help Liverpool as their new signings bed in over the season. Being able to add Fabinho into the side later could be a huge gain too, similar to how Andy Robertson and Oxlade-Chamberlain were like new signings midway through the campaign last year.
5. Head to heads
Last season, Liverpool memorably ended Manchester City’s unbeaten league run with that dramatic 4-3 win at Anfield. Klopp’s side then went on to beat Pep Guardiola’s team twice more in the Champions League. In the league fixtures against each other in 2018/19, Liverpool cannot afford to lose either game and ideally need to be getting a minimum of four points.
Last season, City won eight of their 10 games against the rest of the top six – defeated only at Anfield and at home to Manchester United. It would be helpful if the likes of Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal actually took points off Guardiola’s side this time around.
Liverpool had actually topped the top-six mini-league in 2016/17 but took just 10 points from 30 against their nearest rivals last time out, so will need to improve on that this season to stand any chance of a title tilt.
Another area of improvement for Liverpool is cutting out the draws, as the Reds' total of 12 last season was triple that of City’s. Turning such results into victories will be key for Klopp.