Liverpool are a curious case. They are feeding both optimists and cynics in equal measure. Jurgen Klopp’s side remain a combination of the promising, effective and utterly infuriating – all featured in the 1-0 win away at Huddersfield – and yet, they are level on points with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. There is so much to be positive about, but so many questions to answer too.
Jurgen Klopp once complained that his side does not play poorly and win, it was a common gripe last season when Liverpool quite often struggled to open up deep-lying defences in what were one-sided and rather tedious affairs. However, now Klopp is having to refine his comment as his side continue to win without particularly performing well.
It is important to note that Liverpool are not only neck-and-neck with one of the greatest teams that the Premier League has seen – and that is tough luck for this Liverpool side in itself – but they are unbeaten, having won seven out of nine and have kept six clean sheets conceding only three goals. As well as a well-earned victory against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, they have made an impressive start to the season.
However, strip away the points and look closer at the performances and it is quite difficult to but the two together. A strong defence has no doubt been the bedrock to Liverpool’s early season success, but considering their subdued creativity and careless possession it does not appear to be a sustainable approach. Being top and not playing well is great, logically improved performances should bring about even better results, but there is a slight question as to whether this more permanent and if anything the results will start matching the performances than the other way around.
It is no exaggeration to say that Liverpool look like a completely different team to the one that enthused many last season; Mohamed Salah scoring his 50th goal in English football to defeat Huddersfield on Saturday was a rare glimpse back to that. In some ways, moving away from the hell-for-leather football is a good thing – Liverpool kept another clean sheet against Huddersfield – but their sloppiness in possession which resulted in a total of 111 misplaced passes suggests otherwise.
Liverpool have not completely swapped from swashbucklers to bus-parkers, but the makeover is quite apparent. Whether it is a conscious change or not is another debate; are fitness levels determining the style or is a more solid and conservative approach what Klopp wants? The head coach’s gesticulating and scolding throughout the game at the John Smiths Stadium suggests it’s the former, but in reality, the truth – like most things – probably lies somewhere in the middle.
As a package, there is much to commend as Liverpool try to ensure City do not repeat last season’s procession to the league title. Although City are very much carrying on from May, Liverpool are attempting to become a more rounded team and nowhere was that more evident than at Anfield when the two met a few weeks ago. Again, then Liverpool played averagely put came away with a share of the points, Klopp has since highlighted that he prefers his teams to win in a spectacular fashion, but currently, they are winning somewhat underwhelmingly; but that is still winning nonetheless.
With regards to performance, Liverpool have never performed so inconsistently and won so often in the Klopp era – which became three complete years last week. The focus has been on the defence – Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez forging a resolute and athletic partnership – whilst the attackers have been more subdued. One could say that the defence has been getting the attack out of trouble, the complete reverse of last season. If the results had not been so consistent, then there would be no doubt more questions surrounding the performances.
The statistics actually show that although the defence is performing way ahead of last season – goals conceded per match down from 1.00 to 0.33 on average – the attack is more or less on par although goals per match, shots on target and quality chances created are all slightly down on last campaign. At face value though, Liverpool appeared to squander every counter-attacking threat and displayed an uncanny ability to overhit and misplace final passes against Huddersfield. Is it just a case of deception?
Liverpool’s emphasis on sitting back more when leading and saving energy by not pressing as relentlessly is designed to ensure that Klopp’s players pace themselves for the enticing season that appears to be ahead of them. How Liverpool’s performances continue from here will be interesting, whenever a team is winning without playing particularly well, both cynics and optimists are fed. Whether it be for better or worse in the long run, at the moment, Liverpool look like a different team.