Once Selhurst Park had fallen quiet after yet another intriguing battle in this atmospheric stadium, there was a content German strolling the tight corridors deep within. The stadium had now virtually emptied, the immediate streets outside were brimming with life, it was the end of an evening in which Liverpool showed another crucial facet of title contenders.
Jurgen Klopp praised his side for playing ‘ugly’ to edge their way beyond a stubborn Crystal Palace to maintain their winning start to the season. Palace coach Roy Hodgson was at the other end of the spectrum; seething about the awarding of a first-half penalty that left the hosts playing catch-up.
Liverpool have been labelled many things in recent years, but ugly is not one of them. It is a trait that any side worth their salt must be capable of, and yet Liverpool have struggled to show that side of their game all that often. Having one of the smallest squads in the Premier League does not help neither does their natural style of play – pressing, playing in transitions and pacey counter-attacks. There is little physicality about Liverpool’s approach.
However, against Palace on Monday evening, Liverpool weathered a tough second-half revival from their opponents to maintain not only the three points but also a second consecutive clean sheet. New signings such as Virgil van Dijk play a big part in giving Liverpool more of an edge. His brawn is just as valuable as his astute footballing ability when tested like his side were at Selhurst Park.
Before van Dijk arrived at Anfield in January, many believed that the Dutchman would have a positive impact in an often-shaky defence, but to this extent…no chance. £75 million should buy you a certain amount of quality but in today’s market, you are never quite sure.
Yet van Dijk and Alisson represent good purchases and are the foundations of a much more reliable and robust Liverpool backline. Joe Gomez – who partnered van Dijk at centre back against Palace – has seen an improvement in his performances since the former Celtic defender arrived. Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have also seen progression on the pitch.
However, Liverpool’s increased robustness is not just down to physical attributes, there is a mental aspect involved too. Klopp demanded that his players become more street-wise towards the end of last season. Premier League struggles against Stoke, West Brom and Everton could have been made easier with a little more knowhow.
It was the smaller details that Klopp wanted to engrain into his squad, like, how they should stop running to take throw-ins when it was the opponent who was playing against the clock. Liverpool have since recognised slowing the game down when ahead is as important as playing with tempo when trying to push forward. They look and feel a more savvy team now.
Prior to the major upgrade of the defence, Klopp often sighted individual lapses in concentration as a major reason for poor defensive performances. There was no systematic issue, and it is hard to disagree. Against Tottenham at Wembley early last season, for example, Liverpool conceded four goals, only weeks earlier they had shipped five at the Etihad. On both occasions, Klopp enforced his belief that the goals were conceded due to mistimed tackles or weak goalkeeping. The counter-argument was that the same culprits tended to be guilty and the issue would not be resolved until they were replaced.
In the Premier League, only two defensive errors have led to goals in their previous 31 matches – the lowest of any current top-flight team over that period. The serial offenders are playing fewer minutes, or in Loris Karius’ case heading out of the club. During that 31-match run, Liverpool have also conceded the fewest goals and faced the fewest shots on target. Klopp has not compromised his high defensive line or pressing style but rather mustered a defensive confidence that had been lacking.
The midfield has played its part as well. After Phillipe Coutinho’s departure, Liverpool’s midfield took on a more pragmatic look. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shone before the injury and James Milner has been playing the best football of his Liverpool – or, arguably entire – career. Klopp’s idea of a collective defence featuring 11 players rather than four or five is strengthened when the importance of the midfield is analysed in terms of keeping the goal protected.
The midfielders are more adept at protecting the defence as much as supplying the front three, closing down their opponents when they try to build attacks. Naturally, this was not the strongest element of Coutinho’s game but it certainly is Naby Keita’s. He has the capacity to be both a dynamic, creative midfielder while shielding the back four and stopping potential counter-attacks early on – at times on Monday, it felt like there were a few Keita’s on the pitch all at once.
Against Palace, Liverpool were not as free-flowing and effervescent as usual. And yet, their performance was in some ways applauded even more. The resolution they showed when up against a troublesome Wilfred Zaha and Co. encourages fear into many of their opponents. It creates an aura that Liverpool are hard to defend against and equally as hard to score against.
Ultimately, Liverpool are an improving team. Scoring against them is becoming just as difficult as defending against them. Their front three got the plaudits last season, could it be the back four this time? It was apparent watching the victory against Palace that Klopp now has another string to his Liverpool bow.