Liverpool showed they can challenge Manchester City for the title - now the real work starts

Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool celebrates after scoring the equalising goal during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool FC at Etihad Stadium on November 25, 2023 in Manchester, England.
(Image credit: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

“Not the result we wanted,” Liverpool talisman Mohamed Salah wrote after becoming the first team to deny Manchester City a home win in 2023. “We’ll keep fighting.”

It’s a sign of Liverpool’s ambitions this season that Salah and captain Virgil van Dijk both highlighted their unhappiness at not getting a win at the Etihad Stadium. “[We] didn’t get what we came for,” wrote Van Dijk, “but we take the point and focus on what’s coming next.”

Liverpool would be right to be happy with the point, showing that they can compete with Manchester City again after a torrid campaign last season that was underlined by a 4-1 defeat at the Etihad on April Fool’s Day. In the seven months since, Liverpool have become an entirely different team. That game was one of the last before the new formation, involving Trent Alexander-Arnold in the hybrid right-back/midfield role, was introduced. 

The midfield trio that began that 4-1 defeat was Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Harvey Elliott, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner later featuring from the bench. Now, it was an entirely new trio of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai and Curtis Jones, with Ryan Gravenberch and later Wataru Endo from the bench. 

Perhaps one statistic – other than the actual scoreline! – that shows Liverpool’s improvement was the completed passes in the opponent’s half. In April, it was 84. This weekend it was 131. That’s a 55 percent increase. Jurgen Klopp had emphasised the need for his side to be “compact” – especially in midfield and in order not to leave Mac Allister isolated – and this is something they successfully achieved, unlike seven months earlier when the slow, lethargic midfield was easily cut through by a City team without Erling Haaland.

And you can’t understate how difficult going to the Etihad is, especially for a Liverpool squad who haven’t won a league game there since 2015 and were off the back of an international break where four of their key players played in South America, ahead of yet another early kick-off. Mac Allister admitted to struggling to keep his eyes open in the team meeting on Friday.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp has much better options in his side now from last season (Image credit: Getty Images)

So to go toe-to-toe and come away with a point feels huge for Liverpool, proving to themselves that they are back to being able to compete with Pep Guardiola’s side.

But does this mean they’re in a title race? Well, yes and no.

A title race doesn’t begin until March. It’s November and far too early for any team to be in a title race with a team who have won five of the last six league titles. 

But, crucially, Liverpool have kept themselves in with a chance if the working theory of having to take at least four points in your head-to-head games against City holds water. If so, a win at Anfield is required in March to really get the title challenge on a solid footing.

What’s required for Liverpool to fight for the title?

Alisson of Liverpool looks aghast after making a mistake during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Liverpool and Real Madrid at Anfield on 21 January, 2023 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.

Alisson's injury could be pivotal (Image credit: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Until then, Liverpool will need luck, as any team does, especially with injuries.

Andy Robertson won’t be back until January, while Alisson could miss the next few games, but Liverpool will be hoping he can return for consecutive home games against Manchester United and Arsenal before Christmas. 

The severity of Alisson’s hamstring issue is the kind of luck that can prove decisive. A different grade of hamstring tear is the difference between two weeks out and missing games against Fulham, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, or a month out and missing Man United, Arsenal and Newcastle. Those are the fine margins in a season-long title challenge.

Where Klopp has significantly improved is his use of his substitutes, an area where he’s been lacking - although he would insist that’s down to the options at his disposal. Now, with five very strong forwards, and similar strength in depth in midfield, he can both rotate for Cup games and also be more assured to bring on the likes of Diogo Jota or Luis Diaz, Endo, Elliott and Gravenberch.

TOULOUSE, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 09: Luis Diaz of Liverpool warms up prior to the UEFA Europa League 2023/24 match between Toulouse FC and Liverpool FC at Stadium de Toulouse on November 09, 2023 in Toulouse, France. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Liverpool's depth is much improved this term (Image credit: Getty Images)

That rotation will need to continue, and again, luck will play a part. Take, for instance, young right-back Conor Bradley, who was Bolton’s Young Player of the Year, on loan last season. He’s missed the season so far due to injury but is now back in full training, giving Klopp the option to use the Northern Ireland international in upcoming Europa League games, thus resting another player.

The returns of Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago in the New Year should offer similar positive options. January also would be a nice time to bring in a new player, as Liverpool have successfully done in the last two winter transfer windows with Cody Gakpo and Diaz.

It’s no secret that Liverpool would like a defensive midfielder, but they won’t be forced into bringing one in January and Klopp has consistently reiterated that Mac Allister in the ‘No.6’ position can work provided the rest of the midfield functions correctly around him.

If anything, Mac Allister as the holding midfielder will only get better from the Argentine playing the role for longer and those around him being coached under Klopp’s guidance. That, of course, will need to continue for Liverpool to have any chance of challenging City in the final months of the season.

Alexis Mac Allister of Liverpool in action during a pre-season friendly match

Alexis Mac Allister is vital to Liverpool's success this season (Image credit: Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

One thing that can work in Liverpool’s favour is that this doesn’t seem like a season where City are going to achieve 90-plus points, with more teams seemingly capable of taking points from the treble winners.

The Premier League’s competitiveness, with Newcastle, Tottenham and Aston Villa emerging as genuine top-four challengers, could play into the hands of anyone wanting to challenge for the title.

City play two of those sides – Tottenham and Villa – in their next two games, while Liverpool play Fulham and Sheffield United. Ultimately, it's far too early to suggest a title challenge, but that might well change by March.

More Liverpool stories

With the January transfer window approaching, Liverpool have reportedly cooled their interest in one attacking target.

It comes amid talk of the Reds chasing 'the next Ashley Cole' as a successor to Andy Robertson.

But the 2019/20 Premier League champions might face a fight to hang onto one of their existing star men: Trent Alexander-Arnold has been linked with Real Madrid.

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