Preston North End became the first team this season not to concede three goals at home to Liverpool on Wednesday night, although they did have a Liverpool player in defence so maybe that explains why...
Jurgen Klopp’s side have scored an incredible 32 goals in their nine away games so far this season. They’re unbeaten in the last 23 games in all competitions, since defeat at Real Madrid’s training ground in the Champions League quarter-final in April.
After the peculiar pandemic season, to say Liverpool have their mojo back would be an understatement. Let's take a look at five key reasons why Klopp’s Reds’ are back to their very best.
1. The centre backs are back
No analysis of Liverpool this season versus last would be accurate without looking at the obvious fact that they spent half of the last campaign without a recognised senior centre-back. Now, Virgil van Dijk is back and (touch wood) performing perhaps higher than any supporter may have dared to have dreamed by this stage. The decision not to have rushed him back at the end of last season, or indeed to have gone to the Euros with the Netherlands, looks to have been fully vindicated.
Joel Matip, too, has been available for every game so far. Which is a minor miracle for a player so dogged by persistent niggling issues throughout his time at the club. Instead, the 30-year-old has been Van Dijk’s preferred partner, missing just two games to ensure he wasn’t overused.
When Matip has been out of the side in two Premier League games, against Crystal Palace and Man United, new signing Ibrahima Konate has come in alongside Van Dijk and the young Frenchman has looked more than capable, in fact adding more pace and physical presence than other options. Meanwhile, Joe Gomez has started three games: twice in the League Cup, and against AC Milan in the Champions League. Currently the fourth choice option it seems, that in itself shows how wildly different Liverpool’s centre-back options are now compared to six months ago.
Finally, Nat Phillips, a player who was key to the upturn in form at the back of last season, made his first minutes of the season in Wednesday’s League Cup win at Preston as a substitute.
2. Domino effect
Just like the negative domino effect that the centre back shortage had last season, this season it has been the opposite. Goals from set-pieces are back, better defending from set-pieces has returned, Van Dijk’s superb passing from deep has opened up new channels again and full backs are able to play higher again, to name just a few of the knock-on effects.
Having world class players in the heart of your defence improves every single player within the side. The goalkeeper is more confident, the midfielders feel more secure, the attackers can focus on doing damage in the other direction.
As the saying goes, "attackers win trophies, defenders win titles."
Klopp often says that "everything is better with supporters" and he’d certainly proffer that everything is better with actual centre-backs too.
3. Set pieces
Liverpool have five goals from set pieces this season (joint top in the Premier League), which at that rate would equal more than 20 goals over the course of the season.
Last season the Reds’ goals from set pieces dropped from 17 to 12 and it was an area that Klopp and his coaches sought to improve upon, employing outside help in the summer. The Reds worked with German mental strength coaches from ‘Neuro11’ to work on direct free-kicks, wide free-kicks, penalties and corners.
“Niklas and Patrick [from Neuro11] did some unique work with some of our takers of free-kicks and penalties,” explained assistant coach Pepijn Lijnders.
“They give the right input for players to find the right flow and, with this, more accuracy. They help with putting the players in the right frame of mind and how to reset.” So far, it certainly seems to be paying off.
4. The Fab Three are back
Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, it’s fair to say, had their worst campaigns as Liverpool players last year, Mane himself even admitted it. Both of them, though, appear to be players who feed off the energy of the crowd and with supporters back, so is their form.
Firmino has only started four games this season but he has six goals and an assist to his name. Diogo Jota started ahead of him at the beginning of the campaign and that competition for places, plus perhaps less overuse of the No.9 seems to be really benefiting the Brazilian. Plus, Bobby loves playing for the crowd.
And then there’s Mo Salah, the world’s top player right now. He’s now breaking numerous records every time he plays and breaking his own records, now up to scoring in 10 consecutive games and becoming the highest-scoring African in Premier League history. He looks like a man on a mission.
“With this team, winning should always be the only option,” he declared after the 5-0 thrashing at Old Trafford, after telling Sky Sports: “We play for the title.”
The underlying inspiration behind all this is something that isn’t really discussed: Liverpool must win the title in front of their supporters.
This Liverpool squad won the title in a record time, yet they were applauded onto the pitch in empty stadiums by the opposition, and not by 50,000 supporters the way they should have been.
The atmosphere for the last league game before the pandemic, against Bournemouth, was one of celebration at what was to come. The league title was being won at a canter. The remaining four home games should have been a celebration of the team who set new records. Instead, it was played out in soulless, empty stadiums where the players eventually asked Liverpool to increase the volume of the stadium PA system pre-match to try to create an atmosphere.
“Some of us took for granted having a full stadium, having a sold-out stadium, having an incredible atmosphere,” wrote Klopp in his first programme notes of the new campaign.
“That will never happen again in my lifetime that I take it for granted for one second. This game has to create emotion, this game has to create atmosphere.”
No matter when Liverpool win the title next, the players and supporters will never get the feeling and emotions that they would have experienced when ending the 30-year wait for a title.
This squad now are driven on by that loss to ensure that those memories are written with them on the pitch.
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Matt Ladson is editor of This Is Anfield, the independent Liverpool news and comment website, and covers all areas of the Reds for FourFourTwo – including transfer analysis, interviews, title wins and European trophies.
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